Parents and Power Struggle

October 17, 2012 | By

A “power struggle” is a clash of wills. It is normal for parents and children to have them from time to time. They can happen with kids of just about every age, from toddler to teen to young adult. Some kids are more “oppositional” or prone to elicit power struggles than others, but occasional tugs-of-war are supposed to happen. Kids need to “push against” the authority of parents in order to learn about systems and hierarchies of power in the world, and how they will be subject to them, while still in the safe and loving environment of their parents—THE WORLD WILL NOT BE NEARLY AS KIND!

Parents do not need to be too kind or permissive, though (not when the child needs discipline). Remember, good parents are working themselves into obsolescence, or out of a job! Kids need to learn that they are not in charge, and that authority and rules are real and binding. It is dangerous for parents to lead their kids to feel that they (the kids) are the center of the universe: Such parents are setting their kids up for a very hard fall later on, and the kids will (rightfully) look back with anger that they were not better prepared to respect authority (i.e., their teacher, principal, boss, a police officer, the LAW).

Parental power is IRRESISTIBLE to most kids, when they have a chance, temporarily, to “take it away.” Why? Largely because kids don’t have much power: They depend on parents so much, for so long. How does a parent allow their power to be “taken away?” In short, the parent loses their self-control. They may have allowed an argument to go on for too long, their frustration has risen too high, and finally, they “snapped.” Perhaps the parent was compromised from the beginning, having had a tough day at work, not having slept well the night before, perhaps being under the weather.

Nonetheless, it is vital that parents pay attention to their stress level. Power struggles can sneak up on a parent subtly: The child comes and calmly asks for something they want (usually when the parent is involved in another activity). Everything seems innocent at first—the child may even leave the room briefly. Before long, though, the child returns to complain, then whine, perhaps cry. The parent begins to repeat themselves…perhaps with each repetition a bit more strident and loud. The parent tries to explain or justify their decision, and the child is not even listening. (This is a power struggle, in full blossom.) Power struggles can be dangerous, as yelling occurs, tempers flare, and escalating frustration clouds judgment. As an extreme example, few or no parents have ever “planned” in advance to physically abuse their child: Family violence is, more often than not, the culmination of an unchecked power struggle.

As such, power struggles should not be allowed to continue for long. Parents need to “win” these struggles by ending the conversation (i.e., exiting the struggle), or when possible, avoiding entering it, in the first place. A power struggle requires the participation of two or more people, if either person exits the struggle (i.e., by stopping talking, walking out of the room) it will quickly end. To say that parents need to “win” power struggles does not mean anything harmful for children: If the parent wins, the child also wins. Conversely, if the parent loses, the child also loses. So parents, when you sense a struggle, be strong! The power is yours, and your child is counting on you to BE THE ADULT, and not let them take it away!

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