Avoiding power struggles with defiant children
How do you know if you’re entering into a power struggle with your child? Any time you’re asking your child to do something and he’s refusing to comply—when you find him “pushing back” against the request you’ve given or the rules you’ve set down—you’re in a struggle. If the push for power is appropriate, you should be able to sit down with your child and talk about it in a fairly reasonable way. If it escalates into an argument or fight, you are in a defiant power struggle—and make no mistake about it, parents need effective ways to dial that back immediately.
Listed below are some real and effective things you can do besides going to war with your child.
1. Avoid the Fight: Don’t Attend Every Fight You’re Invited to
A key skill I teach parents to use when they are confronted with a child who wants to drag them into a fight is the technique of “Avoidance”. Think of it this way: when you engage in an argument with your child, you're just giving them more power. In effect, you're increasing your child's perception that they have the power to challenge you. Even if that perception is false it still carries a lot of weight.
So next time your child tries to draw you into a defiant power struggle over something either minor or major, just say, “We’ve discussed what is going to happen. I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” and leave the room. When you leave, you take all the power with you—you just suck it out of the room, and your child is left yelling at a blank wall. Know that the more you engage your child in an argument, the more power you’re giving him. So again, just walk away and declare victory.
2. Give Your Child a Choice
I recommend that parents give kids some choices around their responsibilities when possible. So if there’s an issue around doing chores or homework, for example, a good way to avoid a power struggle is to offer some options. During summer, you might say, “You can start your chores when you get home from day camp or other activities, or you can wait till I get home. You can text message all you want between 3:30 and 5:30 and then do them when I get home. Or you can do them between 3:30 and 5:30 and then text message during your free time at night. So decide when you would rather be text messaging, talking on the cell phone, or going on the computer: between 7:00 and 8:30 p.m. or between 3:30 and 5:00 p.m. Those are your choices.”
That's when you put the responsibility on your child to make choices about how they're going to spend their time. I think you have to learn how to present these things in a way which makes it your child’s responsibility to complete his tasks. When the choice is, “When do you want to instant message? Now or later?” you’re establishing a structure and giving them some appropriate power. This teaches your child good problem solving skills, because he’s looking at his choices and picking the best one.
3. The Key to Increasing Your Child’s Autonomy Wisely (And the 4 Little Questions You Should Always Ask)
Remember, with every increase in autonomy for your child, there should be an increase in responsibility and accountability. For instance, let's say your child wants to stay up till nine o'clock at night instead of eight o'clock. You decide that staying up an hour later isn't going to interfere with your child’s need for sleep and that he’s old enough to handle the later bedtime. So you both reach a compromise of 8:30 p.m. to see how that goes.
Most parents will think the case is closed at this point—but if you leave it there, I don't believe you've done enough to teach your kid how to solve problems. You need to make clear to your child how you expect increased responsibility with increased autonomy. So I think the end of any conversation that centers around a change or an increase in power has to include these four questions:
1. How will we know it's working?
We'll know staying up later is working if you still get up on time in the morning.
2. How do we know it's not working?
If you have a hard time getting up on time and don’t have energy during the day.
3. What will we do if it's not working?
We'll go back to the old time, 8:00 p.m.
4. What will we do if it is working?
We'll continue with this new bedtime.
So remember, even though it’s quite possibly the most difficult balance we have to maintain as a parent, we don't want power struggles to go away. We don't want limits and limit testing to go away. Rather, it's the way kids push that's important. Think of it this way: If children don’t get engaged in power struggles with their parents, they won’t learn how to advocate for themselves later in life. So what we want to focus on are the techniques they should use. And the appropriate techniques are ways to say, “Mom, I don’t like this, can we talk about it?” Or “Dad, I don't think you understand what I mean, can we talk about it?”
Obviously, the expectation is for parents to be willing to sit down with their kids and talk about it. Nothing ensures a power struggle like your child’s belief that he can’t talk to you reasonably about something. I think when times are good, it’s important for parents to sit down with children and say, “When you don’t agree with me, this is how we should handle it.” Invite them to talk to you about it. At the end of that conversation remember to say, “Whatever decision is reached, it’s going to have to be acceptable. I’m not going to keep arguing with you. I’m just going to walk away.”
This is a good way for you to establish the ground rules around challenges to your authority, and to make sure that those challenges are appropriate. Plainly and simply, if your child doesn't push boundaries or tests limits, they won't be adept at living in the adult world. They won't develop the problem solving skills of negotiation, compromise and sacrifice in a way that empowers them and prepares them to solve real life problems. And I believe that’s one of our main goals as parents—to empower our kids appropriately so they’re able to navigate independently in the adult world.
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