Resolving Power Struggles
Caught in this dilemma and with no understanding of what is happening, the child cannot resolve the dilemma.
Rather, it is up to adults to overcome their frustration and find a loving way to respond in order to calm the child’s fears and eliminate the struggle.
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A parent who has never apologized to his children is a monster. If he’s always apologizing, his children are monsters.
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Ironically and sadly, it is precisely at these times when a parent feels least nurturing that the child caught in a control struggle most desperately needs comforting. Once parents understand that the child is reacting out of fear and apprehension even though the behavior appears cocky and disrespectful, their challenge is to regain and maintain control, providing security and safety through well-defined limits on the child’s behavior. Accomplishing this will demonstrate strength that is not threatening to the already anxious and apprehensive child, the strength that will keep the child and the family safe.
But how can parents achieve this goal? Parents in my classes volunteered a couple of possible ways to deal with this challenge.
Some parents asserted that “If the little so-and-so needs to see strength, I’ll show him strength,” typically said with one fist aggressively slamming into the opposite hand. As understandable as that reaction seems at first, it is unlikely that a threatening stance can provide the reassurance so deeply needed by a frightened child. In practice parents almost never react punitively based on their own controlled and reasoned reaction, but rather they react to – and therefore remain controlled by – their child’s reactions.
Other parents suggested that “If Tyler would just quit testing me all the time, he’d see I am here to take care of him and his needs.” This, too, seems like a perfectly reasonable idea until we look closer at it. First, this assertion suggests that Tyler delegate authority to the parent and it is clear that a person delegating responsibility remains in charge. (As President Truman put it, “The buck stops here.”) Second, for Tyler to back off so that his parents can exhibit their strengths, he would have to trust that his parents can handle things, but inability to trust in that fashion is the root cause of the problem in the first place.
So if reacting harshly or waiting for the child to relinquish control is not the solution, what is? First the parents must be very clear that their goal is to:
- Establish clear boundaries between what the child can and cannot control, that is, set appropriate limits, and
- Enforce, consistently and effectively, those boundaries; no must mean no, both when it is said and when it is challenged.
The idea is to show the child that the boundaries are there, that they are firm, and that the limits themselves can be relied on to provide protection.
You and three-year-old Paul live in a house with nothing but a few feet of grass and the sidewalk between your front door and a very busy street. Paul wants to explore out the front door, but you know that you must set clear and firm limits. You recognize that confining Paul to the house assures his safety but also severely limits his opportunities to learn about and deal with the larger world and thereby gradually to become more independent. To avoid stifling his growth, you install a fence to keep Paul safe while also giving him greater freedom. You recognize that Paul could fall and hurt himself in a fenced yard so that you have not protected him against all mishaps but you know that the fence balances freedom to expand horizons with safety from what could be a very major injury.
Children need their parents to establish clear boundaries:
Within which they are free safely to learn about the world, and
Beyond which they cannot venture.
I recognize that most parents already accept these as ideals and typically have tried valiantly to achieve them, often without much success. Fortunately, once we have a clear understanding of the dynamics operating in such situations, it is possible – and not as difficult as parents often fear it will be – to establish a parenting style and approach that will assure that children adhere to limits set by parents. And, when that happens, even children with long histories of challenging behavior are relieved from the anxiety that drove them earlier.
In sum, avoiding power struggles by consistently setting and enforcing suitable limits is central to raising happy and responsible children. Since reliance on punishment increases the likelihood of sliding into power struggles in the first place, it is essential to keep these important points about punishment in mind:
- Punishment is best at teaching what not to do.
- Even then, the effects of punishment tend not to be lasting.
- Punishment is more likely to be effective with children who least need outside help to become responsible.
- Punishment serves to distract parents and causes unnecessary and counter-productive anger and frustration in parent-child relationships.
- To make things worse, punishment often works against the intended goal by providing attention, a sense of control, and/or other counter-productive benefits, thereby inadvertently reinforcing the very behaviors parents want to eliminate.
In conclusion, punishment generally is ineffective and often actually interferes with teaching responsible behavior.