Cutting Down on Power Struggles and Problematic Behavior: Using “Controlled Choices”

Ever find yourself in a situation where you place a demand on your child, and he or she says, “No!” throws a tantrum or flat-out refuses to comply? I’m sure every parent has! Maybe even multiple times a day.

Kids are headstrong and independent, and as infuriating as it is, it’s normal and appropriate (I know, I know…). Our little ones have big feelings and emotions like adults, and don’t know how to regulate them. They like to be in control, and, well, that’s not usually possible…otherwise you may have Paw Patrol all day, or candy for every meal.

One thing I do, and something I advise many parents to do are to use “controlled choices.” It’s not fool-proof, but it helps. What person doesn’t like choices? Like I said, kids like to feel some sort of control, and this method gives your kids that feeling, but, ultimately YOU are still the one who controls the outcome. I’m usually pretty blunt and say, “She THINKS she’s in control, but she’s really not.”

Think about it: kids ARE in control of throwing a tantrum or saying “No!” so why not get ahead of them and give them some control before they consider seeking it in that way?

So, what are controlled choices?

“Controlled choices” are choices that you give your child, but that you still control the desired outcome. Basically, you determine the outcome, and your child decides how to get there.

Let’s start with two words: power and engagement. You are giving your child the power to make the choice. Why is that important? Kids like to feel involved in the decision-making process, even if sometimes it isn’t desirable. They are more likely to “buy in” if they’re engaged and it’s something they have decided to do. The ability to make the choice can reduce problematic behavior.

Think about it, you’d much rather have a boss who is flexible and lets you have some say, versus a boss who barks orders all day, right?

How does it work?

Offering choices prevents negotiation because it boils down to two concrete things and is not open to interpretation. The prevention of negotiation, plus the ability to make the decision will cut down on power struggles. Why? Because your child will feel empowered when he or she gets to decide.

What are some sample choice types?

  • This OR that?: “Do you want to wear your boots or shoes today?”
  • How many?: “Would you like 1 cookie in your lunch or 2?”
  • How to do it?: “Should we walk or hop to get to your classroom?”
  • Who will help?: “Would you like Mommy or Daddy to help you?
  • What color?: “Do you want to wear your gray pants or your black pants today?”

Keys to success:

When figuring out what choices to give your child, make sure that you give them a limited set of choices (I recommend 2) that YOU ARE OK WITH, and will still get the job done. Make sure they are somewhat equivalent. For example, if you want your child to clean his or her room, you wouldn’t want your choices to be, “Would you rather clean your room, or play on the tablet?” I’m sure you know which one your child would go for…

Always, always, ALWAYS follow through. Make sure that the choices you offer are ones you can follow through on because, like any method, controlled choices aren’t always fool-proof. The less follow through you have, the less likely controlled choices are to work in the future.

AVOID giving choices that aren’t available. If they pick one that’s unavailable, then what? You’re setting yourself up for further problematic behaviors.

AVOID giving empty threats. You can’t cancel a major holiday, right?

AVOID being “nitpicky.” There’s not really a point in telling your child he or she can’t wear spots and stripes together before going to preschool. Pick your battles. As long as your child gets dressed, who cares?


It’s not fool-proof.

Absolutely nothing is fool-proof when it comes to behavior; kids are unpredictable. However, controlled choices are certainly beneficial, and if used correctly with consistent follow-through, they are very effective.

Melissa Laco, BCBA, COBA

(Credit for some examples goes to: “Mastering the Art of Offering Controlled Choices”—Behavioral Interventions and Solutions, LLC.)