Understanding Power Struggles

By Deborah Godfrey

“HOORAY!  I’m in a power struggle with my child!” 

From which planet is the parent who said that!  Seriously, consider the impact on our attitude towards parenting if we celebrated each time we entered a power struggle with our child.  Think of what a difference it would make.  In reality, this is nearly impossible, unless we have the understanding about the developmental importance of a power struggle (for both the parent and the child) and the tools redirect the associated misbehavior. A feeling of power is important to us all as a basic emotional need.  When this need develops, how it develops and what a child learns regarding his power in the world is directly or indirectly taught by the parent.  Yes, I am the one who taught my child to oppose me in this way!

During the first two years of life, the child learns to oppose the parent. By age three, the child usually has the skill developed to such an extent that a parent can feel overwhelmed, overpowered, overrun and quite angry and determined to get this child to behave better.  Unfortunately, most well intentioned attempts by parents to over power children that are being defiant fail, causing the parent to feel guilty, inept and incompetent.  The child typically feels angry, more defiant and continues to misbehave.

Why Do Children Power Struggle?

A sense of power is a basic social and emotional need.  Until about the age of two, a child has very little sense of self. The child and parent are “one” in the child’s world.  Somewhere in the second year, the child begins to develop a concept of self as separate from the parent.  This discovery coincides with the recognition that behavior by the child can create a resultant emotion or behavior by the parent!  So a child is learning by observation what causes mom or dad to react, and this reaction creates a sense of power in the child (as the one who causes the reaction).

What Did I Do To Cause My Child to Power Struggle With Me?!

As crazy as it sounds, we do in fact accidentally “cause” our children to power struggle with us!  Some of you may object to this idea and for that I just ask you to stay with me a moment.  By taking responsibility for causation, you will actually get your parental power back.  If you caused it, then you can un-cause it.  The most powerless position you can take is to blame your child for their behavior because this leaves you in a hopeless position.  If you are power struggling with your child and you did nothing to cause it then you probably cannot change it either.  Alternatively, if you see the way in which you helped your child come to the belief that it is fun or fulfills their need to feel powerful by opposing you, you can choose to stop doing that discipline response.

So what is it that we do to cause a child to power struggle with us?  Very simply out, we escalate our emotional response.  What does this mean?  Let’s take an example of a child of about six months old.  I’ll use my daughter Michelle as an example.  She learned to crawl over to the entertainment center, pull herself up, and pop open the glass doors. The glass would become gooey with her fingerprints; she would slam them, bang on them and otherwise frustrate me completely!  So the first time I responded (this was before I had parenting classes, please keep in mind, this is not how I would respond today!) by telling her no and taking her away from the cabinet. The next time she did it, I told her no in a louder voice and with more frustration and aggravation, and the third time and the fourth, each time I became louder and more upset, until I began to slap her hands, give her “that look” and otherwise frantically attempt to control her overt defiance of me.  She only became more defiant and was having more fun watching the show that mom was putting on for her.  If I remember correctly, the doors eventually lost their ability to “pop” open, remained covered with fingerprints and she eventually outgrew or became bored with her behavior.  I don’t recall ever succeeding in teaching her to leave them alone.  I do think that she learned how fun it was to defy me, and was very interested in finding endless other ways in which to see mom lose control.  I do not think she consciously said, “I’m out to get mom”, but she learned unconsciously that by defying me, she would feel very powerful.

Please Tell Me! How Can I Un-Cause This Pattern?

So glad you asked!  It’s really very simple.  Every time your child misbehaves in a specific way, you need to decide how to respond, and use that exact same response every single time your child misbehaves in that same way.  In the example above, I would look at my child and decide to myself, “Hmmm…what is the best response for this age, stage, and behavior?  At six months old, she is really too young for lectures or explanations.  The best discipline for little ones is distraction or repetition.  So what I will do is pick her up gently, and murmur, “Michelle will learn to stay away from the glass if she wants to play in the living room” while walking her calmly out of the room”. I have to respond that way every single time she goes to the glass.  I cannot raise my voice, say it louder, hold her firmer, or in any way escalate my emotional response, or I lose my parental power.  I must respond like a broken record over and over again.  At six months old, I may need to repeat 20, 30, 50 times before she learns, but she eventually will learn.  The best thing about this response is that she won’t learn to have the power to “cause” me to lose control (where she thinks she won).  You may think I am not sane, however this is true and this works.  You can begin this idea at any age and stage to get your power (I.e. influence) back as the parent.  Once you have learned how to stop causing the connection between their misbehavior making them feel powerful, then you can be much more successful in redirecting power struggles.

Deborah has been teaching parents how to understand and redirect power struggles for over 20 years.  This article was developed as a result of listening to hundreds of parents with their children and developing the best possible way to understand and redirect power struggles.

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