Minimising Power Struggles by Michelle McHale

It can be seductive to engage with a child when we seek to rationalise, justify, explain or coerce even when we know we are unlikely to succeed! When a child attempts to push boundaries they are asking for us to be in our calm, loving authority as the mature centred ‘adult’. The more ‘messy’ their emotions become the more challenging it may be to stay in that calm, spacious place – here are some ideas to support you through those moments;

  • Power struggles take 2 people!
  • Model ‘asking’ rather than ‘telling’
  • Don’t try to explain or rationalize in the heat of the moment
  • Look for the unmet need, physical or emotional
  • Stay calm, recognize triggers
  • If you don’t stay calm, acknowledge what happened afterwards
  • Stay connected, be playful, laugh!
  • Give choices when appropriate

Power struggles can’t happen if one person doesn’t engage – often the parent can hold a safe, calm space and let the child express themselves so the parent can think what the motivating factors are.

Nobody wins a power struggles – nobody feels better for it.

Power struggles are about feelings of powerlessness.

Children have little power over their day, sometimes the balance needs to be redressed.

Many power struggles can be avoided by giving children ‘special one-to-one time’ when they feel strongly connected and can download things they feel unsettled about rather than through behaviours which are difficult for the parent to experience. Play is how children communicate so games which give children power can be fun!

Gate keeper: allow your child to control who comes through a gate or door. When your child passes through, pause on the threshold and pretend you are desperate to come in, beg, plead, exaggerate and let them have the power over you. At first they might comply with your first plea but quickly they will seize the opportunity to be gatekeeper – you can invent passwords and reasons you need to enter!

Side-stepping Power Struggles

Many power struggles result from a parent seeking cooperation from the child. Here are some suggestions for fostering willing cooperation:

  • If the child says ‘no’, ask again in 1 minute – magically, the answer if often ‘yes’ (they just need their ‘no’ to be heard.
  • Are you modeling ‘asking’ rather than ‘telling’? Children are very assertive about needs, it can help to model making requests and it also imposes less authority over the child. ‘Put your shoes on now’ sounds very different to ‘would you be willing to put your shoes on now please?’
  • Be playful and connect – children are always more likely to work with you when connected. Physical touch such as nose rubbing or finger walking appeals to how children live through their body. Goof around!
  • Give choices – by owning the choice the child may feel empowered.
  • Invite a solution from your problem-solver child, ‘we have a tricky situation because you have mud on your legs but don’t want a bath, how can we get those legs clean before we put those pyjamas on? Maybe we could find some great ideas?’
  • Competition – children love speed! ‘How fast can we race upstairs?’

The Child’s Fits of Temper

Children are prone to tantrums at all ages when they are tired, hungry, fearful, over-stimulated, unable to communicate or resistant to change. It is tempting to wish to set the child straight when they are highly emotional, to try to rationalize. Children can sense parental panic and are poorly equipped to absorb adult logic when upset.

So what can a parent do in the face of a tantrum?

  • A parent cannot ‘handle’ a tantrum they can only respect it, the emotions are a reflection of what your child needs to learn to handle.
  • When it’s obvious you cannot calm the child, focus intently on maintaining calm within yourself.
  • Remember where your child is at developmentally and that well-attached children will have a healthy desire to individuate. Even very verbal children may not have the verbal skills to perfectly match their emotional states.
  • Don’t get carried away trying to distract from strong feelings – these feelings will be real and necessary to let out, even if it looks or sounds messy.
  • Listen, validate and empathise – sometimes staying quietly present provides a really safe place for a child’s vulnerability.

The Parent’s Fits of Temper

It is extremely hard to remain calm at all times with emotional children. If you feel anger, this is a secondary emotion – something else is triggering the anger – what resources are you lacking? Are you tired, hungry, anxious, in need of quiet time, frustrated by something unrelated to your child?

By recognizing your own feelings you have a better chance of practicing some self-empathy. If the anger rises in you, take a breath or count to 10 and step away for a moment if you need to.

What happens when the power struggle explodes and the parent loses it?

  • Don’t blame. ‘I feel angry when you draw on the carpet’ is different to ‘you make me so angry’
  • Don’t use power language; ‘you always do this’, ‘why can’t you just think’ only fuels the flames of blaming, unhelpful, struggle-filled discourse.
  • Acknowledge your mistake – it’s such a powerful model for your children and they learn from hearing how you were feeling in that moment.
  • Explain how you feel afterwards – sorry or embarrassed or sad, and suggest how you could have handled it differently.
  • Discuss ideas together for preventing the same situation in the future and be reassured that anger can be healthy and safe if recognized and treated respectfully.

Resources

Books 

Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen

Raising Children, Raising Ourselves by Naomi Aldort

Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen

How to Talk so Kids will Listen & How to Listen so Kids will Talk by Faber & Mazlish

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg

Parenting Without Power Struggles by Susan Stiffelman

Links 

Great resource covering all aspects of childhood in easy to access age-specific pages addressing highly relevant topics.
http://www.ahaparenting.com/_blog/Parenting_Blog/post/How_to_Sidestep_a_Power_Struggle/

Excellent approach to compassionate communication for use within all family relationships:
http://www.nonviolentcommunication.com/aboutnvc/parenting.htm

Pam Leo of Connection Parenting suggests ‘rewinding’ – going back and starting afresh when you say something unhelpful.
http://connectionparenting.com/parenting_articles/index.html#index

Learn more 

Attachment Parenting’s accredited Positive Discipline course, suitable for parents, carers and anyone working with children, includes modules on power struggles and a wide range of positive discipline topics in 10 flexible interactive modules.

 Michelle McHale

Michelle McHale

About the Author

Michelle McHale is the mum of 2 girls aged 7 and 5 years and is the founding director of APUK, a writer and speaker. An experienced support group leader herself, Michelle trained with Attachment Parenting International and now manages the thriving APUK community nationwide. She is the creator of the upcoming School of Attachment Parenting offering an online e-course in Positive Discipline as well as a collaborator in the unique ‘Love Parenting Project’ offering pay-it-forward coaching to parents. A keynote speaker at the Mumsnet Bumpfest Conference she is an enthusiastic advocate of Attachment Parenting and self-care.

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