When you think about your family and the concept of “power,” what comes to mind? Is it trying to make your children do something? Are you using yelling, pleas, bribes or the threat of punishment? Or are you remembering how your children try to make you give in to something you don’t want to do? Do they use endless whining, begging, and temper tantrums to wear you down until you concede and let them have what they want?
If the idea of power struggles makes you cringe, you are not alone. Most parents are uncomfortable with their use of power and have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, you really want to feel you can give your kids a simple and reasonable order, such as “clean up your mess,” and know that it will get done. On the other hand, few parents want to be the family nag or tyrant. Repeating ourselves gets really old, and when our irritation escalates, we often find ourselves yelling in pure frustration. Once again, we feel like we really blew it. But we don’t know what else to do instead.
Historically, power in the family was concentrated in one person: the father. In the traditional authoritarian family, the father was “king of his castle” and made the rules for everyone else. In modern times, many families have become increasingly democratic. What this means, in effect, is that individual family members are less willing to be dominated.
This sounds like progress, until you’re the one trying to haul a screaming preschooler out of the video store while he yells, “…but I like violent movies!” Or you face the steely gaze of an irate young teen who says through clenched teeth, “I’m going to Maria’s party whether you like it or not!”
Power struggles are ultimately about winners and losers. That’s why it is so easy to get “hooked” into a power struggle with your kid. It is infuriating to battle someone who is only 3 ½ feet tall and out to prove she is stronger than you. The thing is, she might win. After all, she is getting smarter every day!
Fortunately, the best way to deal with a power struggle is to give up the struggle and refuse to fight. Power struggles are all about proving who is strongest as the ultimate test of who is right. What is lost in the sound and fury of a power struggle is the answer to the question: What is the best solution to this problem?
The greatest minds cannot think clearly when they are angry, so a brief (10-20 minute) cooling-off period is often necessary. A parent who refuses to engage in a power struggle signals: “I am going to take a short break until we can both talk about this calmly and respectfully.” This kind of adult self-control is very powerful and impresses the heck out of kids.
Parents exert their authority most effectively by stating clear limits about what they are willing and not willing to do. It is the parent’s job to protect and be responsible for their kids through establishing and upholding safe limits. It is the child’s job to learn how to increasingly handle both privileges and responsibility. Parents help their children learn how to gain and use power responsibly when they are invited to share in joint problem-solving.
The quarrel with a preschooler over the choice of a video rental can be prevented by giving choices within reasonable limits. A parent might say, “I am willing to rent a video for you from the family section. I am not willing to rent an action-adventure video. You can choose a kid’s or family video or you can suggest another activity for our family tonight. You decide.”
The pre-teen who is determined to go to her friend’s party needs to provide answers to her parent’s questions so her parent feels comfortable with the situation. “What is Maria’s phone number so that I can speak to her parents, and find out whether this will be a safe party for you to attend?” “How will you get to the party and how will you get home?” “Will your room be cleaned and your chores done before you leave for the party?”
When parents learn to sidestep power struggles and use problem-solving skills with their children, they are no longer uncomfortable with the question, “Who’s in charge in this house?” The answer is: “Everyone’s responsible for his own part.”