By David Hafter, MFT
I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that I am not the only parent who ever engaged in or got caught in a power struggle with his or her child. You, too? Alright then, maybe some of what follows will be helpful.
It is pretty much a truism that all close relationships will now and then involve some conflict. Our closest relationships are usually ones in which we have worked through the inevitable conflict to return not only to previous levels of intimacy but often to levels even deeper. We want this to be true of our relationships with our spouses/partners, and our children, to be sure, but with extended family and friends, as well. You certainly want the people living under the same roof to be able to effectively work through conflict and come out the other side feeling better and able to ‘move on’. And yet, people under the same roof may suffer for years or decades through repeated bouts of unresolved conflict – even over the same issues.
Conflicts are opportunities for growth as well as for disaffection. To have the growth, we have to approach conflict consciously and purposefully, without crippling amounts of anger or fear. Too often, we parents find ourselves sliding down some of the same slippery slopes of ineffective parenting that we experienced as children, and subsequently may have vowed not to repeat when we, ourselves, became parents: Too much intense yelling, corporal punishments delivered in anger and frustration or too-harsh consequences delivered in the heat of the moment leading the parent to either enforce something unreasonable or back down and lose credibility.
Somehow, at a very young age, kids seem to acquire a seasoned lawyer’s skill at arguing. There is a rule I learned years ago while working at a high level group home: “Once you are in a power struggle with a child, you have already lost.” Ouch! But it’s true. Power struggles are common for us to fall into but they lead to ‘might makes right’ approaches to parenting – and those can be ineffective and even dangerous. So, how can we avoid the power struggles from the start? Here is a handy list:
- When it comes to conflict, try not to confuse content and process.
- Remember the importance of feeling heard and understood – for everyone.
- One need not be ‘right’ to deserve to feel heard and understood.
- Parents/guardians must be consistent with kids, even (and especially) if they live in separate households.
- Catch your kids being good.
Let’s take these one at a time.
Content versus process: Content refers to the issue at hand; for example, taking out the trash, getting up on time in the morning and any other common but irritating situations which cause regular family stress; process refers to the interaction itself- the choice of words, the tone and volume of voice, posture and facial expression. All of these elements can be triggers to negative behaviors in both kids and adults.
Most often, resolutions for just the content issues are not rocket science. The problem isn’t coming up with a reasonable resolution, it is engaging in a reasonable and constructive interaction that ends with one. Different families have different content expectations of their kids. For example, ‘clean your room’ has different meanings depending on the household. Every day? Once a week? Vacuum and dust? These differences don’t matter much. The process, however, matters quite a bit and is far less flexible if you want a peaceful outcome. Yelling, making threats, corporal punishments, making up consequences on the fly while angry; all these approaches create as many problems as they attempt to solve.
What contributes most to a healthy process? Mutual respect and clear limits – where everyone involved in the conflict feels heard and understood. Please note: When the dust settles, parents will always have the final say but how they get there makes all the difference in terms of family peace and growing healthy relationships. And remember: Relationship and communication patterns learned at home are taken by your kids into their adult relationships so your efforts now have lasting effects.
Feeling heard and understood: We all like to get our way. That’s normal. But it is unrealistic to think we always will and it is one of the tasks of childhood that we learn to handle our inevitable disappointments reasonably. To get a sense of the importance of feeling heard and understood, think back to a time when you were in a one down position in terms of power (dealing with a boss, for example, or any other authority figure) and ended up on the losing side of a contentious decision. If this is a bad memory, the chances are good that you did not feel heard and understood before having to accept defeat.
A boss (or parent) who is patient enough to solicit or accept appropriately delivered critical feedback, even if s/he stays with the original decision, gets far more mature compliance from staff than one who shuts down communication. “Talk to the hand” is not a resolution; it is a provocation and an effective way to throw someone into a (loud or silent) rage.
As parents, however, we may believe that we don’t owe our kids an explanation for what we expect of them. Kids love to ask ‘why,’ as in, “Why do I have to clean my room?” If you respond with “You’ll clean your room because I told you to!” you will get away with it for a while, especially if your posture and tone of voice are intimidating. But now your message/lesson becomes ‘might makes right’ and this will challenge some children to see how far you are willing to go to ‘win’. Suddenly the issue is not a messy room (content) but the power struggle itself. Some especially willful kids will ‘win’ themselves into an empty room with no toys left, just to show they can’t be controlled. This is a process problem having nothing to do with a messy room.
One need not be ‘right’ to deserve to be heard and understood. Let’s say you approach your elementary-aged kids say, “If our tax return comes by Friday, I will take you to the waterpark on Saturday!” What did they hear? We’re going to the waterpark on Saturday! So, when the check doesn’t arrive and you inform them that there will be no trip to the waterpark, they might throw a fit and even accuse you of lying. That is their worldview. It’s not correct, of course, but it is how they see it.
For many parents, this angry and disrespectful reaction is absolutely unacceptable and the conversation can quickly turn from the cancelled trip to the children daring to accuse the parent of lying. I agree that such accusations are not okay and need to be addressed but I also understand how the misunderstanding occurred. Instead of moving right to punishing the child for the disrespectful attitude and remark, the parent could instead say something like, “Oh, you didn’t hear me say that the trip depended on the check arriving first.” (At this point, the parent should be making a mental note to never bring up a fun trip ‘in theory’; wait until the cash is in hand.) “Okay, I get why you are so upset and I’m sorry you got so disappointed.” Again, the children deserve to be heard and understood. But by patiently taking the time to say this part first, you are now able to effectively set limits on such unacceptable behavior. Now you get to talk about how it is not okay to accuse you of lying. The child could have expressed his or her disappointment in other ways, including getting mad at you – but in a respectable way. We want our kids to learn to address their grievances, for sure, but in socially acceptable ways.
The other option is yelling at and/or giving consequences to the children for being so disrespectful, but they won’t learn much from that experience. They will continue to focus on your ‘lie’ instead of how they responded to their upset feelings. Yelling just isn’t very effective.
Here’s an adult example: What happens if we don’t pay our PG&E bills? First they will contact us a few times with “reminders,” offering to try to work through any problem we may be having paying the bill. Eventually, however, they will simply cut off our power – which is a natural consequence. If sending people to our homes to yell at us was an approach that worked, PG&E would hire hundreds of professional yellers. But they don’t. Even successful bill collectors eventually learn that yelling doesn’t work; I know, I worked my way through graduate school first as a bill collector and later as the training director – promoted because I collected more money working part time than did the full-timers, and I never yelled at anybody.
Parents/guardians must be consistent with kids, even (and especially) if they live in separate households. If there is only one thing you get from this article, let it be this: All supervising adults in a child’s life (parents, grandparents, baby sitters, etc.) must all have and enforce the same rules, house to house, no matter what. This is tough when there has been a contentious divorce or when a grandparent undermines parents by having their own rules. But as long as kids can play the adults off each other to get what they want (remember their amazing lawyering skills), they do not have to look at and adjust their own behaviors. Divorced or otherwise angry-at-each other parents do their children no favors by undermining an ex’s parenting (unless it is unsafe and that’s another story). Kids need to feel comfortable openly loving and respecting each of you, no matter how you feel about one each other. That means no cheating to make the other parent (or responsible adult) look bad. For what it’s worth, sighs, sarcastic remarks and eye-rolling all count as cheating.
To avoid power struggles, try this: Call a family meeting when there are no current issues taking place – everyone is more or less getting along – and show up with some sort of dessert for everyone to share. Pull out a large sheet of paper. The plan is to establish clear rules and consequences at a time when everyone is calm. It is vital that all potential disagreements between adults get resolved prior to the meeting and in private, away from the kids. Adults must enter the meeting as a team. If a disagreement between them comes up during the meeting, calmly call a break and discuss the issue in private. Come back to the table in complete agreement. Again, no eye-rolling or stealthy looks to the kids indicating disagreement between adults are allowed. That ruins everything.
Adults then announce that they are having the meeting because they want to change their own parenting behavior. Let’s say your kids complain that you yell too much or that your typical consequences are unfair/too harsh. Perfect. You say, “We have listened to your complaints that we yell too much and think you are right. We don’t like it when we yell, either. So, we are going to change. We’re going to list all the things that we adults get upset about on this sheet of paper and together we will come up with rules and consequences that are fair to everyone. We parents get the final say but I want your input because once this list is made, it will be our new family rules.”
Then, do just that. List all the children’s behaviors that cause you to get angry and yell. Entertain all ideas at the table but explain why you won’t agree to either too soft or too harsh consequences. Here’s a hint for success: Allow for some negotiations. It is prudent to give a little – back off here and there in areas you can tolerate in order to show good faith and flexibility (in other words, choose your battles wisely). For example, for a messy room situation you might insist on clothes being off the floor and put away and dirty dishes being returned to the kitchen – while tolerating the general messiness of the room.
If pestering and provoking are issues, be sure to include a rule against that behavior and/or not taking ‘no’ for an answer. For example, the third time you are asked the same question, (including, “But WHY!?”) a consequence should kick in. (You can give a warning at ‘why’ #2 if you want. By the way, answering the ‘why’ question calmly and substantively, at least once, justifies the consequences for pestering. ) Discuss appropriate and acceptable expressions of anger because you can definitely anticipate that people will get angry. That’s normal; it is how you express anger that matters. Finally, have everyone sign it the agreement and post the list where everyone can see it; make copies as needed.
Now, fully expect your kids to test the new system. This will help you to maintain your cool when you come home the next day to find the snack dishes not done, the dog poop not picked up or whatever is an issue at your house. Remember, this is all about you changing your behavior; in this case, no longer yelling. When you find the inevitable mess, quietly point out the agreed upon consequences and enforce them. No second chances; no “okay, we’ll start this tomorrow”. No backing down. Again, all adults must support one another – even if they don’t get along – by upholding consequences from infractions which took place in the other parent’s home.
Now, fully expect a fit from the kids. Systemic changes don’t always happen smoothly. Let them learn the laws of natural consequences. There can be no rules against them getting angry; only for how their anger is expressed.
Catch your kids being good. Old school parenting says, “Why should I thank my kids for doing what they are supposed to do anyway?” I understand. I was raised that way, too. But in truth, don’t we enjoy it when our bosses notice our good work and express their appreciation? Doesn’t it make you want to do more of the same? It is the same with parenting. If your kids complain that you only notice when they do something wrong, you know this last point applies to you. Catch them being good because it works and because it is kind. Be genuine in your appreciation. You don’t have to make a big deal out of it; and, at all costs, avoid sarcasm. A brief and simple statement showing that you notice and appreciate their efforts will pay off in buckets.
David N Hafter, MFT is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist living in Davis.