Avoiding Power Struggles

There isn't a parent in the world who hasn't, at one time or another, found themselves locked in mortal combat with a child, struggling for power. From the minute a child can pronounce the word "no" straight through and including adulthood, parents find the notion of power -- what kind, how much, and when to give it -- a frustrating and sometimes overwhelming challenge.

When our children are infants power is not an issue. For one thing, they can't talk back, for another they are so small that we easily dominate them. We, the parents, have the power in the relationship. No ifs, ands or buts. Or do we have the power?

Who determines when the infant eats, who has the power there? Well, the infant. How about who determines when the infant sleeps? Who has the power there? Again, the infant. Who determines when the infant plays or is picked up? At least for the infants whose parents are trying to be attuned to their baby's needs, again the answer would be...the infant. Maybe the reason that parents think they have the power when their children are infants is because it seems so natural. Maybe it's simply the STRUGGLE for power that doesn't exist at that stage. It seems natural that we should feed the baby when he's hungry, let her sleep when she's tired, play with him or pick him up when he cries. And when things seem natural, there is a give and take, a flow of power that shifts back and forth between parent and baby.

Then, the infant becomes a toddler. They're still small enough for us to dominate them physically, but suddenly they're mobile -- and FAST! For their safety, limits must be set. Those limits are generally set with the word "no". Who has the power when the word "no" is used? Well, the user. In this case, the adult. "No, honey, don't touch that." "Hey, get out of there, that's a no-no." "I said 'no!'" Powerful statements using powerful words. Mom or Dad have the power. The "flow" of power that felt so natural during infancy disappears.

Then, the toddler learns to talk. If you surveyed 100 parents and asked them what their child's first word was, I would conservatively estimate that at least 50 would say the word was "no". And the remaining 50 would name the word "no" when asked to list the child's first 10 words. "Honey, it's time to eat." "NO!", "Nap time, come on let's go." "NO!", "Time to go bye-bye." "NO!" VIOLA! The power struggle is born. From this time forward it seems as though life becomes a series of struggles over who is in control. Many times the issue in itself is not being fought over, it's the POWER that each side really wants. But things aren't all bad. Power struggles don't really dominate our lives with our children. After all, there are those moments when we say "Time to put your coat on" and our child says "O.K." Or we say "You know, hon, I really don't want you to go to the movies with your friends tonight. Aunt Martha's coming to dinner." And our child replies "Well, o.k., I'll go another night." "Wow," we think, "If only it could always be that easy!" And we sigh with relief.

So frankly, we are surprised when our child doesn't engage in a power struggle with us. But why are we surprised? It's obvious that when our needs and wishes are attuned with our child's needs and wishes, the natural flow of power that occurred during infancy returns.

True, you're probably thinking, but how often do the needs and wishes of the adults coincide so neatly with the needs and wishes of the children? Not very often. Not very often, at least, in families that are not set up for success in this area.

Perhaps what we must do then, is to set our family up for success. Rather than leaving all this to chance, why not set up the family so that cooperation -- that is, working together for the common good -- is the goal? Wouldn't it then be more likely that you and your child will be attuned to each other? The answer is "yes". And with attunement, and cooperation, power struggles will diminish.

So, how do we go about setting up our family for success?

* First of all, don't fall into the trap of believing that just because you're the adult, the power automatically belongs to you. Sometimes this is the case -- as in situations where you must protect your child -- and sometimes it's not the case. Cooperative family living means being willing to set your ego aside and try to see the "common good, or goal" in each individual situation, then work TOGETHER to achieve that goal. It doesn't mean saying "Well, this is what I want, it's best for me, and as long as you live under my roof what I say goes, so THERE!" That's not being an adult, that's being childish.

* Next, sort out situations in which the power is (or at least should be) clear-cut. For example, when the issue has to do with control over someone's body or bodily functions, the power should belong to that person. Eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom are good examples. If you find yourself in a power struggle over issues of this type, remember that your ultimate goal is to release responsibility to your child for these issues at some point. Are the limits you're setting hindering that goal? Are they age appropriate? Remember that most of the time with these issues we set limits that are too strict...we are trying to have power for power's sake.

* Create an atmosphere of mutual respect. No one is willing to listen to another side if they don't feel respected. By treating your children with respect, through honestly listening to their point of view, you set them up to listen when you feel your point of view matters. Cooperation grows from this foundation.

* Stop thinking of power struggles as war. Because power is something we all need, it's natural that every family will have issues over power at some point. Rather than going armed into battle when a power struggle begins, withdraw your weapons and look at it from a negotiator's or mediator's standpoint. Your job should be to analyze the situation as impartially as possible so that both sides get heard and discussed. And remember that a war can't occur if only one person is fighting.

* Allowing your children power, whether they're toddlers or teenagers, doesn't mean being permissive and letting them run the show. Clearly, as the adult, you have the responsibility to keep your children safe and to teach them about the world. Offer power in the form of choices which are appropriate for their developmental level. Remember that the rule of thumb is "Little choices for little people, big choices for big people." Your toddler can make choices about whether to wear his blue shoes or red shoes that day -- his need for power will be satisfied. Your teenager, because she's older and developmentally capable of looking at a wide variety of choices, can be presented with choices in the context of a family meeting, where whole weeks can be laid out. Decisions about where to go, what to do and with whom can be discussed in the context of what's best not only for the individual, but for the family as well.

* Finally, you'll know if your children are feeling discouraged about power. If you're holding the reigns too tightly and keeping all the power for yourself, your children will let you know in no uncertain terms by rebelling. If this happens, it does not mean that you must relinquish power on the issue that's being rebelled against. What you should do, however, is to reexamine the whole picture. Ask yourself if the power really belongs to you in this particular instance. If it does, look for other areas where the reigns might be too tight and loosen them a bit. Remember that power is something all human beings need to be healthy, and look for areas where your children can feel a sense of satisfaction in this area.