There are lots of parts of parenthood that can be challenging, but power struggles with your kids can take the cake. When you're tired and stressed and they're tired and stressed, these power struggles can be even more exasperating than normal. Power struggles aren't abnormal, however. Everyone wants to know where the boundaries truly are and how much wiggle room they do or don't have in certain situations. When you're a parent, though, you want to know how to win a power struggle with your kid, not just how to make it through.
"Children are learning how to navigate through the world and power struggles arise because they are ‘testing’ the limits of family and social rules," clinical psychologist Dr. John Mayer, whose kids are now in their 20s, tells Romper by email.
"They are also developing an important developmental trait of 'mastery.' Because they need to develop a sense of mastery, yes, they need to develop ‘wins’ in life, but, not at the cost of your ultimate control and structure of the family. When we let them win, they actually become frightened, because they feel unsafe and out of control."
So it's not just that you want to win those pesky power struggles, but it's actually really important for them and for the family that you do.
The first thing you need to know when it comes to addressing power struggles with your kid is that your response should depend on their age, where they are developmentally, and what their temperament is like. "The response is age and cognitive level appropriate. Situation is a factor as well," licensed professional counselor and dad Bruce Cameron tells Romper in an email exchange. If the situation is more dire, your response likely needs to be more severe and less yielding. If, however, the struggle is over something minor, you might be more lenient and concede just a little bit more than you otherwise would.
"[I]f they are in danger or it is something I simply will not allow, I explain my reasoning and I explain that I understand that they are disappointed or angry but my first job is to protect them and somethings are just not going to happen," Helen Maffini, director of MindBe Education tells Romper by email. "However, if it is something that I see as a small thing, I try to accommodate my kids or let them try. I believe sometimes they need to try and fail on their own to learn so as long as it is not a safety issue I might go with whatever it is they are fighting for."
Nowadays, power struggles over technology use can be a regular occurrence. Retired psychologist, dad, and executive director of Summerland Camps, summer camps for "technology overuse habits," Dr. Mike Bishop says that including kids in the setting of boundaries — but not letting them have final say on the rules — can help you win the power struggles and actually make them fewer and farther between. He recommends sitting your kids down and asking them what they think are reasonable rules and guidelines that they should have to follow when it comes to technology. If they say, for instance, that they think they should be allowed an hour of screen time a day, and you had gone into the conversation prepared to allow them more, then it's over and there doesn't have to be any struggle. Bishop is careful to note, however, that you still have to enforce the mutually-agreed upon guidelines and be the parent if they don't meet those established expectations.
Child and adolescent psychiatrist and author of Born to Be Wild: Why Teens Take Risks, and How We Can Help Keep Them Safe, Dr. Jess Shatkin, says that when you go into a power struggle, you need to do so with a calm and clear head. It can be easy to get worked up, especially if they're emotional, but adults have more control over their ability to stay calm than kids and teens do. Calmly explain your position and expectations and listen to what they're saying as well. They might get upset and they might storm off, but you never should. Shatkin says that when the two of you reconvene, you should — again calmly and rationally — tell them that their storming off and yelling isn't acceptable. Model how they should act during a conflict or disagreement and don't lose your cool.
If you're still feeling like you're not certain how to approach what you feel is sure to be an impending power struggle, at least make sure that you know what your rules really are so that you and your co-parent can explain them that way to your child. Psychotherapist Nancy Brooks tells Romper via email:
"My favorite way of parenting my own child is to tell her the rules: this is what you need to do — if you choose to do it, you get this…if you choose not to do it, you get that…. [i]t’s your choice. "This alleviates power struggles altogether, helps her to learn to make good choices, and takes me out of the role of 'bad guy'. It leaves the decisions up to her as to the outcome."
If you're clear on the rules and consistent in your responses, they just might not fight you as often as you'd think they would. Kids need the rules and need the structure and you might have to pay the price for enforcing them. "If taking the car away from them meant I have to get up at 5:30 a.m. or stay up until 1:00 a.m. to pick them up or drive them, that was OK," Mayer says.
Know what you expect, know what you're willing to compromise on, know that you might have to make some changes too and the power struggles will likely fade a bit in intensity over time. Pretty soon you'll be past the fight.
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