Power Struggles -- A Timeless Tug of War
It seems like a never-ending battle.
You and your 4-year-old are in another showdown at the toy store. He’s begging for the latest action figure; you’re telling him “money doesn’t grow on trees.”
Your teenage daughter wants to stay out past curfew. She says you’re being unfair, while you say she’s being unreasonable.
When parents and children struggle for power, who wins? According to Russell Hoffmann, PhD, director of psychology at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, if you state your mutual needs and you work together to meet those needs, you both can win.
“For example, your child often demands that you play with him, and you say that you can’t -- you’re too busy. Your child, out of anger, reacts by making a hurtful comment such as ‘you don’t love me,’ to which you react to because you feel angry or guilty,” says Dr. Hoffmann. “This unpleasant exchange leaves both parent and child feeling dissatisfied and disconnected.”
So what’s a frustrated parent to do? Dr. Hoffmann says the timeless tug of war for power between parents and children can be managed by aligning your child’s needs with your needs and working together using a few simple steps.
1. Stop and listen.
The focus of overcoming the power struggle should be on listening and observing the pattern of your child’s behavior as well as yours.
“When you get the feeling of ‘here we go again,’ about an issue,” says Dr. Hoffmann, “then you should try hard not to react, and focus instead on what needs are being communicated by you and your child’s words and behavior.”
2. Find the theme.
By listening to your child’s words and actions and your own, you will see basic themes. In the example above, the theme is that both of you want time together, but other work also needs to be done and valued.
For your teenager, curfew battles often revolve around the themes of independence and responsibility.
3. Develop a plan.
Once you’ve identified the themes of your child’s needs and yours, you can work together to accomplish a mutually beneficial solution.
“Help your child understand what his or her theme is,” says Dr. Hoffmann. “You can say, ‘I’ve noticed lately that you want more time with Mommy. I want more time with you as well. If you pick up your toys while I’m folding laundry, then we’ll have time together for fun.’”
For teens, Dr. Hoffmann recommends letting them earn graduated steps toward independence, like permitting a later curfew for special occasions if they display responsible behavior.
4. Follow through.
“The gist of ending the power struggle is getting away from being emotionally reactive,” says Dr. Hoffmann. “No one wins in those situations. But by working together to establish and meet your mutual needs from the beginning -- and following through with the plan -- you can create and maintain a strong, positive relationship with your child.”