It happens a lot at parent-teacher conferences. We are discussing the social and emotional development of a child at school, and a parent asks in despair, “Why does he listen at school and never listens at home? Why is it always a struggle?”
Oh, yes! The infamous power struggle!
First, we want for the parents to understand the developmental importance of a power struggle. A feeling of power is important to us all as a basic social and emotional need. Until the age of two the child has a little sense of self. In the child’s world the child and the parent are one. By the end of the second year, he begins to develop the concept of self as separate from a parent. Now a child learns how to make decisions for himself, exerting his power and will on people and situations, getting their own way, declaring ownership and authority.
And so the battle of wills begins that lasts throughout the childhood and into the teen years. The parents feel overpowered, overwhelmed, angry and determined to change their child’s behavior, that they perceive as “negative, frustrating, stubborn, headstrong and rebellious”. But you can turn these trying times into a rewarding growth period for both a parent and a child. Instead of viewing this kind of behavior as “bad”, look at it as a healthy sign of child’s development. Instead of trying to overpower your child, let’s try to empower him instead.
So, what exactly can you do? Happy you asked!
When your child misbehaves, decide how you are going to react. And this reaction should be the same every time. Every single time! Be calm, kind, but firm. Do not escalate your emotional response! You must respond like a broken record over and over again.
Side step the conflict (choose your battles). Your child doesn’t want to get out of the car. “Well, you can get out of the car by yourself or I will carry you.” Child’s response, “I want you to carry me upside down.” Fine! Carry him upside down! By side stepping the conflict, you are sending the message that you are not going to fight your child, but at the same time you are not giving in either.
Choices, not orders! When giving your child choices, you must make sure all choices are acceptable to you. Do not give your child a choice of sitting quietly at a restaurant or leaving, if you have no intention to do so. Choices should not include punishment as an alternative. And make sure they are not too narrow that the child senses no freedom at all.
You can find a useful way for your child to feel more powerful. Let’s say he doesn’t want to put his dishes away after dinner. Make him the “boss” of all dishes. He will then make sure everyone in the family cleans up after themselves.
Remember, the child’s need to gain control is a natural developmental stage.
These are just a few suggestions to help you. For further information, we strongly recommend the book, Positive Discipline, by Dr Jane Nelsen. This is also available as an audiobook.