Updated: Aug 6, 2020
We have all gotten into power struggles with our kids. A battle of wills with a fight to the finish, the problem is nobody really wins. When our kids meet us with defiance and a "you're not the boss of me" it can be like a red flag to a bull. We are surged with emotion and the battle is on, the problem is this battle has more to do with us than our child. There are lots of strategies we will go through to help avoid power struggles with our kids, but all of these will seem pointless if we don't recognise our own triggers first. Meeting fire with fire never works, we can't calm our kids if we aren't calm ourselves.
Emotions are contagious, when we are stressed and angry, our kids will mirror that level of emotion in us. When we are triggered, our response can be totally unreasonable for the situation and we can't parent the way we want. We escalate so quickly and our kids will come along meeting us at every level. A trigger will seem to happen automatically, it will seem totally justified at the time. But if we sit back and look at the situation when we are calm, we can see that our reactions may have been uncalled for.
Where do our triggers come from?
There is often another emotion underlying anger. The behaviour your child is showing you could take you back to difficult times in your childhood or to how you were parented. The behaviour could also trigger fears that you have about your parenting ability or generate a feeling of helplessness. In this way our reaction to our child's behaviour has more to do with our difficulty processing these emotions than it does to the behaviour itself.
We will always parent the way we were parented unless we consciously choose not to. However by gaining awareness of our triggers, we not only will be able to improve our parenting strategies, but we will also be able to improve our overall well-being.
It may seem unlikely that emotions you felt when you were a child are coming out as an adult. We may feel that surely we have moved on from this. But lets say for example, when you were a child you were not allowed to question your parent's authority without getting "in trouble". So when your child argues, this triggers you to rise up against this "disobedience". When really it is perfectly normal for a child to question or say "no" to their parents. Other common triggers could be crying, whinging and tantrums. These often cause triggers for people who as children were not allowed to express negative emotions. The result is that we can't cope with this overwhelming display of emotion and we try to stop the child by removing them from us or becoming angry with them.
To find out our triggers we need to start being aware of our reactions. We really need to sit back and work out if our reaction really was justified. Chances are if you felt your heart rate spike quickly in response to your child, then you were triggered. When you are calm and able to think about what might have been your underlying reason for being angry. Was it anger? or was it hurt, sadness or fear? Be real with yourself, remember we can't change what we don't acknowledge. When we really look at our thoughts and feelings behind these situations we might be surprised at how unrealistic they are, but that's because they were an automatic response and we weren't able to think through them at the time.
Common thoughts behind our triggers could be:
You don't respect me
this is not convenient
I don't know what to do
I can't cope
I feel unappreciated
I expect you to do more than you can
I can't do what I want to do
You are acting like my ex-partner
Usually when you are able to really admit that you have these thoughts, you are able to think through them and realise that it is your thoughts, not your child's behaviour that is making you feel this way. You are able to see that just because your child is questioning you, doesn't mean that they don't respect you.
Avoiding Power Struggles
Give them some control: As adults we can forget that children are people too. Just like us children don't like to feel manipulated and powerless. When children are starting to say "no" they are actually developmentally gaining independence and realising that they have some choices. This is a positive stage in development although is certainly doesn't feel like it at times. If we recognise that our children want some control we shouldn't react by taking more control away from them. This doesn't mean giving in to them, but for example, if they don't want to have a shower, give them a choice. Do they want to have a shower before dinner or after? For young children it might be choosing their plate even though they can't choose their dinner. They are still doing what you want but they feel that they have some control over their own life.
Is it worth the fight?: There are some situations where it really isn't worth the fight. In these situation let your child live with the natural consequence. If your child refuses to wear a jacket, let them go out and experience the cold. This way they learn for themselves and you didn't have to enter into a yelling match. Obviously you can't do this if the consequence is dangerous, but if it is discomfort then let them make the decision.
You need to work out what your core values are and what behaviours you really need them to do and then let some of the smaller things go. Is it wanting your children to be kind? That they are helpful? That they give you some space when you need it? When you realise what is really important to you, then you can let go of other battles like them wanting to wear a superhero cape everywhere or mismatched clothes.
If you find that you and your child are butting heads regularly over the same issue, then you need to work it through together. If you don't engage your child in this process you are just setting yourself up for another power struggle. Try and sit down with your child when you are both calm and just simply say things aren't working. Have them try and come up with ideas what else could happen. If the ideas aren't what you think will work, then talk through what would happen if we did that. Offer suggestions but be willing to listen if they have a problem with that. You may have to bend a bit. Remember having them obey you without question is not a win, they will only feel controlled and want to rebel. Having them come up with ideas that you can both agree on means they are more likely to comply, but also they will feel valued.
Avoiding power struggles takes practice and patience. There are key things that we can to by giving our kids some control, letting go of the little things, letting natural consequences teach them and problem-solving together. But in the end, if we haven't dealt with our triggers we will be the ones escalating the arguments and creating the power struggles.