When my kids are doing something important like entertaining themselves (play is a child’s MOST important job) and I need to ask them to get ready to leave (i.e. go to the loo and get their shoes and coats on) it’s not uncommon for me to hear something like “NOOOO! I don’t wanna go right now!!!”
This often progresses into a battle of wills which ends poorly with either one or both of us crying and yelling. I don’t enjoy confrontation, especially with a child, but I also don’t like being late.
From this conflict was born “The Exit Strategy.”
My kids, like most, are clever and they know when someone is trying to pull a fast one on them. Consequently, my plan had to be stealthy! I started implementing this with my children when they were around 2 years old and were able to lose themselves in play.
If at any point in this process your child starts screaming/crying/pitching a fit… abort mission. Continuing may inadvertently reinforce the wrong behaviors. Children under 3 will respond better with a shorter time (1-5 minutes) because of how they experience time and their cognitive understanding of time at this age. Whereas children age 3+ might need 5-10 minutes to finish up their activity due to longer attention spans/focus. etc.
Kids love feeling in control (who doesn’t?) and finding ways to offer them chances to feel in control while also adding some responsibility is a win-win. All I had to do was re-frame the exit strategy and provide consistent rules and structure when doing so.
Essentially, what I did was shift my perspective about the power struggle.
I re-framed it with some rules that will allow time flexibility for the children (let’s be honest, sometimes we all just need a few extra minutes to finish up what we’re doing), yet continued progression toward getting out of the house without tears. This is also teaching your child that you respect their work/space and individuality.
How YOU can get out the door without power struggles at home
(Note: Plan ahead! You will need a maximum of 20 minutes)
1. GIVE A HEADS-UP
Be aware of your time frame and when you need to leave giving your child(ren) a minimum of 5-10 minutes before you need them to stop playing with their toys and begin the exit routine. Any longer than that and they will not feel the time limit.
Often, there are a few minutes here or there to spare when heading out: be aware of how much time you have. Once the five-minute warning is up and IF your child starts to argue after you tell them “let’s go, it’s time” you have 2 options:
- Make them get up regardless. (Go straight to #3).
- Say: “If I give you X more minutes (1-10) will you happily and willingly come the next time I ask and quickly get ready to go?” If they say “yes,” great! Trust them and fingers crossed it works! (Younger children will still need your assistance in getting out the door yet may be more willing to help you facilitate this exit by cooperating.)
Keep this in mind: Your kids may not be able to keep it together each and every time. That’s totally normal! You can measure them on their improvement if needed (i.e., they go from complete temper tantrum to a few tears) and reinforce accordingly.
Remember, this isn’t about your child being perfect, it’s about teaching them self-control and responsibility while decreasing conflict at home. Who cares if they think they’ve won a few extra minutes… we both know who really won, right? Because as parents we should play the long game!
3. ROUND EM’ UP, LET’S GO
Many of us respond in kind when someone is nice to us. It’s the same concept with your child. Approach them in a positively reinforcing manner and say “Darling! You have played so nicely. Thanks for using your words earlier and asking for more minutes without losing your mind/crying/screaming. If you can stop your play nicely and quickly and without fuss to get ready to leave, then I can offer this option to you again in the future.” (Or something along those lines.
Make it VERY clear how they earned these minutes (no screaming) and how they can earn more (cooperating now earns more later). It will be important to let your child know that in the future there may come a time when you need to leave, and you can’t offer them more minutes. It will be during those times that their willingness to come will also dictate if/when they get just a few more in the future.
That’s it. Teach them that self-control equals extra privileges. This method has helped me get out of the house with fewer battles and fewer tears. Not only that…it’s like doing push-ups for the Executive Functioning portion of their brain (judgment, reasoning, delayed gratification, focus, and attention). This means you’re building your child’s self-control for other activities as well.
Dr. Bethany Cook is a clinical psychologist specializing in children and families, and a mother of two. She is author of the book For What It’s Worth: A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting Ages 0-2.