Picture the scene: Your child comes home from school, dumps his backpack on the ground and starts rummaging through it looking for the new Pokémon eraser his friend had given him in a trade. Books, papers, pencils go flying around as he looks for his beloved item. When he’s unable to find it, tempers go flying.
Child: “MOM, where is my eraser????!!!! Did you take it? I can’t find it anywhere! I NEED it!”
You (feeling a bit surprised and maybe a little annoyed that he’s so upset over such a little thing): “I’m sure it’s here somewhere. Now come pick up this mess!”
Child: “No! I have to find it! You don’t understand!!!” (As he storms off in a fit.)
This is an example of a common scene I play out when I teach my workshop on power struggles. I ask the parents how they would typically respond to such behavior. After a “Oh, yes, I know that behavior well” chuckle from the group, they invariably say they would follow their child upstairs and insist they clean up the mess they made; that the behavior is “irresponsible” and/or “unacceptable.”
Upon further discussion, we get to the crux of the issue. Namely, these well-meaning, well-intentioned parents worry (and fear), among other things, that if they don’t “nip (the behavior) in the bud,” it will only get worse.
When I ask parents what they really want from their kids, the vast majority says, “I just want my kids to LISTEN!”
Can you relate?
In order to increase listening and cooperation, it first helps to understand what motivates our kids’ behavior in the first place. So much of what we know about childhood behavior and Positive Discipline, comes from the work of two prominent psychiatrists, Dr. Alfred Adler (father of Adlerian psychology) and Dr. Rudolf Dreikurs, author of the 1950’s seminal book, Children the Challenge.
Both believed that human behavior is driven by two fundamental needs: belonging (feeling connected) and significance (feeling valuable). We also know that kids have a need for attention as well as to feel a sense of control over their world. These are core, hardwired needs we ALL possess.
Kids are always looking for ways to get these needs met and will seek out attention in either appropriate ways or inappropriate ways, whatever works and in the manner in which we’ve trained them. Kids learn quickly and do what works for them. In addition, as far as our kids are concerned, attention is attention, whether it’s positive or negative. And, when we’re engaged in a power struggle, guess what? They have our full attention!
In addition to these core needs, our kids also have big, intense feelings that underlie their behavior. What’s important to know is that they don’t yet have the cognitive development or experience to understand and process these emotions (that part of their brain is still developing). Therefore, they can become easily overwhelmed and what we see, as a result, is this “crazy-making” behavior!
So often, we focus solely on the behavior itself because, well, we just want it to stop! Yet, in doing so, we’re not getting to the root cause and it’s no wonder the behaviors and battles continue.
What’s important to know is that all behavior is a communication and misbehavior is the symptom of a deeper issue. A child who isn’t listening or who is acting “defiantly” is simply telling us he needs our help in the only way he knows how!
As Drs. Adler and Dreikurs said, “A misbehaving child is a discouraged child.”
As a parent of two very strong-willed kids, I understand, first hand, what it feels like to be constantly negotiating and simply wishing my kids would just listen the first time I make a request! This constant frustration over what my kids weren’t doing and how triggered I was becoming, led me to Positive Discipline as well as to the study and practice of mindfulness and mindful parenting.
According to Carla Naumburg, Ph.D., author of Ready, Set, Breathe: Practicing Mindfulness with your Children for Fewer Meltdowns and a More Peaceful Family, mindful parenting is about “making a choice to focus our attention on the present moment, with kindness and curiosity, so we can make a thoughtful choice about how to proceed rather than react out of frustration or confusion.”
In studying mindfulness, I came to understand how often we are worrying about the future or ruminating over the past. When thinking about the past or the future, we are simply not in the present moment. That worry, fear, anger, sadness and stress over past and future greatly impact our thoughts and behavior. When under stress, we lose the ability to think clearly and rationally; to see our child’s behavior as a cry for help versus manipulation. On top of that, we have our own histories of how we were raised or treated as children, which greatly influences our reactions as well! Oh my!
Becoming aware of this process (without judgment) is key – with awareness, comes choice and opportunity. Namely, the ability to choose an appropriate response and the opportunity to model the very behavior we want to instill in our kids as they grow. Almost 95% of what kids learn is modeled behavior. Those little eyes are always watching. As they say, let’s “be it to teach it.”
Taking all of this into account leads us to the million-dollar question…”So what do I DO the next time I’m faced with a power struggle??”
With the above in mind, here are 5 ways to more mindfully approach and manage power struggles:
1.) Stop, drop and roll – When you feel annoyance or anger arise, STOP what you are doing, even if you are mid-sentence. With compassion, recognize that you are lost in thoughts and emotions that are not constructive and that the only thing you have control over is yourself and your reactions. Take 3 deep, calming breaths.
Next, DROP into your body and the present moment – notice sensations in your body (tightness, shortness of breath, tension); notice and name the emotions you are feeling (“anger,” “annoyance,” “frustration”), continue breathing.
Lastly, using this intentional, compassionate awareness, ROLL out a more calm and connected response. Understand that what you’re feeling may also be what your child is experiencing.
2.) Acknowledge and validate feelings while limiting behavior (a.k.a. “Connect before you Correct/Redirect”) – Our kids are not out to get us, they are simply still learning appropriate ways in which to get their needs met and need our calm presence to guide them. What they are feeling is not good or bad, right or wrong. It just is! Without judgment, acknowledge what your child is feeling, limiting any inappropriate behaviors. For example, “I can see you’re having a really hard time right now. I love you and it’s not ok to hit me. Hitting hurts. It’s ok to feel angry, it’s never ok to hit. I’m here to help. What words can you use to tell me what you need?”
3.) Give in fantasy what your child wants in reality while offering limited choices – So often, power struggles occur when there’s a mismatch in parent-child agendas; we want one thing, they want another. We want them to take a bath; they want “5 more minutes” of playtime. And so the “struggle” develops when we put our agenda ahead of theirs. Instead, realize that our child’s agenda is just as important to them as ours is to us. Drop the desire to “win.” Focus on maintaining the connection to your child. For example, “I can see you are having SO much fun building your Legos. You would probably build your Legos all night if you could, huh? I see how much fun you’re having AND it’s bath time. Would you like to bring some Legos up to the bath with us or keep them here for when we’re done. It’s up to you, you decide.”
4.) Search for “win/win” solutions – When in the midst of a power struggle, take a step back. Check in. Realize that your child is most likely feeling powerless in the moment. Look for ways to join together to come up with a solution that can meet both of your needs. “Seems we have a dilemma here. I would like help setting the table for dinner and you really want to keep playing your game. Mmm, I’m wondering how we can make this work for both of us? What are your ideas?”
Keep in mind that involving your child in this process meets his/her need for belonging and significance, while also models respectful communication. This is also one of the best ways to build problem-solving and decision-making skills.
5.) Take care of YOU – Self-care is imperative to cultivating open, connected and loving relationships (with yourself as well as others) and is a crucial component when it comes to mindful parenting. Despite knowing this, many parents continue to put themselves at the very bottom of their “to do” list. They say, “yes” to everyone but themselves. The airline analogy is an important one, “Secure your own mask before that of your child.” The reality is, we can’t pour from an empty cup. Be mindful of how you’re feeling and what your own needs are. Make sure you are doing something kind, compassionate and soothing for yourself as often as possible, no matter how little it may seem.
There is no doubt that parenting is hard work and there is simply no such thing as a perfect parent. Be kind to yourself. You are learning right alongside your child. Just know that you’re not alone – we’re all on this miraculous journey together!
With warmth and gratitude,