According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the sense of power and dominance is a basic emotional need that we all seek to fulfill. The need to satisfy this craving for power begins as early as the age of two, as this is when children begin to see themselves as separate individuals from their parents. This phase of life leads children to discover that they are capable of creating or triggering various emotions and reactions in their parents – which also marks the start of a very long journey involving power struggles.
By three years old, most children have developed sharper skills in this area which causes parents to feel overwhelmed, overpowered and determined to set their child on the path of good behaviour. However, attempts by parents to overpower their children often leads to opposite results, leaving their children feeling more angry and defiant than ever.
Parents can turn this phase into a rewarding lesson for both themselves and their children by looking at this behaviour from a different light and responding to the battle of wills in a creative manner. Here are some suggestions to help you ease the power struggles with your children:
1. Side-step the power struggle
To deal with power struggles positively, one method which was shared by Karan Sims, instructor at the International Network for Children and Families, involves side-stepping the power struggle. In order to do this, you – as the parent – would need to refuse to give in to your child’s invitation to join his/her power struggle.
Here’s an example on how to side-step a power struggle situation:
When your pre-schooler gives you a flat “No” as an answer when you ask if he/she is ready for a bath, try your best to stay calm. You can turn the situation around by asking, “Can you walk to the bathroom with me or do you want me to carry you?” If your child is feeling cheeky, he/she might answer, “I want you to carry me – piggyback style – and gallop like a horse!”
In this case, although your child’s answer acts as the ticket for you to join a power struggle, you can side-step the situation by not fighting or giving in. You can turn the situation into a happy and loving one instead of starting yet another battle of wills when it comes to bath time. According to Sims, when you side-step the power struggle, you are telling your children, “I am not going to fight with you. I am not going to hurt you. I am not going to overpower you and I’m not going to give in either.”
2. Give choices – not orders
Once you have successfully side-stepped the power struggle, the next thing to do is to give your child choices. For example, if your child kicks up a fuss about leaving the house right away to attend swimming lessons, you can let him have a choice of which swim goggles to use. Once that is done, let him lock up by choosing which set of keys to use (assuming you have a master set and some spare sets). With this gradual transition, you have succeeded in getting your child to go for his swimming lesson and dissipate the power struggle about leaving the house.
Do ensure that the choices you give your children are ones which you can accept. For instance, when your child misbehaves while eating out, do not give him/her the choice of either sitting down quietly until everyone has finished eating or to leave the restaurant if you don’t intend to leave so soon.
It is also important to make sure that the choices you give do not represent alternatives of punishment. Thus, when you give your child an ultimatum by saying “You either clean up this mess or go to the time-out chair”, this creates fear and intimidation rather than empowerment.
3. Use more “Do” commands
“Don’t stay up too late!”
Does this sound familiar? Most of us tend to use “Don’t” commands to get our children to do what we want them to. However, most of the times, it gets us nowhere near what we want them to do in the first place. “Don’t” commands require your child to double process (“What does mum wants me to do in the first place?”) as most of what he/she gets from your message is what you don’t want him/her to do. This can be confusing and discouraging, especially for younger children.
To turn things around, parenting expert and best-selling author Amy McCready recommends that we calmly state what we want our children to do right from the start. So, rather than saying “Don’t run”, try “Please use your walking feet” instead.
4. Find alternatives for your child to be powerful
The next time you find yourself in the midst of a power struggle with your child, do find a way to give your child more power to ease the situation. For example, if your child often kicks up a fuss about buckling up in the car, you can put him/her in charge of making sure that the rest of his/her siblings are safely secured. Apart from making your child feel important, it helps to divert his/her attention away from the power struggle over buckling up.
5. Teach your child to say “No” respectfully
As parents, it is natural for us to react negatively when our children give “No” as an answer. However, the last thing we want to do is to send the message to them that they should not give “No” as an answer, as there will be times when they need to stand up for themselves in the face of peer pressure and inappropriate situations. What you can do instead is to teach them to say “No” or to disagree in a respectful and appropriate manner. This can involve them explaining the reason behind their disagreement to help the other party understand their point of view better.