When parents and children enter into a power struggle, two things happen. The thinking brain goes to sleep because apparently it is conflict-avoidant. And the emotional brain has to take over operations. Both people immediately stop listening to the other’s point of view. And the conversation may regress to a more primitive form of communication such as grunting, crying, screaming, or yelling. Usually this ends with someone going to her room. This is almost always the smaller of the two people.
Parents understand these patterns, but often need help to change them. The key is to keep the thinking brain awake and useful. The best way to do this is to take a deep breath. This is hard. Often, we want to launch into great detail about why we are right and the child is obviously wrong. But the thinking brain needs oxygen. So taking a deep breath gives parents a way to figure out how to avoid this fight.
While you are thinking about possible solutions, go ahead and make a validating statement. This is useful, because it helps your child keep her thinking brain active. The moment a child thinks you don’t understand what’s at stake here, her thinking brain hides in a corner and the emotional brain takes charge. Here’s an example of a typical power struggle at home:
Child: “I don’t want to put on my shoes!”
Parent #1 (stressed): “We have to put shoes on to go to the park. If you don’t wear shoes, you’ll step on some glass and get a big cut and we’ll have to go to the doctor and get a shot. Don’t you want to go to the park? Please don’t fight with me now. We’re already late to meeting our friends. Fine! I’m not taking you to the park again. And you don’t get dessert tonight. Now, go to your room!”
Parent #2 (after a cleansing breath): “You aren’t ready to put on your shoes right now. I can see that you need an extra moment to get ready. Maybe we should put on your shoes once we get to the park. Or maybe you just want to feel the grass tickle your toes! That would be fun!”
Here’s another one:
Child: “I’m not going to school! You can’t make me!”
Parent #1 (stressed and late for work): “Honey, please don’t do this to me this morning. We are already late and I have a big meeting with some very important people today. I have to get ready. I can’t believe we have to have this fight every single morning. I am so tired of this. Just grab your stuff and let’s go. Fine! I will get your stuff and you better get yourself into that car or I will really get angry! Now, get in the car!”
Parent #2: (after a cleansing breath): “Hmmm. You don’t feel like going to school right now. I wonder what might help? Here’s Teddy [insert stuffed friend’s name here]. Maybe you’d like him to sit next to you in the car? (Turn to bear) What do you think, Teddy? What? You want to sit next to [child name]? Are you sure you don’t want to sit in the front seat with me? Oh, ok. (Turn to child) Teddy wants to sit with you today? He really needs a friend.”
This all sounds good, but what if choice #2 doesn’t work? Let’s assume you’ve decided to try this positive approach. You validated your child’s point of view and even offered a creative solution. And she is still refusing to comply. You now need to set a clear limit in a supportive way. Here’s an example:
Child: “I’m NOT doing it!”
Parent: “You still don’t want to go to school [put on your shoes]. We still have to go. Darn it, darn it, darn it. I’m probably going to have to help you to the car, even though you may have a big feeling about that. I’m really sorry this is so hard for you. Later, we’ll think about some other ways to solve this problem. I know we can figure it out together.”
Positive guidance doesn’t mean abandoning all limits. There are things that must get done during the day. Unless you’re planning to stay home with your persistent child (or never brush her teeth again), you will need to set some expectations and help your child achieve them. Over time, the child learns that her parents understand her needs, listen to her ideas, and are willing to accommodate or “share power” when possible.
There are no “right” responses for every power struggle. Creative problem-solving takes work. It is difficult to defer our own needs, think creatively, and figure out an equitable solution. When you find yourself arguing with your child, stop what you’re doing, breathe, and reconnect with her. Only then, will you be able to solve the problem together.
Heidi Emberling, MA