Dealing with power struggles

 

Most parents first experience their
child’s attempts at autonomy at about age two. They feel challenged and often a
battle of wills begins that lasts throughout childhood and the teen years.
Parents can turn these trying times into a rewarding growth period for them and
their children by shifting their perspective concerning the child’s behaviour
and by becoming clever and creative in responding to the child’s perceived
“headstrong, rebellious, stubborn, frustrating, negative” behaviour.

 

Empowering, not overpowering

Instead of viewing children’s
wilful behaviour as “bad” and reacting in a way that overpowers the child,
parents can view this behaviour as a healthy positive sign of their child’s
development and find ways to empower the child. From about the age of two, and
at differing intervals in the developmental process, children are individuating
from their parents and the world around them. This includes making decisions
for themselves, exerting their power and will on persons and situations,
getting their own way, declaring ownership and authority.

When parents react by overpowering
children, they cause them to feel powerless.

Side-step

The first step to effectively and
positively deal with power struggles is to side-step the power struggle – in
other words, refuse to pick up the other end of the rope. A mother asked her
two-year-old if she was ready for a nap. “No” replied the child. Feeling
challenged, the mother replied, “Do you want to walk to your bed or do you want
me to carry you?” “I want you to carry me upside down and tickle me as we go.”

The mother realised that the “no”
was an invitation to join a power struggle and by side-stepping it (neither
fighting nor giving in) the mother created an ending that was happy, nurturing
and loving rather than hateful and painful as nap time can often be. By
side-stepping the power struggle, you send your child the message “I am not
going to fight with you. I am not going to hurt you. I am not going to
overpower you and I’m not going to give in, either.”

 

Choices, not orders

After side-stepping the power
struggle, the next step is to give choices, not orders. A father, trying to
change an 18-month-old’s diaper, against the wishes of the child, offered the
child a choice of which room to have the change made. The child chose a room,
but once in the room, balked again at the diaper change. The father continued
with his plan to empower the child and asked, “Which bed?” The child pointed to
a bed, the diaper was changed and the ongoing power struggle about diaper
changes was ended.

When giving children choices,
parents must be sure that all choices are acceptable. Don’t give your child the
choice of either sitting down quietly or leaving the restaurant if you have no
intention of leaving.

Also be sure you don’t give too
many “autocratic” choices – choices that are so narrow the child senses no
freedom at all.

 

Find ways for your child to be powerful

Whenever you find yourself in the
middle of a power struggle with your child, ask yourself, “How can I give my
child more power in this situation?” One mother asked herself this question
concerning an endless battle she was having with her son about buckling his
seat belt. Her solution was that she made him boss of the seat belts – it became
his job to see that everyone was safely secured. The power struggle ended.

 

Do the unexpected

One parent side-steps power
struggles by announcing “let’s go out for a treat” when she feels the situation
is headed for a showdown. Her purpose is not to “reward” bad behaviour, but to
re-establish her relationship with her children and keep her end goal of a
close, loving and cooperative atmosphere in mind.

 

Getting to win-win

Power struggles often feel like
someone has to win and someone has to lose. A win-win solution is where each
party comes away feeling like they got what they wanted. Getting to win-win
takes negotiation. Parents can assist their children by responding to a child’s
demands, “That sounds like a good way for you to win. And I want you to win.
But I want to win, too. Can you think of a solution that works for both of us?”

 

Handling ‘no’

Parents often have the attitude
that children should not say NO to or question authority. However, it is
interesting that most of us parents buy into the media campaign of “Just Say
No.” It is best to hear a child’s NO as a disagreement rather than a
disrespectful response. Teach children to say NO, or disagree, respectfully and
appropriately.

 

Karan Sims is a Redirecting
Children’s Behaviour instructor for the International Network for Children and
Families. 

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