A psychologist walks us through parent-child power struggles.

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The first time someone said this to me, I didn’t really understand what it meant:

“Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems.”

This year has been the first time I’ve fully comprehended the meaning of it.

Raising kids is tough. Each year there are new challenges to deal with and I’ve often found myself wondering how on earth I’m meant to know what to do, and how I can avoid doing the wrong thing.

Being a parent is the hardest job in the world and we do it without any training at all. Everything we know about raising kids is learned from friends, family, TV shows, movies and books. The rest we figure out as we go along.


With three kids, Jo's seen it all. Image: supplied.

It seems pretty crazy to leave the most important job in the world in the hands of people without any experience whatsoever.

Luckily for me – and my three dear children – I was able to talk to child behavioural psychologist, and my new guru, Dr. Alan Ralph, who has been working to strengthen relationships between parents and children for 35 years.

Speaking with him makes me realise I can be the kind of parent I want to be. Here are some of his tips for how to navigate some of the life stages your children go through.

The toddler years.

It’s happened. Your gorgeous little baby who has just learned how to walk has just thrown their very first tantrum. You have to be on the lookout for it as toddlers have very different toddler-tantrum-techniques. They might do what I call ‘the Ghandi Tantrum,’ whereby they simply lie down on the ground, not making a sound and not moving because they don’t wish to do whatever it is you need them to do. It can be hard to recognise.

It’s much easier to recognise what I call the Shopping Centre Tantrum which can occur anywhere at any time but looks just like the ones kids throw at your local shopping centre and includes screaming, crying, the beating of fists on the wall/floor/parent’s leg.

“The children are starting to recognise that they are individuals separate from their parents and have ideas and wishes of their own,” Dr. Ralph explains. “And so I think it’s a matter of parents tuning into that change to recognise that there are going to be times when you have to accept that the child is trying to find their own boundaries and trying to identify themselves.”


It’s a healthy, normal life-stage. That doesn’t mean you have to let them do whatever they want.  Dr. Ralph describes this as parents “walking a tightrope”.

A familiar sight... Image via iStock.

He advises the following:

  • Make a decision to stay calm, even before you experience that first meltdown. Ideally it will occur at home so you can go through the appropriate steps in privacy without judgemental eyes on you. If it happens in public, simply scoop your child up and take them to a different location. Dr. Ralph doesn’t advise we ignore the behaviour, unless it’s safe to, and your tolerance threshold is set to maximum.
  • Pick your battles. You don’t have to stop them from doing everything, just those activities and behaviours that are inappropriate.
  • Focus on teaching them to manage their emotions. “If they haven’t got the words or their attempts to get that message across are ignored or not heard, then they will use whatever is available.” So we have to take the time to listen to why they are upset and try and encourage them to use whatever words they have.
  • Give them alternatives to anti-social behaviour such as tantrums and biting. Once you figure out why they were upset you learn together better ways to communicate about such things.

Growing child.

Children don’t like to be different and nothing drives that home more than those first few school years. From what you pack them for lunch to how they do their hair to the type of pencil sharpener their friend has, expect your growing child to start trying to desperately fit into their social groups at school.

Too old for tantrums, my young son became an expert at faking illnesses to avoid going to school. Instead of discussing his issues with me, he would act like he was gravely ill – until, of course, he got a little too comfortable at home and started playing and asking for food.

What I learned was that I had to keep the lines of communication open. Children are trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in the world. During the first few years of school they test that out by looking at how their friends live. You need to help them through the process.


"My young son became an expert at faking illnesses to avoid going to school." Image via iStock.

Dr. Ralph advises the following:

  • Ralph is anti-homework (did I mention that he’s my guru?) He cited studies showing homework isn’t beneficial for children at all and thinks that time away from school is better spent doing things children enjoy. That’s when they’ll talk to you about their issues.
  • It’s not so much about forcing kids to do things they don’t want to do. Dr. Ralph says to think of it like you are setting “agreements” between yourself and your child.
  • Make sure that even if you don’t have a lot of time with your child that you make it quality and enjoyable. “Parents are time poor these days and I often say this in the seminars. You’ve really gotta try and use those casual opportunities like driving in the car or sitting down at tea…use those for positive, pleasant activities that they’re interested in and build your relationship that way.”
  • Bullying often makes an appearance at this stage and Dr. Ralph says we have to strike a balance between being assertive and not being pushovers. He says it’s about problem solving and discussing what they could do next time it happens. If it’s ongoing or happening at school, then the school has to get involved. He also points to programs such as Triple P where parents and children are taught skills to use during situations like these: “One of the best guards against bullying is having a good social network.”


I have a 12-year-old and some of the issues we’ve been dealing with together for the past couple of years have really caught me off guard. I really thought I had a couple more years up my sleeve to deal with some of the issues he’s been facing lately.

My tween years weren’t ideal and I wanted to be ready to help all of my children navigate theirs. My son first banned me from speaking to him too much in public last year. If I am lucky I might get a head-nod to acknowledge my presence at important events.

I soon realised that this child of mine, fruit of my loins, only loved me in private. In public I seemed to be a bit of a bother. As my heart splintered into a million pieces I tried to desperately figure out how to let him have some control over his life without being rude or disrespectful to the woman who had given birth to him, namely me.

“It’s a little bit more of an extreme version of what we were describing earlier in younger kids, them wanting to have identities of their own and that increases as they get into the tween years,” Dr. Ralph says.


"I soon realised that this child of mine, fruit of my loins, only loved me in private." Image via iStock.

Dr. Ralph advises:

  • Remember that it’s not that your child doesn’t love you or doesn’t want anything to do with you. Don’t take it personally and stay focused. “It’s our job to really persist despite all of that, because the reality is, you’re doing a good job as a parent and you are still important to them,” Dr. Ralph says.
  • “Ignore the behaviours that are not important and put your energies into where you want results,” he advises.
  • Supporting them at school is also important as it’s much more difficult these days for kids to figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives. “It is a time that we need to recognise our kids have far more opportunities than we do and trying to take advantage of those opportunities is way more challenging. I think we need to support them and help them in that process.”
  • The goal is happiness, not success, so it’s best to focus on what your child is good at and enjoy. Discuss those with your child and guide them towards activities and careers that take advantage of them.

The important take away for me was to let go of strategies that no longer work with my children and embracing those that do, most of which focus on maintaining a positive relationship with my child, promoting good behaviours and reducing not so good ones.

How have you managed power struggles with you kids?