The Challenge of the Power Struggle
I’m the parent! I’m supposed to be in control!
One of the biggest myths of parenthood is that parents are in control! You teach. You guide. You create routines, plans, and goals. You solve problems, change directions, take detours and start fresh every day. But you certainly cannot control everything your child does – especially how your child eats, sleeps and goes potty. Too much control feels like coercion to some children and they protest, rebel, sabotage and self-destruct. They assert their POWER!!!!
One thing appears true about power struggles. Power struggles are not about power; they are about feeling POWERLESS! Parents feel like they are losing a battle of wills. Children are asserting power in situations that cannot lead to good outcomes. By definition, a power struggle has a winner and a loser, possibly 2 losers. Never 2 winners.
The first step in managing the power struggle is to accept that you cannot control or change your child. You CAN guide, teach, set rules and consequences to help your child learn and grow. You are on the same side. You are making decisions, rules and routines that are good for your child, not in opposition to your child. Power struggles require a power shift – from me against you to me and you moving forward together.
Easier said than done when your child isn’t coming along willingly! That’s the time to stop – pause – wait – walk away. The reality is that if you’re child isn’t “with” you, he’s not coming along anyway. Time to modify the plan – give up that piece of control that says “my way – now”. Are you giving up your well deserved authority? Not really – only the illusion of authority, control, and certainty. So, the time spent in a power struggle gets shifted.
Step 1: Reset the fuse box! Reset your emotions. Begin to help your child handle all those complicated emotions he’s feeling – anger, frustration, impatience, confusion. Remember he can’t think when he’s in the emotional storm. So, quiet the storm or give your child space and time to regain calm (lots of practice in emotion coaching).
Step 2: Acknowledge age-appropriate power for your child.
Find what your child CAN do:
• Say “no” and be heard before moving forward. E.G., you don’t want to leave the playground. Let’s be sure to come back tomorrow. No is a big power word when it’s heard even if you can’t comply.
• Feel her emotions – fall apart, have a tantrum, release the frustration and anger. Be your child’s safe outlet. E.G. wow, you were really upset. That was really hard for you. Later, you can talk about other things that might have helped your child through a difficult moment.
• Find the “yes”. Give your child power over something else – a choice for dinner, which way to drive home, the song to play in the car. Replace powerlessness with power – giving your child a voice in something that works for everyone.
Step 3: Own your “authentic” power (instead of “coercive” power): As the parent, you can foresee outcomes that children can’t predict. Children can’t make grown-up decisions – how much sleep they need, eating junk food, or when they should go to school and millions more. You get to decide what works for your family according to your goals and your parenting style. Otherwise, it’s letting “the pigeon drive the bus” – and we all know how that goes! The Pigeon books are also the best evidence that kids get the contradiction of what they want versus what’s a good idea!
Step 4: Manage the bumpers not the kids. Clearly, you can’t force your child to sleep when you say, eat when you want them to, or use the potty when you’re ready. The good news is: that’s not your job. If it were, your child would never learn for herself to manage herself! You know how to eat, sleep and use the potty, as well as go to work on workdays and all the other important skills in life. Power struggles are perfect reminders to parents to shift responsibility to the child for their behavior instead of you doing it for them. That’s why children test and push buttons – they are asserting autonomy. It’s your job to redirect that independence to their own behavior not yours. You can’t force them to eat, sleep, etc. but you can set up the “bumpers” (as in bumper bowling – keep them out of the gutters). Set the boundaries around the behaviors through positive rules and routines. That allows you to be the teacher guiding and supporting learning instead of the cop policing bad behavior.