The Power Struggle Trap: 3 Strategies

by Maureen McKane, LCSW

Every child seeks independence and every parent knows power struggles. There is a way out of the trap.

It is a haunting memory. My firstborn, still sleeping, is only 4 years old. The early sun sparkles on her curls like mist on the pillow. One hand curls, half-open, beside her ear. Such a small hand, the fingers are more bud than branch. I watch her sleep and think I will not yell at her today.

My forming child deserved gentleness, Yet, once again, an hour after that musing, I was impatient, loud, indignant. I cringe to imagine the face she saw on her mother. How was that possible? She is grown now. Still the self-critical voice in my head goes back to that paradox.

Much of getting life right (or wrong) has to do with shifting our mind states. The task is to recognize when we need to make a shift and have a strategy that works. What I had not yet learned back then was how to stop my rush of offended feeling when a toddler declared she was the boss.

Every parent ends up in power struggles. When it happens we are relating to the child as if they are a peer who is insulting us. In fact they are trying to figure out how to copy grownup behavior and assert their fragile sense of self. In each interaction the adult is the one appointed to keep a cool head. It isn’t personal. It is a child being a child.

How do you shift your mind from insult to cool head? Here are three strategies.

  1. When things are not going wrong, when you are in touch with good will, make a mental list. Better yet, write it down. Find 5 endearing aspects to the child. Next day find 5 more. You may start with eye color, cute feet, anything. Gradually, if you do this every night or every morning you will make a habit of kind thought that thwarts the idea that your child is troublesome.
  1. Be kind to yourself when it comes to your mistakes. When we are caught in a power struggle, we are acting like a child. Afterwards, consult with that agitated child in you. Own that you messed up, and figure out what got you off track. Be glad that you know better. All parents have to make mistakes. Forgive yourself and start over. Make this a habit and it will soften the blow when all goes wrong.
  1. Talk to a friend. Admitting to someone else brings us back to our better self. Choose a friend who does not judge. Better yet, pick a friend who is also a parent and knows the territory. You will likely find someone else who has to work hard at this.

I wish I’d heard this advice when it was my turn. I believed my friends were excellent parents, since none of them acted like this in front of me. Never mind that I was hiding my mistakes from them. Wisdom comes after we make our mistakes, learn to admit to them and start over, again and again.

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