Battle of Wills or Battle of Beliefs?

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.

Fight Now or Fix Later? A Parenting Tool to Manage Defiant Behavior

By Ron Huxley, LMFT

Parents can diffuse defiance by delaying actions or a response. Conflict is inevitable in a family. Parents and children will not always see things eye-to-eye and arguments may pop up. If this becomes a regular hassle, this may mean that children are starting to consider it a game for how to guarantee mom or dad’s attention. Of course, it is negative attention, but that can make it all the more challenging to eliminate. 

Who says that mom or dad have to fight with the child? Why do you HAVE to reply to talking back or rude comments or annoying demands right now? A favorite Love and Logic tool of mine is Delaying Replies. Instead of fighting now, say: “I love you too much to argue with you…” or “I will have to do something about this behavior or attitude but not right now.” Delaying allows parents to cool off and consider a consequence or reply in a clear headed way and gather the support of the other parent. 

Try this Parenting Tool next time your child is defiant with you: 

Parenting With Love And Logic (Updated and Expanded Edition)

(affiliate link)

What else is Ron reading? Click here to see…

Is It Talking Back or Assertiveness: How to teach appropriate behavior

By Ron Huxley, LMFT

Parents will tell me that they want a child who can speak their mind and express themselves in an articulate and assertive manner but no one enjoys a child who argues, talks back or refuses to do anything they are asked to do. Typically, we call this latter description: Oppositional or Defiant behavior. 

Clinically, it is describe as any person who shows a pattern of…

A.  negativistic, hostile, and defiant behavior lasting at least 6 months, during which four (or more) of the following are present:
(1) often loses temper
(2) often argues with adults
(3) often actively defies or refuses to comply with adults’ requests or rules
(4) often deliberately annoys people
(5) often blames others for his or her mistakes or misbehavior
(6) is often touchy or easily annoyed by others
(7) is often angry and resentful
(8) is often spiteful or vindictive

It is hard to differentiate between talking back and being assertive. When this is the case, I suggest that parents have children “Redo” a defiant comment or action. Ask the child to repeat what they want in a different tone of voice, manner of approach or without the tantrum or door slamming. It is important that parents stay as calm as possible. Take a few deep breaths and ask the child to do the same and then have them “Redo” the behavior one to five times. The reason for the longer repetition is that not only does it reinforce the behavior in a positive manner and teach a more appropriate social skill but it also “satiates” (read “bores the child”) the inappropriate behavior. Children hate boring tasks but will feel rewarded when they get what they want through appropriate words and actions. 

Hey, try this on your husband too 🙂

Learn more power parenting tools with Ron Huxley’s parenting book: 

Love and Limits: Achieving a Balance in Parenting

A recent article by Scientific American reviews desperate attempts to change unruly teen behavior around. One of the toughest challenges is to reach an adolescent who is angry, defiant and acting out in destructive ways. Confrontational strategies and harsh punishment, the article explains, has only short-term benefits. No studies prove lasting results from this type of “scared straight” intervention. So what does work? The article ends with this summarization: 

results show that merely imposing harsh discipline on young offenders or frightening them is unlikely to help them refrain from problematic behavior. Instead teens must learn enduring tools—including better social skills, ways to communicate with parents and peers, and anger management techniques—that help them avoid future aggression. Several effective interventions do just that, including cognitive-behavior therapy, a method intended to change maladaptive thinking patterns and behaviors, and multisystemic therapy, in which parents, schools and communities develop programs to reinforce positive behaviors. Another well-supported method, aimed at improving behavior in at-risk children younger than eight years, is parent-child interaction therapy. Parents are coached by therapists in real time to respond to a child’s behavior in ways that strengthen the parent-child bond and provide incentives for cooperation [see “Behave!” by Ingrid Wickelgren; Scientific American Mind, March/April 2014].”

What can you do to strengthen your bond with your child? How can you reach his or her heart, locked behind a wall of pain and anger? Don’t expect overnight miracles. Turning your defiant teen around will require consistency and continual micro-shifts of change in you and your child. You will probably blow it on days and be exhausted from the effort on others. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Focus on who the child will be and not on who they have been or what they are doing. Consequences are natural and necessary. Boundaries are even more important! Just don’t equate your love with positive behavior. Nothing your child does should make you love him or her any less and nothing can make you love them more. Love just is…