- by Karan Sims
Most parents first experience their child’s attempts at autonomy at about age two. They feel challenged and often a battle of wills begins that lasts throughout childhood and the teen years. Parents can turn these trying times into a rewarding growth period for them and their children by shifting their perspective concerning the child’s behavior and by becoming clever and creative in responding to the child’s perceived “headstrong, rebellious, stubborn, frustrating, negative” behavior.
Empowering not Overpowering
Instead of viewing children’s willful behavior as “bad” and reacting in a way that overpowers the child, parents can view this behavior as a healthy positive sign of their child’s development and find ways to empower the child. From about the age of two, and at differing intervals in the developmental process, children are individuating from their parents and the world around them. This includes making decisions for themselves, exerting their power and will on persons and situations, getting their own way, declaring ownership and authority.
When parents react by overpowering children, they cause them to feel powerless. Since all humans strive to feel powerful, the overpowered child may react to his or her feelings of powerlessness by either fight or flight – either giving in and letting others make all the decisions and maintain all control or fighting to seek power through rebellious and destructive behaviors. Parents who can shift to seeing their child’s struggle for power as a positive sign can find useful ways for the child to feel powerful and valuable and deal with power struggles in ways that reduce fighting and create cooperative relationships that empower both the child and the parents.
The First Step is to Side-Step
The first step to effectively and positively deal with power struggles is to side-step the power struggle – in other words, refuse to pick up the other end of the rope. A mother asked her two-year-old if she was ready for a nap. “NO” replied the child. Feeling challenged, the mother replied, “Do you want to walk to your bed or do you want me to carry you?” “I want you to carry me upside down and tickle me as we go.”
The mother realized that the “no” was an invitation to join a power struggle and by side-stepping it (neither fighting nor giving in) the mother created an ending that was happy, nurturing and loving rather than hateful and painful as nap time can often be. By side-stepping the power struggle, you send your child the message “I am not going to fight with you. I am not going to hurt you. I am not going to overpower you and I’m not going to give in, either.”
Choices, Not Orders
After side-stepping the power struggle, the next step is to give choices, not orders. A father, trying to change an 18-month-olds diaper, against the wishes of the child, offered the child a choice of which room to have the change made. The child choose a room, but once in the room, balked again at the diaper change. The father continued with his plan to empower the child and asked, “Which bed?” The child pointed to a bed, the diaper was changed and the ongoing power struggle about diaper changes was ended.
When giving children choices, parents must be sure that all choices are acceptable. Don’t give your child the choice of either sitting down quietly or leaving the restaurant if you have no intention of leaving.
Also be sure you don’t give too many “autocratic” choices. Autocratic choices are choices are choices that are so narrow the child senses no freedom at all. Young children benefit from having some choices narrowed, but try to give broad and open-ended choices whenever possible.
Choices should not represent a punishment as one alternative. For example, telling a child “You may either pick up the toys or take a time-out” creates fear and intimidation instead of empowerment.
Find Useful Ways for your Child to be Powerful
Whenever you find yourself in the middle of a power struggle with your child, ask yourself, “How can I give my child more power in this situation?” One mother asked herself this question concerning an endless battle she was having with her son about buckling his seat belt. Her solution was that she made him boss of the seat belts – it became his job to see that everyone was safely secured. The power struggle ended.
Do the Unexpected
One parent side-steps power struggles by announcing “let’s go out for a treat” when she feels the situation is headed for a showdown. Her purpose is not to “reward” bad behavior, but to reestablish her relationship with her children and keep her end goal of a close, loving and cooperative atmosphere in mind.
Getting to Win-Win
Power struggles often feel like someone has to win and someone has to lose. A win-win solution is where each party comes away feeling like they got what they wanted. Getting to win-win takes negotiation. Parents can assist their children by responding to a child’s demands, “That sounds like a good way for you to win. And I want you to win. But I want to win, too. Can you think of a solution that works for both of us?”
Parents often have the attitude that children should not say NO to or question authority. However, it is interesting that most of us parents buy into the media campaign of “Just Say No.” It is best to hear a child’s NO as a disagreement rather than a disrespectful response. Teach children to say NO, or disagree, respectfully and appropriately. Keep in mind that you want them to say NO when faced with peer pressure and inappropriate situations.
Powerlessness Creates Revenge
Children who are overpowered, or who feel powerless, will often seek to gain power through revenge. They will seek to hurt others as they feel hurt and will often engage in behavior that ultimately hurts themselves. Revenge at age two and three looks like talking back and messy food spills. Revenge at age 16 or 17 looks like drug and alcohol abuse, pregnancy, failure, running away and suicide.
When children act out in power struggles and revengeful behavior, they are most often feeling powerless and discouraged about a positive way to contribute and know that their actions count. Most parents’ goals are to raise a child who becomes a self-reliant adult, can make good decisions and has the confidence to be whatever he or she chooses. Your child will see the future that future more clearly if you allow him or her to practice at being powerful in useful and appropriate ways.
Karan Sims is a Redirecting Children’s Behavior instructor for the International Network for Children and Families.