I remember being early in my mommin’ career, and I took a parenting course to help me with … well … mommin’, a subject I was attempting to figure out while on the job. The instructor told a story about how deer, in an attempt to show their dominance, lock horns, and the real stubborn ones die (their remains found) with their antlers still entangled. She was using this as an analogy for parent-child power struggles.
Fast forward a few years. I sprang out of bed with a panicked gasp, sweating profusely. I had just had the most bizarre dream where my son and I were two deer asserting power over the other, fighting to the bitter end.
They say dreams can sometimes indicate our fears. But, truth be told, this was not only my fear but my reality. I was literally in a constant stand-off with a strong-willed force of nature every day, over what felt like everything.
I woke my husband with a frantic shake, and he jumped into action with impressive speed. “What is it?! What’s wrong? Everyone okay?”
“No! I cried. Jackson and I are going to die locked in horns!”
He looked at me with equal parts confusion, amusement, and curiosity. “Huh?”
I won’t bore you with all of the details, but as my household slept, I decided things needed to change because, if it felt this crappy to me, I could only imagine the experience through the lens of my five-year-old. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I did know there was no way we were going down like that.
6 Tools To Diffuse Power Struggles
Over the course of months, I began implementing small changes in our home. I am not saying there is never a battle of wills, but they have decreased exponentially using these 6 tools.
1. Bring On The Play
When there is something I want to rage about, I insert a little play, which doesn’t always come easy to me, but when I can muster it up, it is a game-changer.
I remember one time my son was overly tired and melting down incredibly hard. In his overwhelm, he started clawing at the door and wall (your guess is as good as mine). He reminded me of a cat and so I pretended to be one clawing at the door, the wall, and finally, the bed. He looked at me with surprise at first, then curiosity, and before long, he couldn’t help but join in. He curled up on my lap and fell asleep (ironically enough, like a cat).
As my kids have gotten older, I use play to diffuse other situations too. When my children are in “No” moods, I have been known to start rhyming: “Oh, did you say toe? Moe? Go? Oh, I see, you are saying slow.” Insert laughter. Here’s to hoping that my kids always think I am this funny.
I also use play to teach skills such as impulse control, problem-solving, focus, self-awareness, and emotional regulation. Games like Telephone, Freeze Tag, Mother May I, and Red Light Green Light are the jam for those things.
When we pause and let our own inner child in, there become about a million small ways to inject silliness into a moment. Not only does play attune the brain, but it shifts emotions and builds connection. So yea, play is hard, but power struggles are harder, so sign me up!
2. Say What You Mean
We parents are notorious for telling our children what they can’t do. I mean, who wants to constantly be dictated? It is a real energy suck for us, and them.
Things like: Stop jumping on the couch, Don’t push your sister, No running by the pool, You can’t have any cookies … Guess what that gets us? More jumping, pushing, running, and meltdowns over an unfulfilled request for Oreos.
Our gut narrative is that our kids are defiant, ungrateful, or manipulative and that they need a good lesson on listening, which usually results in us attempting to control more, and them pushing back more. But this really comes down to brain development. Our children are wired to process concrete information, and so when we make abstract requests, it gets lost in translation. They literally bypass the command (don’t, stop, no) and head straight for the action (jump, push, run). Understanding this alone can change the way we come at our kids and shift the way that they receive us.
Telling my children what I do want and what they can have has saved me a lot of headaches. Take all of the above and transform to: You can jump on the floor or outside. Gentle hands. Match my pace by the pool. You can have cookies after dinner. When we set a limit without completely shutting down our child’s desire, it becomes a win-win for both camps.
3. Switch It Up
Another way to shift out of commanding and demanding is to ask questions and give information. Not only is this empowering but it exercises those higher-level brain muscles, requiring them to think, problem-solve and practice making decisions (which is actually a skill!).
- Instead of: Put your plate in the sink.
- Try: Where does your plate go when you are all done eating?
- Instead of: Pick up your toys.
- Try: When we put our toys away, we will have them to play with tomorrow.
- Instead of: Do your homework.
- Try: What is your plan for your homework tonight?
- Instead of: Leave your brother alone.
- Try: Your brother doesn’t seem to like it when you poke him that way.
- Instead of: Wash your hands before dinner.
- Try: How big will you make your soap bubbles when you wash your hands?
4. Announce Transitions
Here’s another thing that kids (and all humans) are wired to seek: safety. For children, that looks like rituals and predictability. When they know what’s coming next, their emotional regulation station can better override their threat detection center, which means instead of being overcome by shock and emotional overwhelm, they can utilize skills for problem-solving, impulse control, and managing desires. Now, this doesn’t happen overnight and they will need help from you, especially younger tots whose upper brain regions are highly immature.
Announcing transitions is an impactful way to communicate safety for your child.
- You may choose to create a visual chart with your child for stressful routines like before school or as part of a nighttime before-bed ritual.
- You can use words to insert predictability by saying things like, “When the timer bings, it is time to leave for school” or “Do your one last thing and then it’s time to leave the park.”
- Give concrete boundaries with when/then statements. For example, “When you pick up your toys, then we will go outside to play.”
5. Do Nothing
Oddly enough, doing nothing is actually doing something. As parents, we tend to over-analyze and overdo. Like, if I don’t take action right now, my child will (insert whatever fear comes up for you).
When we act out of this fear, and we attempt to control our children and the situation, 1) we live in the future and overlook the present child and situation as they are, and 2) there’s more locking of horns (Ugh, those damn deer).
Here are some ways to do nothing:
- When you want to command and demand, ask once and then pause to see what your child will do when given the time to process your request, make a plan, and do it in a way that feels right to them.
- When your child’s emotions are engulfing them, get low to communicate safety and hold space until their emotional train makes it all the way through the station. Stay listening and be present without trying to halt or fix things.
- Before you give an adult-imposed consequence, pause and let natural consequences do their job.
6. Offer A Redo
I am going to go out on a limb here and say that most of our child-selves would be shocked if our parents came to us and apologized. Like, it wasn’t even a thing in our household growing up, but it sure is a big component of raising my boys.
Repairing is so, so important. I am an imperfect mom and an imperfect human. Sometimes I get it wrong … I yell, say hurtful things, and do things I regret. Modeling this process for my children builds our connection, and allows us to rewrite the day’s narrative.
When our children feel seen and valued as part of their family system, it fills their emotional bank account, which means that 1) your child-parent relationship will improve, and 2) they will be more cooperative when you do ask something of them.
We cannot raise independent, assertive, and strong-willed adults if we force them to be passive, pliable, and obedient children. When we shift from the need to be right or have control to the goal of connection, we build a relationship with our children where we both feel powerful, safe, and valued.