In the midst of a power struggle? Refuse to fight, use empathy and don’t give in to unreasonable demands
Imagine a power struggle as a game of catch between you and your child where the ball is the thing you are fighting over. You throw the ball to your child asking them to do something, and they throw it back at you saying “No!” You then throw it back harder: “You will do it!” Your child whips the ball back even harder yelling, “I will not and you can’t make me!” And this goes on until the game becomes about who can throw the ball the hardest until the other gives in, angry, exhausted and defeated.
What if instead we just put the ball down and tried to solve the problem? Don’t engage in the power struggle. Take a deep breath. Walk away. Lock yourself in the bathroom if your child follows. Come back and discuss when everyone is in a place where they calm and clear-headed. As Kim Lee-Own says, come alongside your child and see if you can solve the problem together.
Read on for more ideas of what to do when you find yourself battling it out with your child or teen in the midst of a power struggle.
What to do in the midst of a power struggle? Cease and desist.
JACKSON HOLE NEWS AND GUIDE:
Parent: “Can you please put away your backpack?”
Child ignores parent.
Parent: “Honey, I asked you to pick up your backpack.”
Child: “Why do I have to do it now?”
Parent: “Sweetie, we had an agreement that you would pick up your things when you came home before you started doing other things.”
Child: “I never agreed to that.”
We know how this goes. The simple reminder escalates into a full-on argument with both parent and child angry with one another and standing their ground until they can win over the other. Winning has now become the goal and the original goal related to the backpack is diminished. But really, no one wins.
No matter what we do it feels like there is always resistance. Can’t our children ever do what they are asked? My June 30, 2021 column discusses some origins of power struggles and how to avoid them, yet completely avoiding them is nearly impossible. So what do we do when we find ourselves in the midst of one?
As discussed in my last column, giving our children power to avoid their need to demand it, seems counterintuitive in many ways. We can get so angry with a defiant child, who often only wants to defeat us, that we want to show them “you can't get away with this!” Don’t we as adults have to set the rules? Aren’t we the ones who are supposed to have the authority?
Yet what we are doing in these moments is using our power to defeat the child, showing them that using power is the only way to resolve conflict and get what we want. We are actually teaching our children the behavior we are trying to eliminate. This child may begin to realize that she needs to work even harder to defeat us, and harder to become an autonomous individual who has a say in her world.
Instead, when we find ourselves wanting to fight back with our child, what we need to do is back down. Refuse to fight while also refusing to give in to any unreasonable demands. Simply walk away.
Like most parenting advice, this is easier said than done. It’s hard to walk away when we are triggered and we feel like we are being walked over. It is hard to resist the urge to overpower another when we feel threatened ourselves. Here are some ideas:
Listen. To counteract our rising anger toward a defiant child, it can help to consider that underneath that struggle for power our child is really trying to tell us “I want to feel capable. Involve me and give me choices. Believe in me. Let me have a say in the matter.”
Shift your thinking. It takes time, practice and patience to calm our triggers and move from reacting strongly to responding calmly. It also takes a mind shift. We often believe that there should be a complete hierarchy between parent and child. Yet we can’t raise an independent and respectful child if we don’t give them the respect and power to try things on their own.
Uphold limits with empathy. By no means am I saying that you don’t create and hold limits and expectations. You just do this with empathy and understanding. Get into their shoes. Understand where they are developmentally. Think about how you might want to be treated in this situation. Using a punishment for breaking a rule or being defiant only shows them that more powerful people can push others around, making them want to use power and defiance to get what they want.
Be thoughtful about what is reasonable and what is not. As our children get older, especially if we have given them the latitude to develop confidence and capability, what was once unreasonable often becomes more reasonable. Our boundaries need to expand as our children mature and become more capable. We want to make sure our limits are based on safety and our family’s individual values rather than our fear or need for control.
Co-create agreements. Yes, maintain limits. Ideally we create agreements together with our children about daily rules and expectations as much as possible. Try to see their side and compromise when you can. Having agreements set in place that have been created together as a family allows us to more easily walk away when a power struggle escalates. We can use the agreement as the enforcer. This is where we refuse to fight and we refuse to give in to unreasonable demands.
In the example above, the parent could walk away and later ask when is a good time to discuss their argument. The two might agree that the parent will stop disrespecting the child by nagging and reminding them, and the child would agree to do his job in a set time. If the parent forgets and begins nagging, it would be the parent’s responsibility to do the child's job. If the child forgets to do her job, the child could begin to set an alarm as a reminder, or use some other creative idea that preferably the child thinks of. You could also use psychologists Amy Lew’s, Ph.D. and Betty Lou Bettner’s, Ph.D ideas and say to the child “‘I noticed that you decided to ignore our agreement. I’d like to understand why and see if we can’t come up with a solution you are willing to stick with.’”
In the moment of a power struggle, cease and desist. Let the agreement do the talking. Give your child reasonable power and control. Always question whether what your child is asking is actually reasonable or if it’s more that you feel a need for control. This is not giving up or giving in. Rather you are saying to your child that your relationship is too important to escalate the fight.
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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!