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Are You Caught in a Tug-of-War with Your Child? “Don’t Test Me!”

By James Lehman, MSW

When our children refuse to do what we ask them, it can feel like we’re caught in a tug-of-war, with both sides pulling on the end of the rope as hard as they can, and neither side making much headway.

Parents often say things like “Don’t test me” when they think their child is resisting their authority or as a way to somehow sabotage the parent’s goal. Remember, you have to deal specifically with your child’s behavior and not his intentions. When parents say “Don’t test me,” the problem is that they’re taking their child’s behavior personally and see it as a personal challenge to the direction they’ve given.

Imagine a mother who says to her teenage son, “Go do your homework.”

The son says, “I don’t want to. Why can’t I finish watching this TV show? You never let me finish anything!”

The mother feels her anger rising because she senses that her authority is being challenged, and she shouts, “Go do your homework right now. And because you tested my authority, there’s no TV for the rest of the night.”

All this does is set her son up to come back at her with something like, “You’re mean! Why should I listen to you?”

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There are two things that have to be examined here: The first is that your child may in fact challenge parental authority, but it doesn’t help if you see it as a personal attack upon you. When you personalize things, it makes it very hard to be objective about how best to respond to your child right now. In addition, a lot of times kids look like they’re testing you when really, what you’re seeing are poor organization skills, a short attention span or impulsivity.

Secondly, you’re teaching your child that not following your direction is somehow a power play. Believe me, the day will come when they want to get back at you or engage in a power struggle, and they’ll know exactly how to start that fight. Remember, children use power to achieve their intentions and goals, just like adults do. They’re just less sophisticated about it and have less access to power. Teaching them techniques that give them more access to that power— which they can use to challenge your authority— is not helpful.

We want to deal with our children’s behavior, so instead of responding to their power thrusts, use a directive statement targeting the task at hand.

Your child: “I don’t want to do my homework, I need to finish this game first, and besides, I’m hungry.”
You: “Go start your homework now. Don’t stop in the kitchen on your way to your room. If you want a snack, I’ll bring it to you.” Or, “I’ve explained this already, I’m not going to talk about it anymore,” and turn around and leave the room.

If your child doesn’t comply, give them consequences for their actions. The main thing is not to personalize things and rise to the bait of their power thrust.

I want to mention here that there are times when saying “Don’t test me” can be an appropriate remark. For example, when it’s used as a reminder to the child that, “This resistance didn’t work for you last time, don’t try it again.”

You: “Go do your homework.”
Your Child: “I don’t want to. Why can’t I play video games?”
You: “Don’t test me. You know what happened last time.”

Often kids need a comment or remark that gets them over the hurdle of testing limits to help them go get started on a task or assignment. In those cases, the parent is not personalizing their child’s behavior, and “Don’t test me” is an appropriate comment.

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About James Lehman, MSW

James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.

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