Who Wins? Resolving Power Struggles at Home

Sometimes you teach something you have mastered. You’ve got it down. It’s under your belt. You do it in your sleep. You pass on your expertise to bless someone less knowledgeable.

Other times, you share something mid-journey, teaching what you need to learn more thoroughly, because you grasp some of what you are teaching, and by sharing it, you reinforce the concepts to yourself while edifying others in the process.

I vowed to myself a long time ago not to put anything on the internet that doesn’t accurately represent my life as it is. I don’t want to set up a sham image, gathering followers who think I’m more supremely awesome than I am. I long to bless others (no matter if it is one person or 100), but I want to do so from a base of integrity. Keeping it real is essential. It’s part of how I walk in truth.

You want that, don’t you? You don’t’ want one more person putting pretty out front to cover up what’s real behind the scenes.

That being said, this topic is one of those where I’ve come a long way baby, but there are miles to go. I’m refreshing my knowledge and commitment while I’m sharing principles with you.

I’m talking about power. Power in the home.

Arm Wrestle

Who holds the power becomes a matter of struggle sometimes. You may not have thought of it this way before.

Think about the first time you saw your little, previously compliant infant arch his back as you tried to strap him into his car seat. He had a way he wanted it to be and you did to. Those two ways did not align and he let you know by struggling to free himself from the five point harness with all his 20 lbs of body strength (which surprisingly gets exponentially stronger at times like these).

What about when, in the aisle of the grocery, your toddler declares she wants the latest Sugary Princess Puffs for breakfast. She throws herself down and squalls at a volume that tempts the manager to announce, “Meltdown, Aisle 6!” over the loudspeaker. She wants what she wants. So do you – mainly to exit through the fire door without anyone noticing! Your wills are not united and she’s about the business of letting you know how unacceptable the situation is to her – whether you like it or not.

Power struggles are normal in a family. They don’t have to destroy you or your children.
Certain members of the family may fall into them more easily than others. My oldest son has a very strong will. God made him that way. Believe it or not, it isn’t completely sinful to have a determined will, though much sin can come from one if we don’t learn how to channel it for good. My son knows his mind and he usually feels he is right. Often he is. To complicate matters, I also have a not-so-easily bent spirit. {Bring it on, brother.} My husband, on the other hand, is a lover, not a fighter. He just wants us all to get along. My littlest is a sweet dreamer boy. He’ll get in a struggle if he has to, but just as often he’ll give in to get over it.

Don’t get me wrong, my older son has a heart of gold and I’ve got a caring heart and have been made gentle by Jesus. We love and enjoy our relationship with one another. This isn’t as much about sweetness as it is the way we get entangled when we disagree. My eldest and I have a history of getting into uninvited toe-to-toe stances.

Let me tell you something I’ve learned in these 14 years of being a mom:

When it comes to power struggles, no one wins.

Somewhere in you there may be this thought that you are going to come out victorious and you may even feel triumphant if your child relents and does what you want. If the “victory” came by way of power, it came at a price. You probably had to act in a way you would rather not have. Beyond that, a pattern of engaging in power struggles leaves long term scars. Either the relationship you have with your child will suffer or your child’s sense of self-worth and confidence will.

When we go after situations on a win-lose basis, forcing our children to do what we want, we are never going to win their hearts, help them embrace the root motivations for doing what is good or help maintain true respect and love between us.

The pattern goes like this:

  • We want our way as a parent (sometimes that is very right)
  • Our child wants something else (sometimes that is also right, though it may not be timely)
  • We want them to change to our way and they want us to change to theirs.
  • We take control and put our parental foot down
  • Control leads to either one of two things
    • Fear which complies  
    • Outward or Passive Rebellion

We, as parents, have to decide if we merely want external conformity and compliance (and yes, of course, in part we do) or if we want heart level agreement from our children which includes them working through issues and making choices, even disagreeing with us at times.

Now, I know when it comes to a fit in the grocery store, your child may not agree with you that Princess Puffs are not a nutritious and economical choice for breakfast. She can, however choose to go along with your decision without you getting stuck pulling her flailing body off the floor while trying to avoid knocking over the end-cap.

The key word here is choose.

My son and I can get through the “put away the clean dishes before you leave for school in the morning” battle too. We can. We’ve got this. The key lies in a few basic principles as to how to avoid the ever-ensnaring power struggle.

Ignore the struggle, not the child.

If you step back you will be able to observe your child (especially your older children) as they attempt to engage you in a power struggle.

Sometimes the most effective and helpful response is to drop the issue and sidestep the battle. With most little children, distraction works wonders in times like this. You can start to sing your one-year-old’s favorite song as you buckle up the car seat. No more focus on arching the back, and voila, all’s well. Win-win (not win-lose where everyone really loses).

With your older children, distraction won’t prove to be as effective. You need to state something like, “I’m not going to fight with you about this. I love you. Tell me when you are ready to move on.” Step aside, let them escalate. You don’t have to buy a ticket on their ride. The old saying, “It takes two to tango” bears true here. If you back off the dance floor, the dance will eventually end.

Don’t make Mountains of Molehills.

Our children can push our buttons like no other human being on this planet. Top that off with our healthy concern for their well-being and we can end up anxious over them. “What if …” fills our mind and can cloud our decisions. “What if he doesn’t learn to take on responsibilities like clearing dishes and checking if it needs to be done … and then he acts that way at his job when he’s in his 20s and gets fired and becomes homeless … and … “ Pretty soon it’s life or death whether he clears the dishes.

Instead, take that step back again (parenting isn’t a timed event, you know) and ask yourself the real importance of what is going on.

If it isn’t earth shattering, maybe a middle ground exists.

In the (not-so-imaginary) story of the teen boy who won’t put away morning dishes, we cooled our jets and I asked him if he’d rather take on a more consistent chore that doesn’t have to be done before school. It didn’t have to come down to a “you’ll do what I say, when I say” sort of situation. We just had a chat; I had to give him some choice; and we’re moving forward from here. 

Again, giving choice is key. 

Keep it Win-Win:

Try to remind yourself that you are on the same team. It isn’t you against your child.

You are in the God-given role of training and raising your children and that involves a lot of love, grace and flexibility. God isn’t a bully, demanding His way, or else. He gives us room to grow over time and He allows us to differ with Him and work our way around to what is right. He gives us choice and freedom. We can’t lord our authority over our children and hope to end up in a win-win.

In the case of the Princess Puff cereal meltdown, you could say, “Hunny, those sure do look yummy. I know you want them a lot. Let’s put them in the basket to go around the store with us. Before we go check out, we are not going to take them home, but you can have them to hold in the store.” (or “… you can pick something else we both say “yes” to before we leave the store instead.”) This empathetic way of relating with our children shows them we aren’t trying to override their emotions, normal desires or individuality.

We are compassionate, while keeping our limits clear.  A beautiful balance exists between being kind and firm simultaneously.  “My healthy limit isn’t changing no matter what you do” and “I love you dearly and am going to show you lovingkindness all through this interaction” need to be partner approaches in our parenting.

Don’t try to change them, decide what you will do:

Deciding what we will do may be the key of all keys when it comes to evading a power struggle. It dovetails with ignoring, but goes deeper.

Often, when we are in a power struggle, our hidden aim is to make our child change. We want them to do it our way and be the way we want them to be. We reason it is for their own good, but honestly, we often just push at them because we think we know best.

Instead, we need to make a seemingly small, but very significant shift in the way we approach power struggles. We can replace “You will be respectful when you talk to me, or else,” with a look at our own realm of choice.

Of course there are consequences for behaviors, sometimes natural, sometimes ones we have to put in place (logical). Consequences go so far, but they won’t successfully move you out of a power struggle. What I’m talking about is extracting yourself from the false idea that you are stuck in this battle.

As an alternative to trying to make them show respect (which is a fruit of the heart, and therefore something God will bring out, not you), why not decide what you will do the next time they disrespect you.

I have told my son that I will not be spoken to that way by anyone and I will walk away from him if he chooses that tone. I make my choice, leaving him with his. No more battle; we’re still on the same side; but I am free because I didn’t hook my well-being to his behavior.  He gets to choose and I do too.  If he wants to engage with me, he needs to choose respect.  If he chooses disrespect, I choose to exit stage left until he regains composure and humility.  {Notice I give him a warning during calm times so he isn’t caught off guard by my disappearing act during a tense moment.}

Over time, we work on character development – in teachable moments, when the heart of our child is open. During an invitation to battle, we bow out gracefully and let them simmer down, leaving them room to choose and accept the outcome of their own choices.

I hope this helped as you face struggles with your children.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback.

I needed to review and solidify what I know. What better way to do that, than with you?

Don’t forget to enter the giveaway for this week’s blog-warming:
Hearts Homeward

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  • Reply
    January 21, 2016 at 2:36 AM

    Excellent, wise and relevant!! Love the humour as well. I will be re-reading this… it was not how I was parented (I wish) and will take lots of practice.

    • Reply
      January 21, 2016 at 3:04 PM

      I wasn’t raised this way either. It has been a process of studying, applying, reading, failing, getting up, asking forgiveness and trying again which has led me to these gentler and deeper ways of parenting. I lean towards the Nike approach when it comes to the way I want my kids to hear me: “Just Do It.” Though my heart is tender towards them, I get tense and want them to simply do what I want. It’s been good to be stretched and to find excellent parenting support to help me grow over these 14 years. I’ve had to unearth pain from my own past that kept me from relaxing and entrusting my children to God too. Now I’m committed to helping other parents move into this kind of effective, grace-based, honoring place as I continue to grow as well. I’m not “arrived” but I’ve grown enough to see the benefits and I want to help other families do the same. We all lean either towards too much “kindness” which becomes soft and permissive OR too much “firmness” which can be authoritarian and demanding and lack grace or relationship. The balance of kind/firm is such a key. I need to know that my limits are real and for their good (like them or not, like me or not) and yet I love them and am with them as we go through this “growing up” together. Thank you SO MUCH for commenting here. I love hearing how this touches others – especially people I love dearly.

  • Reply
    January 22, 2016 at 3:31 PM

    Just important reminders – especially “ignore the struggle and not the child”. It’s so easy to become frustrated and get wrapped up into the struggle. It takes a moment of stepping back and seeing what is really going. Thanks for this great wisdom and for the great reminder that we are called to love and support our children.

    • Reply
      January 22, 2016 at 5:19 PM

      You sweet lum bao of mine. Thank you for this. You and I together can do this. I’m so grateful for how God uses us to spur one another along in gentle and effective parenting. Such a gift – one I can’t find words to express. I’ll get teary if I do. Love you.

  • Reply
    Life Lessons: Parenting Your Teen (Part 2) – Hearts Homeward
    June 15, 2016 at 10:49 AM

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