Parenting Thoughts: On Struggles


I’ve had several conversations lately with parents who are facing daily power struggles with their children and are feeling exasperated. There’s nothing like being challenged constantly to exasperate one, but there are ways that our response to our children can make things better, or worse.

Here are a few things to think about. “My kid is a real challenge! It seems like he always has to have a power struggle over everything!”

Wait a minute. Can one person have a power struggle? No! The nature of a struggle is that it involves more than one direction, more than one person. One person can make a demand, but it takes two to struggle. So if you feel a power struggle brewing, if you find you’re fighting over something, you’re just as guilty as the child. And as you’re the one with the most maturity (one hopes) it’s up to you to step out of the struggle.

“But you can’t be saying I should give in! That’ll just teach a child to pitch a fit to get his way. And I can’t force him to do what I asked; that’s how we got into the struggle in the first place!”

People often assume the only two choices they have in a showdown with a child are to:

  • give in (which teaches the child pitching a fit works and gives him permission not to fulfill his responsibilities), or
  • win (which frustrates and angers the child. That residual frustration and anger paves the way for more and bigger fights later as the child seeks to take back the power).

There is a third, more effective alternative, which is to

  • withdraw from conflict. Offer the child a choice, back off, and give yourself time to think about how to handle what may come next.

“But how is that any different from giving in? He still got his way!”

It may seem like stepping out of conflict is the same as giving in, but in reality it is very different. The difference is how you do it. If you say, “OK then, don’t take the ball in!” you’ve given in to the child’s way. But if you smile as you say, “I’ll get it this time, and you can do me a favor some other time,” you’re cooperating whether the child wants to or not. (You then pretend not to have heard the “I will not!” The child just needed to say it to save face.) When he unwittingly does something helpful in the future, thank him for the trade. Or you can say, “Well, I’m disappointed but I can’t make you do it. I’ll go ahead and take it in and we can talk later about how to make our cleanup time work better for everybody.”

“But aren’t there supposed to be immediate consequences for problem behavior?”

We’re often afraid of not “handling” the problem now, but the truth is that we often make the situation much worse when we “handle” problems immediately when we’re still emotionally involved. We often do or say something that isn’t helpful in the long run and sets the stage for future defiance. In reality, one of two things will happen if you just let it drop and take your time to think about the situation and the best response. Either:

  • It will never come up again, so there’s no problem, and it doesn’t matter that you didn’t enforce anything, and aren’t you glad you didn’t start a  huge fight over a one-time problem, or
  • It will definitely come up again and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to respond to your well-thought-out strategy. Either way, you’re better off and so is the child.

“But then what do I do?”

Any time you’re caught in a power struggle, drop your end of the tug of war rope, and then take time to think about how you want to handle the situation. As always, return to the key questions: What is the child learning from the situation? What do I want him to learn? How can I best make that learning happen? If your child pitches a fit about bedtime, think about how the bed time routine could work better for both of you, and try it that way. You can even involve your child in the thought process. “I notice you haven’t been very happy going to bed lately. What would make it easier?” Your child will be more invested in making his own idea work well, too. So if he says, “I need two stories!” try reading two stories, and see if it helps. Make a plan that focuses on solving the problem rather than winning the argument and you may be amazed at how much better you both feel.

By Justine Saffir

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