Power struggles create frustration, resentment and rebellion. This is opposite of what children and teens need from parents,which is connection and trust. Power struggles between parents and children start around age 2 when children are focusing on autonomy. They can last into the teen years. Instead of these times being filled with resentment and anger, parents can learn skills that help them avoid most power struggles and help their child grow into an adult with good self-esteem and a positive sense of themselves.
Children who engage in power struggles are being oppositional
Not always. Sometimes children are feeling anxious or depressed. This can lead them to want a very specific outcome. It they do not experience that outcome they explode. Try this. Next time you get into a power struggle with your child or teen, ask yourself if he or she may be anxious or depressed. If so, then try to process their reaction with this understanding. It will change the way you react. If you see a pattern of acting out due to anxiety, then it is probably a good idea to seek out professional help.
If I engage in a power struggle I cannot back down. I am the parent and my child/teens needs to know I am in charge.
I agree children need limits and boundaries. However, once you are in the power struggle there will be no “winner.” The goal is to avoid the power struggle outright. But once you are in it, you can role model how to stay calm. Children can have temper tantrums but they do not want to see their parents lose it. It is scary for them to see you get out of control. So, if you are losing your temper and can no longer handle the situation then it is time for you to take a “time-out” before things get out of control. For younger children especially, re-direction is an effective tool. One client I have will say to her kids “let’s go out to the park” when she feels the situation is headed towards a power struggle. Her purpose is not to “reward” bad behavior, but to reestablish her relationship with her child and keep her end goal of avoiding a power struggle and encouraging a close, loving and respectful relationship.
Why do kids “act out”
Acting-out behavior is normal and natural with 4 purposes:
1) Attention – Children/Teens crave attention. They will attempt to get it through negative behaviors if positive behaviors are not getting them the outcome they seek.
2) Power -Kids and teens often feel powerless. One way to reduce this feeling is to offer choices instead of telling kids what to do all the time.
3) Displays of Inadequacy – It is important to point out to kids what they are doing well. Make sure they are engaged in activities that boost their self-confidence.
4) Revenge – In her article online, Karin Sims, defines revenge as, “Revenge at age two and three looks like talking back and messy food spills. Revenge at age 16 or 17 looks like drug and alcohol abuse, pregnancy, failure, running away and suicide.”
1) Make a list of your child’s acting out behaviors and identify the purpose for each
2) Talk to your child/teen when she is not upset and explain what you are observing
3) Develop a plan for how to handle the situation in the future. Included in the plan are ways to make amends if in fact the acting out hurts someone or something. Amends can include; a verbal acknowledgement of the bad choice, a verbal apology, and a gesture or action that makes the other person feel better.
1) If the power struggles continue and get violent, it is time to seek professional help for your child.
2) If you, as the parent, are getting triggered by your child’s outbursts, it is time to seek professional help for yourself.
3) Behavioral charts that reward good behavior can work with some children. It is best to pick only one or two behaviors that you would like to see changed. Keep it simple. This makes it easy to keep track of and sets your child up for success.
Jen has been fortunate to be immersed in this work that she loves for the past 20 years, working with teenagers, individuals, couples and groups. Jen has trained in Gestalt Psychotherapy, Psychodrama, Yoga, and EMDR. She holds a Bachelors Degree in Child Psychology, a Masters Degree in Education and a Doctorate in Psychology. Jen is a Connecticut Licensed Professional Counselor.