The number one frustration of parents everywhere seems to be figuring out how to deal with power struggles. It’s the theme that keeps repeating itself over and over again, from generation to generation.
We’ve come up with all sorts of nifty ideas about how to solve power struggles…. Timeouts and taking away “privileges” always top the list for the most common techniques. Those are closely followed by more positive strategies like giving choices, being playful, or using distractions.
But none of these options get to the root of the issue, and therefore none of them work in isolation for very long. To figure out how to solve power struggles once and for all, we need to address where they actually come from.
Now let me warn you… What I’m about to share with you is not one of the “traditional” ways of handling power struggles. There’s no gimmicks, rewards, or punishments.
It requires a whole new way of thinking about your parenting.
It’s not a “one size fits all” approach, and if it’s not for you… no hard feelings. But if what you are doing right now is NOT WORKING, then what do you have to lose by try something new?
Still with me? Great. Let’s dive in!
What causes power struggles?
One simple word: Fear.
And it’s not our child’s fears that cause power struggles, it’s OUR OWN fears.
Fear that if I don’t “make” my child listen to me, then I’m a pushover.
Fear that my child won’t “learn his lesson.”
Fear that my child will grow up to be entitled, or lack responsibility over her actions.
Fear. Fear. Fear.
But here’s the problem with fear-based parenting:
It assumes that our children aren’t naturally good.
Using fear tactics, punishments, demands, and rewards are all ways that we aim to control our children’s behavior in order to “make them good.” This kind of parenting makes the assumption that without punishments and demands, our children won’t listen or be obedient on their own.
We try to control our children because we FEAR that it’s the only way to raise capable, happy, independent and loving children. We see our control as something that sets us apart as “good parents.”
But in no other relationship in your life (not your spouse, nor your boss, nor your neighbor) would you expect to have control over the other person. The fact is: you can’t ever truly have control over another person.
And we have to stop viewing our relationship with our children as something that exists outside of the realm of normal human relationships.
You can punish your child and use fear tactics and take away their privileges, but all this teaches them is how to hold power over others who are smaller or weaker than them. It doesn’t show them how to be obedient, kind, generous, or altruistic simply because it’s the right thing to do.
So what’s the alternative?
I’m proposing another way of parenting entirely.
Instead of nothing but FEAR in our parenting, I’m suggesting that we have nothing but TRUST in our parenting.
Trust in the GOODNESS of our children.
Trust in our child’s true desire to model the behaviors that they see in us (both the good and the bad).
Trust that just because a child doesn’t listen or comply with our request once, doesn’t mean that they won’t do it the next time.
Trust that it’s not the control we have over our children that makes them obedient, kind and generous. Instead, it’s the obedience, kindness and generosity that they see in us that will make them that way.
Trust that we, as parents, are enough.
What’s the number one way to end power struggles?
Give up the control.
Seriously, just give it up. There can be no power struggle if you, as the parent, don’t struggle for power.
I know what you are wondering…how can this possibly be effective? How will my child ever listen to what I say if I don’t maintain control over him?
Parenting is not a sprint to be run solely during the toddler years. Parenting is a marathon. Children don’t become obedient, kind, generous, and helpful in a day… or even in a year. You can try to force obedience right NOW, but you’ll sacrifice true and lasting virtues in the long haul.
Or you can TRUST that all the work you are doing and the virtues you are modeling daily will add up, over time, to a child that gives freely, helps often, and loves fiercely.
Because that is exactly what they have seen YOU do over the years.
What does giving up control look like?
Let’s say your child has been building with blocks, and it’s time to clean up. Your child is refusing to clean up. You’ve tried everything. You’ve tried giving choices, making it a game, offering to help. Your child is simply refusing. So what now?
Model helpfulness. Model altruism. Do what you wish your child would do for another child that was struggling to clean up their mess. Just clean it up.
Say out loud: “It looks like it’s hard for you to clean up today. Today I’ll clean up. I know next time you will help.” Say it joyfully, with confidence and a smile, and BELIEVE it.
This is the hardest part. This is the part where you have to actually act on your belief that your child naturally wants to do good.
With every ounce of your being, just believe that your child will get there. Trust that you are enough, that your example of graciousness and altruism is all your child needs to unlock these virtues that are already pre-programmed inside of them.
Assume that their inability to clean up their blocks has nothing to do with them wanting to defy you (or be “naughty”) and instead has everything to do with how hard it is to be little. Your child is frequently overwhelmed with feelings that they can’t sort out, and those emotions often surface through behaviors and defiance.
If we as adults are allowed to have bad days, why aren’t our kids?
All I am suggesting is that you extend to your child the same grace that you want others to give you when you are struggling.
Besides giving up control, what else can I do?
Connect with your child
Connection is the glue that holds your relationship together. Children who are more connected to their parents simply behave better.
When your child feels close to you, they cooperate with you. When your child senses that you genuinely care about their opinion, they listen to you. When your child knows you aren’t trying to control them, they stop trying to control you.
Be a problem solver
When problems arise in the house and you feel the urge to “lay down the law,” use the opportunity to teach your child how to be a problem solver.
Let’s say your child is playing too loudly and the baby is napping. Say “We have a problem. The baby is sleeping and you are playing a little too loudly. Let’s think about how we can solve this problem so that everyone wins.”
Empower your child to solve problems instead of resorting to coercive or punitive measures. Have faith in your child’s natural ability and desire to do the right thing.
I know, I know. The burning question is…
If I give up control, how can I make sure that my children aren’t going to “walk all over me?”
The same way that you don’t let your husband or your boss or your neighbor walk all over you: with personal boundaries.
Your relationship with your child (like all other relationships in your life) is based on mutual respect. Choosing not to engage in power struggles with your child doesn’t mean that you let your child do whatever they want.
You hold firm your own personal boundaries and the boundaries of others who are too small to speak for themselves (the baby in the house, for example). There will always be rules and boundaries in place to ensure that everyone remains safe and respected.
In society we have the right to pursue happiness as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others. In our homes we can have this exact same policy.
In order to make sure everyone’s needs are met, there will always be non-negotiable situations where you need to use another approach with your child. Sometimes that means you can give them a couple of choices. Sometimes it means rephrasing your request in a fun and playful way. Other times it means just simply having to set a limit and follow through.
Since we are responsible for keeping these amazing, tiny humans of ours safe (and because sometimes we just have to get out the door or change a diaper), there will always be non-negotiable moments in our day.
But here’s the key:
If we let go of control and model being gracious, helpful and generous 90% of the time, you’ll find that your child is so much more likely to cooperate with your during the non-negotiable times.
The connection and the trust you are building every day sets the foundation for children that will listen and respect you because they know that you also listen to and have respect for them.
Since they aren’t engaged in power struggles with you constantly, they are less likely to need and to seek that power and control. In reality, they are actually pretty agreeable and helpful little people! They just need the opportunity to show you.
Are you ready, mama?