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A Deeper Understanding of ‘Power Struggles’

A common woe in the parenting world you hear about are ‘power struggles‘.

Let’s use getting in the shower (willingly) as an example.

The child resists. Parents dig their heels in. The child digs THEIR heels in. And the struggle goes on and on. Old fashioned advice is to give them a smack. The ‘newer’ popular version of this advice is that if you just toughen up, set clear boundaries, or use a systematic discipline system, then the power struggles will go away… except what often happens, is that the power struggles DON’T go away, even after following any of this advice! Then, the parents are left in an even more desperate cycle of trying to repeat the advice because they feel like now they’re failing to control their child.

Parents are told that we CANNOT ‘give in’, or else our children are going to walk all over us in the future. That if we do, we’ll be rewarding our kids for complaining, or for having a temper tantrum, or that we might be teaching our kids that whining gets things done their way.

This attitude of maintaining control over our children to avoid power struggles, is something I’ve consistently read in popular parenting books…. and I have to tell you that it’s a really backwards way of looking at things (and comes from a behaviourist point of view, if you’re into psychology). But, behaviourism is old fashioned. The majority of power struggles are ones that we’ve created ourselves, because we try so hard to maintain control! We have organised every department of our child’s life into a pattern that fits our lifestyle. Eating, sleeping, playing, learning… pretty much everything they do. To a degree, we do need to take charge of some things, so we can function. Dipping into permissive parenting isn’t effective.

BUT, when we start controlling too much, or having expectations that are too high, we start creating problems that may not have even been there in the first place. Having children is going to change the way you live you life. There’s no way to avoid that. However, having children also give us the opportunity to take a deep look into our own controlling patters and see what things we’re hanging on to and it allows us to drop behaviours that don’t serve us anymore. With some self awareness, you start to find that the power struggles we experience with our children is caused mostly by our own experiences as a child and from our own expectations of how things ‘should‘ be.

  1. Recognise how often we control our children in daily activities.
    This is the observation part. Start to notice what’s going on every day. Think about all the areas of a child’s life that is controlled by adults. Eating, sleep time, leaving the house, brushing their teeth, getting out the door, getting back IN the door. It’s constant and incessant. For very young children, babies and toddlers, who have limited verbal capacity to express their discontent, they often cry and rage when they get frustrated by being schlepped around all day.¬†Older kids might whine, also rage and even lie. But think about it… Do you like being controlled by others? No… For many people, when we feel our autonomy being stripped away from us, we tend to put up the most resistance. It’s human nature! Think about all the wars being fought in the world for freedom and democracy? Our kids feel the same injustices when they feel things aren’t fair or things are too much out of their control.
  2. What expectations can we drop?
    What can you let go? Do they really need to get in bed exactly at 7:30? Maybe they’re not tired yet, and if you get them to bed at 8, then is bedtime is easier? Do they really need to eat every last bite of food? Maybe they’re not hungry today? Maybe they’re upset and they can’t eat? Do they really need to wear the clothes you picked out for them? Why not let them dress themselves most days, so long as what they’re wearing is weather appropriate and functional? Are they doing gymnastics, but they don’t like gymnastics? Maybe they would rather do an art class?¬†Are you expecting your kids to stay in bed until 7am in summer, when the sun comes up at 4:30? Are they too scared to sleep in their room? Why not bring their mattress into your room or let them sleep in your bed? Believe me, no scientific study has ever been conducted to prove that children sleeping in your room or your bed will ruin their sleep habits. In fact, the entire survival of the human race is because humans have always kept their young close at night. And, have you ever heard of a 18 year old begging to sleep with mummy and daddy? Um… no.

    But, there are somethings you can’t drop! Leaving the house by 7:30, in order to get somewhere by 8. Or wearing seat belts. Or, you want to go for a fast exercise walk, so “Come on everyone, no dilly dallying, you, kid, get on your bike, baby in the pram, let’s go for a fast walk!” You don’t have to put your entire life on hold! But, the less we try to control our children’s every move, the more willing they will be to cooperate when you need them to. And, you have to decide what things you can relax on. Maybe you don’t want your partner doesn’t want the kids in your room, so you can make some sort of compromise.

  3. Give them choices and chances to feel powerful.
    This seems like an odd concept to most… if you let your child feel powerful, then won’t they always want to be in control? Actually no… When a child has to do something they really don’t want to do, try giving them a choice. The idea here is not just to get them to comply, but it’s to allow them to feel more powerful in the situation. Children feel powerless too often, that is when we have the ‘power struggles‘. Do you want the strawberry toothpaste, or the blueberry toothpaste? We’re going for a walk, which way do you want to go? Your choice. Little opportunities to GIVE our children power will go a long way in helping ‘power struggles‘ later (can you tell I don’t like using the word ‘power struggle?!).
  4. Use Playful Discipline
    It’s hard to sum this point up in a small paragraph, but there is a fantastic books that I highly recommend reading. “Attachment Play” by Aletha Solter. Using playfulness for discipline is probably the biggest game changer I’ve learned on my parenting journey. And, it’s probably the reason I’ve had some pretty cooperative kids, without having to use rewards (sticker charts and treats) or punishments (like time-out, withholding privileges, etc.). The idea is really simple, you just have to get used to it. For example, we’re leaving the house, who wants to race to the toilet? I used to do this when my kids were little, but now the older ones are 6 and 8 and they race to the toilet themselves! Or, brushing teeth, playing games and singing songs. Or, when kids demand things “Get me water!!!” Instead of reprimanding them for being ‘rude‘, we play a game. “Yes, my master, here is your water. *bows down*” When kids act rude, impatient, demanding, or are not willing to cooperate, it’s not their true nature and it’s because they have uncomfortable, pent up emotions. You don’t have to train them to behave. You’ll see that they naturally will be polite when their emotional needs have been met (which is not always easy!!). When we play a game with them and somebody laughs, that tension gets released and they connect with you. Having a few moments of connection with you will carry over a long way later on when you need them to cooperate.
  5. Set Limits AND validate emotions
    When we do have to set a limit, our children might cry, complain or have a tantrum. Often, the advice is to set the limit and to NOT tolerate these sorts of emotions. Put kids in time out for tantrums is a really common advice… It’s easy to show our children that we love them when they’re acting how we want them to act. But, can we also show them unconditional love when they’re crying, whining, raging? Showing unconditional love for our children when they’re not acting how we want to them to, is really hard for most of us. Usually some experience from our own childhood, or some training we’ve had as an adult prevents us from accepting our children’s unpleasant expressions of emotion. But… I tell you what. When we accept our children’s emotions. And, I’m talking ALL the emotions. Crying, raging, tantrums, you name it, you’ll see that when they’re done, they are much more pleasant to be around! They are so much more relaxed and much more willing to cooperate… and… the ‘power struggles‘ become less when we can listen to our children cry and rage.

Power struggles‘ won’t go away over night if you’re just getting on the path of recognising them. I know that I’m still working on finding a balance, what to let go, when to step in and I’ve been on this path for a while now! But, I think what people find is that once you become aware that most of the ‘power struggles‘ we encounter in our parenting journey are ones that we’ve created. Children are innocent. They naturally want to cooperate. They naturally want to please us! But, they just cannot have so much of their autonomy taken away and be expected to abide by every rule in this adult-centre world we’ve created for them. Give them a chance to take some power back, let them release their emotions and see how the ‘power struggles‘ start to go away.

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