When we are engaged in a power dynamic with our children or teens, the relationship can become more about who is right and who is wrong. As parents we feel angry or challenged. No matter what we do it feels like there is always resistance. Can’t our kids ever do what they are asked?
Where do power struggles come from and what are our kids trying to achieve? Read on to unpack this very common parent-child dynamic and what you can do to help your child or teen feel more empowered rather than fight you to find their power.
Avoid power struggles by helping your kids feel capable
JACKSON HOLE NEWS AND GUIDE:
From the moment children develop a will of their own, starting sometime between the ages of 18 and 24 months, they begin the process of gradually separating from their primary caregivers and developing their own identity. Throughout childhood and adolescence children are developing their own sense of self: Who am I? What do I like or not like? How do I want to dress, act and move through the world?
They are also developing the crucial feeling that they are capable. This manifests in familiar ways: when your toddler says, “me do it!” or your teen responds sharply when you remind them to do something or ask them to do it your way.
We all need to feel capable, to have agency, to act independently and make our own choices (for children all in an age appropriate way). If we micromanage or do things for our kids that they are capable of doing on their own, this diminishes our kids’ sense of being capable independent individuals. Children can become resentful, feel inadequate, settle into the role of being pampered or interpret our actions as being controlling. With this sense of powerlessness, sometimes our children’s only recourse is to fight.
Cue the “power struggle”: In their minds disenfranchised children are saying “I’ll show you how capable I am. You are not the boss of me. You can’t make me do it!”
Sometimes the need for one’s own power becomes so strong that the fight is not about what the parent is asking, more it’s about doing anything not to give in to the parent’s requests. It may not be about doing the homework, setting the table, brushing the teeth, observing curfew, or maintaining agreed upon limits of any kind. It’s about gaining control through defiance. “If you don't believe I’m capable, I’ll show you what capable is!” They roar, they tantrum, they defy. The will to become autonomous is that strong.
While some of this is natural adolescent development, teens who feel disempowered may show their power by resisting our attempts to guide them and instead show that they can do whatever they want whenever they want. They may try to prove their competence by taking unnecessary risks.
What do our children and adolescents need? From day one they need us to believe that they can handle situations that come their way. That they can overcome a challenge. That they can take care of themselves. That they can contribute to their family or community. That they can help others.
What does this look like? It means allowing your child to try things on their own, to struggle to meet a challenge, to make their own choices and their own mistakes – all in an age appropriate way and in stepping in when the task at hand is far beyond their capabilities or realms of safety.
More specifically, allow your baby to whimper a bit to see if they can self soothe, and comfort them if they can’t. Put a toy just out of reach to see if she can squirm a bit to grab it. Let your toddler decide what to wear on any given day with confidence that he may learn what works or doesn’t given the weather, social norms or his personal preferences. Help your child set their own morning and bedtime routines. Allow your child to help with chores even when they are at an age where their help may actually be a hindrance. Don't do things for your kids because it is easier or will avoid an emotional upset.
Have open conversations about curfew, dating, screen time, substance use and risky behaviors. Provide an opportunity for your teen to share without your judgment. Then actually listen and consider their point of view. Compromise where you can and be willing to muddle through the challenging process of co-creating agreements.
Taking these steps communicate a powerful message: that you believe in your child and their capabilities. That you trust them. That they don’t need to demand power over others because they are empowered in their own self and their own abilities.
As parents we have years of life experience. We know how things work, and it feels like it’s our job to impart this wisdom to our kids. Yet we know how things work for us. Our children and teens want to learn how things work for them. Again within the realm of safety and your child's age, relinquish as much control as you can while also maintaining agreed upon limits and expectations and a kind, loving and respectful relationship.
At the end of the day we also want to look at the bigger picture – the long term goal of raising kids who are self motivated, take on responsibility and know how to take care of themselves; kids who feel empowered to try things on their own and who are not afraid to make mistakes; and kids who feel confident not only in their decision making but also in who they are. None of this can happen if they aren’t given the opportunity to feel capable and empowered.
Interested in discussing the idea of helping your children feel capable and empowered in your home? Schedule a coaching call with Rachel either individually or with a group of friends at fees that work for your individual budget.
Thanks to Vicki Hoefle and Amy Lew, Ph.D. for inspiration for this column.
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Rachel Wigglesworth has an M.Ed. in Parent and Family Education and is excited to explore the world of raising children with you!