All parents from time to time find themselves locked into an ongoing power struggle with a child. The parent’s natural instinct response to a child’s misbehavior is met with more and more of that behavior. My suggestions here will require parents to go against their instincts.
Many of the ideas below can be found in two excellent programs for parents. One is Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP), at www.lifematters.com. The other is Parent Effectiveness Training, begun nearly 40 years ago by then Western Kentucky University professor and later Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thomas Gordon (see www.gordontraining.com).
1. Figure out what the child is trying to do. It may take asking, or else trial-and-error learning to determine which games the child might be playing. They play games like Do my work, Show me you care, Take my tension, Pay attention to me, Feel my pain, and You can’t make me.
2. Figure out what you can’t stand, and learn to stand it. Perhaps you can’t tolerate the feeling that you’re not in control, that you’re a failure as a parent, that your child doesn’t love or like you, that you’re acting like your own parent did, or that there’s screaming or danger of violence in the house. Whatever you can’t stand, the child knows it, and will give you that feeling to get you to cave into the child’s demands in return for the child’s stopping the behavior you can’t stand.
3. Redefine your terms. Take the focus off what you can’t change (the child) and onto what you can (yourself). Refocus on being in control of yourself, not failing to change your ways, loving yourself, etc.
4. Learn to time yourself out, and soothe yourself. Take deep breaths, pray, call a friend. If appropriate, wait for the child to re-engage you. Be sure you’ve calmed yourself down before responding.
5. Avoid rewarding children for passivity, dishonesty, disrespect, or dangerous behavior. Don’t cave to their demands when they’re misbehaving.
6. Give them natural consequences for misbehavior. If their selfish demands would provoke rejection outside the home, give it them. “People won’t trust (like, include, admire, cooperate with, want to be around) you when you act that way with them, and neither do I.” Parents must teach and act out how misbehavior will be responded to in the real world of school, job, love, marriage, friendships, or college roommates. So the consequences are things like loss of privilege, loss of help, end of dialog, time out, or withdrawal of attention.
7. Offer to let children win their game if they let you win yours too. Give them attention help, sympathy and trust if they give you respect, honesty, self-control and cooperation. If they refuse, just tell them you guess they don’t want what they were demanding as bad as they said they did. Tell them their actions speak louder than their words. Tell them you’ll follow their lead. You’ll cooperate when they cooperate.
8. Realize the wisdom in these proverbs I’ve heard: “You can’t change anyone but yourself.” “You aren’t giving up control, just the illusion of control.” “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” “Children respond better to encouragement than criticism.” “You choose the lessons you teach, and let the child choose how and when to learn them.”
Just remember, in a power struggle, parents who get upset enough to cave in are not saying to the child, “You win” or “I love you”, but “You don’t have to change, I will. This isn’t your problem, it’s mine.”