By Maryellen P. Mullin, LMFT
Power struggles with kids are a losing battle. Want to make it a win-win for you and your kid?
Parents tend to focus on responding to the words going on in a power struggle, not to the actual issue. Everyone can relate to falling into the trap of getting caught up in a dialogue that has nothing to do with an underlying issue.
I coach parents to “Respond to the issue, not to the dialogue,” whenever they sense a power struggle is about to ensue with a child or teen.
Most parents can relate to the following scenarios. The reluctant child refuses to get ready for bed. The whining child in the grocery store pleads for a box of sugary cereal. The teen wants to use the car, but won’t get off a smart phone and come to the dinner table. The child or teen attempts to coerce, badger or butter up the parent, so that the parent will give in to their request.
Parental reactions to these challenges vary, but in general, many parents feel their frustration level or other negative emotions rise. Sometimes your parental response may spark additional retorts from your kid, escalating the situation into a fast-burning and raging power struggle.
What can you do to change the cycle? A primary goal in family therapy is to help families improve communication.
A simple piece of advice: Do not respond to the dialogue; respond to the issue. When I was growing up, my mom taught me the acronym HALT – hungry, angry, lonely, tired. We are all bound to behave differently (and sometimes negatively) if we are experiencing hunger, anger, loneliness or fatigue. Our behavior changes and is reflected in our communication with self and others.
For example, the child says, “I don’t want to go to bed.” The parent can think, “What is the issue?” Some children are just tired and give refusals when they are tired. Some children may feel lonely in the evening, as their time with a beloved parent is ending for the day.
So, to keep the calm and resist the power struggle, follow these simple steps.
What is the dialogue vs. the issue? For example, your child protests, “I don’t want to go to bed.” Catch yourself, take a moment and allow yourself to think. This dialogue is about bed, but that is not the issue.
Reduce your own tension. Breath deeply and pause before you respond. Think HALT. Where is your child physically or emotionally right now? Observe with curiosity. There is no urgency in responding right away. Slow yourself down.
Coach with reflective listening. Say calmly, “Ok, you don’t want to go to bed. ” Then connect to the emotion and the issue. Say kindly to your child, “It’s hard when you are so tired. I understand. It’s okay that you are tired; sleep will help you feel better.” Reflective listening can help move many difficult parenting moments forward. When children feel heard, they feel validated. Reflective listening is a way to validate their emotional experience.
Practice these new skills. Your child says, “I want the pink marshmallow cereal.” The dialogue is about pink marshmallows, but is that the issue? Your response might be, “Oh, you want pink marshmallow cereal?” Your kid nods. Then ask, with curiosity, “Are you hungry?” Your child may say no, just that they like pink. The response may be yes, that he is hungry. You can relate to both of those ideas.
Your teen wants the car. Perhaps you say, “Tell me more about your plans.” Invite a conversation before you respond in the negative, or before you set boundaries regarding use of the car.
If your child is fussing or your teen talks with contempt, you can assume a neutral tone and repeat what the issue is for them. Stay calm. Remind yourself that their cranky behavior is fueled by feelings. A child's or teen’s cranky behavior does not equate with total disrespect for you as a person or parent.
It’s not about you; so don’t make it about you with an initial negative reaction. Regardless of how you respond, first think about the actual issue and reflect it to your child or teen, thereby validating them. Relate to your child or teen:
“Yes, pink makes the marshmallows look fun. I know how much you like marshmallows when we camp.”
“Hey, I know you want the car, but if there is drinking involved at the party, no car.”
This will help you keep your cool. Move your child/teen forward by moving beyond their words or behavior. Take the time to go deeper, to understand what the child is really trying to say.
Remember, responding to the issue and using reflective listening takes practice. It may not work initially, but if you can stick to the issue, acknowledge your kid’s feelings and move forward, messy moments may not always turn into the dreaded power struggle.