Many parents get into power struggles with their children over everyday tasks like homework, chores, bedtime, eating all their dinner, etc. This battle of wills can become a daily hassle that will wear out the most resilient parent.
In its extreme form, children can develop an oppositional defiant disorder which is characterized by negative, argumentative, disobedient, and hostile behaviors toward parents and authority figures. They refuse any guidance or direction from adults. Relationships turn into competitive matches where every interaction is geared toward the need to win. The subject of the argument no longer matters. The parent and child are armoring themselves to win the battle no matter what the topic. The reality is that parents can’t win every “battle”. That is exhausting! Research indicates that this battle creates even more oppositional behavior in children and the moral of the story ends up being that no one wins!
What Is Really The Problem?
The problem is not the behavior but the beliefs of the contestants in the power struggle. Instead of trying to change behaviors and win the battle of homework or chores, try to change the belief system and win over their heart. That can be difficult for the parent in the middle of a heated argument. It is even more difficult after dealing with defiant children for days, weeks, or months of non-stop fighting.
Parents are not prepared for tools of the heart that change belief structures. Most parenting tools focus on behaviors that attempt to mold children into obedient, submissive people. This is a perfect set up for oppositional defiant behavior to accelerate. Tools of the heart focus on changing oneself first and then work on creating a connection. It doesn’t confront the person. It confronts the beliefs that drive the person to act in opposition and defiant ways.
The Misunderstanding of Power in Relationships.
One of the beliefs that need to be addressed is the idea that in order to be powerful I always have to win. Not only do I have to win but you have to lose so that if you being hurt starts to the sign that I win. The child can get into the habit of hurting people, animals and destroying property to prove they have power. When the parent counters attack or overpowers the child in any way they reinforce this dysfunctional idea. The more realistic belief is that we can both be powerful by making appropriate choices and managing ourselves. Self-control is the ultimate example of power. The parent must model this in the home. The only thing you can guarantee complete control over is when “I manage me.” I cannot manage you 100% of the time. When I try to manage you, I set up a revenge mentality in our relationship. You will do what I want in this battle but you will look for ways to win the next battle.
Focus on Feedback.
Instead of an argument, we want to focus on feedback. Replace “you messages”, as in “you always” or “you never” or even “you are” with “me messages”, such as “here’s how this situation is affecting me”. Don’t hold up a mirror to child’s face to inform them of how “ugly” they are acting. Hold up the mirror to your heart and share what you are feeling. This can be a risky act, on the part of the parent, but vulnerability is what leads to intimacy and without an exposed heart there can be no heart to heart connection.
Questions are useful tools for parents even if you already know the answer. A dominating parent tells the child what to do or what they are not doing right. A parent who values responsibility provides lots of opportunities for the child to make choices. The parent allows the child to voice their needs with questions such as “what do you need in this situation?” or “what are you going to do about this problem?” Don’t be quick to jump in and solve the problem with the child. Let them tangle at bit at the end. You want their brains engaged and trained in solving their own problems.
Using questions help the parent and the child stay focused on the person, in the problem, instead of focusing on the problem in the person. This is an important distinction. Keep asking how your child is going to clean up the mess. You aren’t saying they are a mess but there is this mess of school grades or unclean rooms. If they don’t know to clean up their mess because they are used to the parent always tell them how to clean it up or clean it up for them, start giving them some ideas they can try. If they act like they don’t care about cleaning up the mess, give them choices that might be completely undesirable. “One choice might be to do all of your brother’s chores for a week to pay them back for breaking their toy. Would that be a way you can clean up this mess?” Of course, they don’t want to do that! The point is to get them engaged in this conversation to find a solution they would prefer. If they still refuse any responsibility for their actions, stay calm and wait this out. At some point, the child will want something from the parent and at that moment the parent can return to the mess that is still needing to be cleaned up. Re-ask the question of how they would like to clean up the mess. This teaches self-responsibility without ever breaking a connection with the child. You continually express your belief that they are powerful people who can make a good choice, if not today, then tomorrow or the day after that or the day after that until they finally learn to manage themselves well.
Do You Value Being Right Over Relationship?
If a parent insists on lecturing and using their authority in dominating ways then they are communicating that being right is more important that relationship. Relationships take time and this mess that the child has made can take as long as it needs to get cleaned up but it will get cleaned up. The value of learning responsibility and how to handle freedom and make good choices is more important than being right on this issue we are at odds with each other. Stubbornness is the hallmark of oppositional defiant behavior. Use this same energy to regulate your reaction to stand firm.
There are a lot of false beliefs in the parenting community that parenting educators perpetuate. We have put you in a difficult position and given you a difficult requirement that can set you up for failure. As a parenting educator, I apologize! Let’s learn together on how to build powerful people in intimate relationships with one another.