Who Says You Can’t Win Em All: Side-Stepping the Power Struggle

Has this ever happened to you: You take your kids to the park for some fresh air and exercise. Everything is going great until Andrew, your eldest, starts juggling the swings around. You ask Andrew to, “Please stop throwing the swings–you’re going to hurt somebody.” Andrew doesn’t stop–maybe he didn’t hear you? “Andrew did you hear me?: I asked you to stop throwing the swings up in the air,” is your next response. The swings are still flying everywhere, and you’re getting mad. You warn him, “Andrew if you don’t stop throwing the swings, you’ll have a time-out.” “Ah, come on mom, let me do it for one more minute,” Andrew pleads, as he keeps tossing the swings up in the air. “No,” you yell back. Ten more seconds go by and Andrew is still at it. You’re fuming. You stomp over and drag him away from the swings. “Time-out,” you scream.

Who wins? Yes, it’s true that ultimately Andrew got his just reward, a time-out, but how many times did he frustrate you in the meantime? As soon as you join the fight, you lose. What is the key to winning? Don’t get involved. You’re scolding and nagging does not stop children from misbehaving. In fact, it does the opposite–encourages them to misbehave. Instead of threatening with punishment, you say, “Look Andrew, I can’t make you stop throwing swings up in the air. At the same time though, I don’t want anybody to get hurt; what should we do?” You’re doing two things here: breaking Andrew’s glory by not contesting his power, asking him for help in finding a solution. You and Andrew are friends now, not enemies. As you get used to working together with your child, instead of in opposition to him, you’ll feel less threatened and better able to guide him.

I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this, but usually parents are the first to fall into their children’s power struggle trap. An aunt or uncle does not take so personally what their nieces and nephews do, and therefore do not get as easily sucked into children’s power contests.

Another child to be on the look out for is the one whose boss, always trying to run the show. These kids have been given too much decision-making power too early on. Empowering children with adult decision-making gives them power without wisdom. Once they have power, children aren’t happy to give it up. It sets the stage for continuing conflicts between children and parents as they compete for power parents gave too early and tried to recover too late.

Here are the six steps to no-fail power struggle resolution: Teaching your children how to think, not what to think:

1. Define the problem

2. Parent and child think of possible solutions–focus more on needs; your solutions will follow naturally. Keep an open mind; write down every solution, no matter how silly it sounds. Give your child a chance to offer at least one solution before you say anything.

3. Evaluate the good and bad points of each solution. Don’t evaluate too soon; it stifles creativity and discourages kids from offering all their ideas.

4. Decide on the best one–make sure it meets both you and your child’s needs. Avoid manipulating your child into accepting what you think is the best solution.

5. Map out a plan of action

6. Follow-up on how well your solution worked. Don’t feel compelled to stick by a wrong decision. You may go through half-a-dozen bad strategies before you find the right one.

You’ll notice, parents do not have any more power than their children. It’s the reverse from what you’d expect: the less power parents use, the more influence they have on their children. When children see their parents are willing to bend, they loosen up as well. Their me-against-you attitude is replaced by a genuine caring for the needs of their parents. In addition children learn how to make commitments and stick by them.

What Could Go Wrong?

1. Problem-solving takes time. You or your child may have other agendas on your plate. It’s simpler and easier to say, “Go to your room,” or “You have a time-out.” Remember however, that problem-solving saves time in the long run, because you’re chances of the same problem coming up again are smaller.

2. Your first attempts don’t work. You feel like giving up. Don’t tackle the biggest fish on your line the first time out in the boat. Choose a problem which is making your child unhappy. That way she has something to gain, and she’ll be more willing to try again. Also, problem solving when you or your child is hip-hopping mad is not a good idea. Wait until you’re both calm and level-headed.

Stay away from touchy issues like values, life styles, friends, morals, and life goals, because your children consider these rights, which you have no business trying to change. The best way to influence your children’s values is to be a good model. If you don’t want your children to smoke, don’t smoke yourself. Children are more likely to adopt the values of people they respect and love, not the ones they dislike and fear. Back up your feelings with hard, cold facts–newspaper articles, the Surgeon General’s Report. Keep your tone friendly. Think of your discussions as offering suggestions to a friend–not preaching or persuading your child to think like you. It also never hurts to re-think your own values. You may find yourself changing them. Finally, you also have to develop the grace to accept those things about your child you can’t change. Your children are individuals, and they have a right to believe in what they want to.

3. Your child says, “This is for the birds,” and walks out.
At the right moment ask your child why problem-solving bugs her. Try to hook her into the process by letting her know what she has to gain. No one loses and everyone comes out happy in the end. Finally, explain how you feel about her walking away from a problem which is really important to you.

4. You agree on the best solution, but your child doesn’t keep her end of the bargain. Let her know how disappointed you feel when she lets you down. And if she makes a habit of not following through, you’ll eventually feel like you can’t trust her. If appropriate, explore why she didn’t keep her commitment, and discuss how you can make things easier for her. You may have to go back to the drawing table and explore another solution.

5. Your child picks a dead-end solution. Let her go ahead with it. If you try to stop her or change her mind, she may resent you for it. Let her discover for herself that the solution doesn’t work. Or, if she agreed to do something beyond her means, don’t hold her too rigidly to it. Young children can’t imagine how easy of hard a task might be. Also watch out for children who pick one-sided solutions which don’t meet their needs. They might be too concerned with making other people happy.