One of the most nerve-wracking parental experiences is finding yourself in a shopping mall staring down at your two-year-old about to erupt into a full-blown power struggle.
So why do power struggles occur? It’s actually a natural outcome of what your child is genetically programmed to do – to develop a sense of autonomy. It’s how they internalise what their limits are. The power struggle becomes destructive when parents react in a way that overpowers instead of empowers their child.
Children need to learn to make their own choices and decisions, within reason. It’s when a parent responds in a way that renders their child powerless that the child reacts by either giving in completely to obtain approval or becomes rebellious and/or destructive.
During a power struggle, emotions run high! If you don’t apply effective parenting skills to curb the struggle, that type of behaviour could continue to characterise your interaction with your child and undermine your parental role.
Key Steps to Managing Power Struggles
Sidestep the struggle: Get your desired outcome without giving in to your child; e.g. you tell your three-year-old it’s time for bed. She declares she’s not tired. You calmly ask if she would like you to carry her to bed. She agrees. The fun element of being carried to bed kicks in, deflecting her resistance of going to bed.
Provide choices: Do make choices realistic. Do not provide a choice you have no intention of following through on e.g. threatening your child who is acting up at a wedding that you will leave the wedding when you have no intention to. Do empower your child through the choices you give, e.g. in giving your 11-year-old the responsibility of feeding the family pet; put him “in charge of” organising the pet’s main meal.
Make reasonable requests: Do ensure that your expectations of your child are age-appropriate. Having a routine for homework, playtime, chores, bath and bedtime is essential and helps reduce the stress of constantly reminding your child what comes next.
Provide a heads up: Do not pounce on your child at the last minute to “switch off the Xbox now!’ when they’re in the middle of a game. Do provide a five to 10-minute heads up so they can start disengaging from whatever activity they’re involved in. Do not change the goal post and add another 10 minutes.
Acknowledge your child’s feelings: Do acknowledge that your child is feeling unhappy when he is disgruntled about doing something he doesn’t want to. It doesn’t change the fact that he has to tidy up his room but it helps him feel understood.
Set clear consequences: Do state the consequences of non-compliance with your request, calmly. Do not explode into an outburst or it will give your child the edge. Speak clearly using short sentences. Longwinded instructions will confuse the child. Listen to the meaning behind your child’s words. Is she genuinely too tired or too hungry to clean out her room at that moment?
Inject humour: Do find a way to lighten the mood with some humour. Tickling your six-year-old playfully can create closeness and remove resistance.
Move on: Once your child has complied, move on and restore the caring, trusting relationship between you.
When you handle a power struggle effectively, the experience will teach your child important skills such as responsibility, self-discipline and problem-solving. The flipside would be catching your child doing what’s right and acknowledging her efforts through praise.
Written by Carmel Murugen, Social Worker.