Power Struggles, Discipline, and Responsible Behavior
Over years of working with parents who were struggling with their children’s inappropriate behavior, I have observed frequent and intense battles of will between parents and their children. Typically all sides become trapped in combat that no one can either win or escape. Work with children in individual psychotherapy and observations of family interactions in joint sessions have clarified my understanding of the insidious dynamics. They reflect a subtle, unspoken, yet powerful pattern of interactions that tends to distort family relationships while operating outside of the awareness of those involved.
Observations on How Control Struggles Develop
1. The world is a scary place and children are not immune. Every newscast and every newspaper is filled with reports of burglaries, tornadoes, murders, wars, auto collisions, earthquakes, and the like. Clearly even very young children are exposed to a great many frightening experiences, including many we adults may not even be aware of.
An eight-year-old boy was treated on a pediatric ward for a bone infection, including weeks in traction with a pin in his knee and with continuous IV medication. He had been consistently delightful and cooperative with staff until the eve of having the pin removed so he could go home, when he became unruly and belligerent. Even his favorite nurse could not calm him, and the staff asked me to consult.
Shrieks and curses guided me to the boy’s room. He was in a rage, screaming complaints that revealed intense terror. Through his tears and distress he was able to tell me about the leg on his sister’s doll falling off when the pin came out and his intense fear that the same thing was going to happen to him. Once he was reassured that his leg had healed and that he no longer needed the pin or traction, he relaxed, resuming his previous pleasant and cooperative manner.
Many things cause fear in children, and fear of the unknown can be particularly distressing, especially when adults do not seem to see the danger or to understand and therefore don’t offer much-needed support.
2. Children have few mechanisms for managing their fears. Adults commonly assume an intellectual distance between themselves and danger:
The shootings last night were far away in that bad part of town, or
That hurricane was way out in New Orleans, or
The terrorists will be caught and we’ll be safe in our area.
For most adults most of the time, these rational thoughts usually are sufficient to hold the world’s threats at bay.
Children, on the other hand, are less able to rationalize away their concerns, instead seeing many threats as very personal. Children tend to be very concrete and to misjudge time and distance that may serve to comfort adults. Further, many children are, at best, inconsistently capable of separating fiction from reality. They may vividly remember frightening television programs long after viewing them, troubling their sleep for several nights. Further, they tend to mix things that they don’t understand with what they do, often compounding their concerns.
During consultation on a pediatric ward, I met with a boy who had a tumor behind his left eyeball. Asked what “tumor” means, he told me he had a “tissue” behind his eye, a seemingly accurate and mature notion. Pursued just a bit more, however, I learned that the child imagined he had some sort of gunky, nasty, facial tissue wadded up and jammed into his head, somehow growing there. While the actual tumor was indeed a serious threat, what this boy imagined seemed more troubling to him than the more accurate description he was then given by his doctor.
3. Children look to adults for protection and a sense of security, and, of course, parents are the first adults to whom most children turn.
Toddlers in a new situation can be observed venturing a bit away from their mothers’ knees, only to rush back for reassurance when they get too far, a bolder child does something scary, or someone makes too loud a noise. As children grow older, they may use the same approach in different ways, for example wanting to sleep with the parents or asking for scholastically unneeded help with homework whenever they feel insecure.
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Good, honest, hardheaded character is a function of the home. If the proper seed is sown there and properly nourished for a few years, it will not be easy for that plant to be uprooted.
~George A. Dorsey
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4. When children sense their parents cannot protect them, they become very insecure. Success in controlling parents leaves children feeling their parents must not be very strong and leaves them fearful about who will deal with all the threats in their environment. Because the experience of being in control can have such a profound impact on a child and on family interactions, it is important for parents to have a clear understanding of the implications. In general, the child is in control of adults whenever:
- Parents wear down and give up in the face of their child’s persistence; for instance after hours of repeated, “Please, Dad, can I, please, please, please?” the father finally reacts angrily with, “Oh, okay, but just this one time!” – perhaps for the hundredth time.
- Parents change decisions they consider appropriate if they can’t justify them to the child’s satisfaction, for instance when “all the other children get to go” and Mom can’t think of a good, compelling response to that.
- Parents, against their better judgment, strike out at the child (physically or verbally) in frustration. Whenever parents react in ways that violate their own standards for dealing with a child they love, the parents are no longer in control of their emotions, of the child, or of the situation.
- Parents react to child provocation in any other way that violates their own values or standards or otherwise is basically unacceptable to them.