First of all, hats off for recognising your part in this problem, and for looking for alternatives. I have seen many well meaning parents who fail in both respects. The former is imperative. As the adult, in an adult-child relationship, we are responsible for making sure that the relationship thrives and that interactions are fruitful. Failing to claim ownership of parenting challenges, if our view of problems is that the only possible solution is for the child to change their behaviour, then we are only rendering ourselves powerless in effecting change.
As parents, we often like to think that we are making few, simple and reasonable requests of our children, when in fact every request is often an entire battery of expectations, that not only the thing should be done, but immediately, and in the manner we would've done it, and perhaps also without having involved the child in the reasons why the thing must be done, or without taking the child's needs into consideration when deciding that it should be done at all. Children that age can often imagine a set of solutions to a situation where we are stuck with one. Ours might objectively be the best one, but our rigidity still means it's actually we who are stubborn.
An example: this winter, I was skiing with my three year old. At one point, we were dropping off some gear at a lodge, which involved us walking past the place where she had parked her skis, before we'd go to the slopes. Upon seeing her skis, she wanted to pick them up immediately. I, on the other hand, was already carrying as much as I was keen to, and there was absolutely no point in picking them up as we'd be walking back the same way before we'd need them. So I tried to explain that we'd pick them up as soon as we had dropped this other stuff off, which wasn't acceptable at all to her, and that had us in a real power struggle for a while. It wasn't until it was clear that she wasn't budging that I realised that I was expecting my three year old to be the adult in our interaction and take responsibility for solving the situation. At which point I said "ok, we'll carry them, but we're not bringing them into the lodge", and this deal she accepted without hesitation.
In practice, all that happened was that we carried her skis some fifty meters, put them down in front of the entrance, and then carried them back on our way out. If you ask me, a completely futile exercise. I still think my suggestion made more logistic sense. But if you take her point of view, who knows, perhaps she empathised with the skis being left alone. Perhaps having a say in our planning was an end in itself. And without knowing exactly what she was getting out of it, I am not in a position to say whether my plan was even superior, all things considered. All I know is that however meaningless the action seemed to me, it also wasn't that hard for me to comply, and a little flexibility on my end ended an entirely avoidable conflict.
It's also worth remembering that we are almost always the agenda setters. The kid may get to choose what to play, but in the time frame we dictate between when we decide is a good time for dinner and when we decide they need to go to bed, for instance. And don't get me wrong, both of those are decisions that we are better equipped to make. But the value of going to bed in time is so obvious to us that we may mistake it for a rule handed down from above, when it's just yet another case of us enforcing our will. It's yet another request. In this scenario, another tip is to lean in to the play. Get involved and gently steer the play towards a timely end, rather than abruptly demanding an end. If you're not involved in my play, I rightly cannot know that you have factored in the negative experience of finishing it when arriving at the conclusion that is should be finished. Also, and perhaps obviously, look for natural exits, rather than abruptly terminating play. If it was a game of cards, and you were involved in it, you wouldn't walk out in the middle of a hand because it was time to go to bed, you'd find a good place to pause. That's difficult to do when you're not part of the play, but you can prepare the child by making sure they know that bedtime is coming, and ask that they look for a good place to end the play, so that you don't have to end it in a bad place. At the moment, that particular tip is not working for us; if I say we have to leave in a bit and that our preschooler should find a good place to pause the game, she'll say "no, I need a timer" (because we tried that once). So I set an arbitrary short amount of time on a timer and she'll know when the timer goes off she know she has to leave. I think it's mostly the novelty of the timer that's appealing, but the choice to have an abrupt ending is within her own control, and this still meets the end of giving her a heads up that play will end soon, and some time to prepare for that. While not working for us at the moment, I still think the use of natural places to end is sound. I'll throw in that and what we're doing as an example of being flexible and doing what turns out to work in your family.
- Take ownership of the conflicts, so that you have the agency to resolve them.
- Be flexible when you can. We're often told that children need boundaries for the sake of boundaries, but I find that children who can only have a say in decisions regarding them by putting up a fight will be more prone to put up a fight.
- Try to scrutinise your own rigid preconceptions of how and when things need to be done. Try going a whole day where you actively, whenever a conflict arises, really consider if the child's request is at all feasible. What you were trying to decide may still seem better, but ask yourself is the child's alternative is so untenable that you really must have it your own way again.
- Explain why you make the decisions you do. Sometimes reasons obvious to us are simply not apparent to the child and they resist because they don't have your insight. Often, once they know why you need to have it your way, they'll be surprisingly creative in adapting their own idea to accommodate that fact. Then explain why that new idea doesn't work. Reiterate until they've adapted their will into a workable compromise, but don't overdo it, see the previous point and accept the compromise when it's at all feasible.
- Involve the child in planning the day, and give notices well in advance when they need to transition to a new activity. Invite them to stop what they're doing in a manner that makes sense to them.