By Laura Kastner, Ph.D.
“Mom, I’m going down to Sam’s house, OK?”
“No, Trevor. Dinner will be ready in 20 minutes. And you need to do your chores, which include setting the table.”
“Mom, I promised Sam that I’d help him with this magic card deck! It’s important! Please understand!”
“What I understand is that you push for an inch, and you take a mile. The answer is “no”. Stop badgering me, Trevor, and get to it.”
“Mom, are you deaf? You are killing me! I’ve done my homework and all I’m asking for is 20 measly minutes. Why do you enjoy torturing me like this?”
“Your attitude is really torturing me! Trevor, our rules are reasonable. First you do your chores, homework and dinner, and then you get free time. This isn’t new around here. Now, please set the table.”
“Mom, you only care about your rules. You don’t care about what I want! You’re so selfish!”
“Trevor, you are the selfish one. Your “20 minutes” turns into an hour. You want the whole family to adjust to your whims. The world does not revolve around you, as much as you’d like it to be so. Set the table—now!”
“You can set your own table. To hell with your dinner! I’m going to Sam’s!”
“Trevor, you brat, if you do that, there will be hell to pay!”
Pretty classic, huh? This mom seems perfectly reasonable in her desire to hold the line, especially since Trevor’s (14 year old) accountability on time limits is nil. And it’s also reasonable to want a child to fulfill his responsibilities first, in order to earn his privileges. Furthermore, this mom gets extra credit for even having a family dinner, insisting on chores and trying to be consistent with her policies and routines.
Then why does it feel like such a failure when he disobeys and runs out the door? Oh, sure—Mom can figure out a consequence later for his infraction. Perhaps her banning after-dinner socializing for a while will help him learn to buckle down and take her seriously when she is setting limits. But chances are he will be “playing back” mom’s calling him a brat, selfish and torturing her (deleting his side of the movie), so that he can feel entitled to victim status. The fact remains that this power struggle doesn’t end well, even if mom feels justified in her disciplinary actions.
We all want to be consistent in our policies. However, this mom might have been able to do so while averting a total breakdown in cooperation. And if she decided to negotiate instead, would it mean she was selling out on her policies?
Here are some guidelines about negotiations and avoiding power struggles with children:
- Negotiate if you think that your child will learn as much from cooperating with a compromised deal than rule compliance. You feel good about the negotiation, or else you might take it out on your child later on. It’s hard to appreciate the merits of collaboration when a child is acting up, but almost all people are more motivated to cooperate with rules when they feel a sense of reciprocity. Learning to engage in negotiation and emotional regulation is as important as complying with policies. You choose.
“Trevor, if you set the table right now and manage to be pleasant during dinner, I’ll get you out of this house and on your way to Sam’s by 6:45. Deal?”
- See things from the other child’s perspective. When a child wants something diametrically opposed to what we want, we tend to lock into just justifying our position. This response often results in the child getting increasingly angry as we repeat our views.
“I know you think I’m inconsiderate to stick to the rules right now. From your perspective, I’m being selfish.”
- Accept that children are intrinsically egocentric. Although it is a parent’s job to help them learn how to cooperate with others, lecturing them when they are extremely irate usually intensifies the conflict. Children “grow out of” being egocentric by living in a community and family cooperatively, not by talking about it when they are upset.
“I know that going to Sam’s house is the most important thing in the world to you at this minute.”
- Convey empathy. Parents who merely state that they are sticking to the rules—add lecture, criticism, or tit-for-tat put-downs to the mix here—stimulate emotional arousal. Empathy does not mean that you are going to give it to them; in fact, appreciating another’s feelings (sincerely) is a good way to quell the extreme anger that arises when we are not budging.
“Helping Sam with his magic card deck is what you want right now and our rules are standing in your way. You think I’m insensitive to you for sticking with the rules when this is so important to you.”
- Validate the child’s feelings without “but’s” (which actually invalidate your validation!) Responding directly to a child’s insults and allegations against you during a conflict will make the conflict worse. A “heart to heart” discussion about deeper matters, feelings and insults can come later if you still think it might be productive to air grievances.
“You’re really mad at me about rules that you think are stupid. It seems unfair that I get what I want, and you don’t get what you want.”
- Maintain your cool, even if your kid doesn’t (as hard as it is when they are throwing poison darts at you). When we throw back the insults that they throw at us (e.g. putdowns, exaggerations and criticisms), we get on their immature level and destroy our credibility. Better that we try #1-5 above. At least then we are “keeping our side of the street clean”, so that there is less clean-up later. When children’s emotions start to flood, it’s important to end the interaction and not expect it to end on a positive note. Although a clever exit route which side-steps overt abandonment is good (“Oh, sorry, I need to head for the john!”), the most important thing is ending it before we say things we regret.
I have an important qualifier here. If your child is extremely distressed, the approaches may not be successful in getting him to comply, calm down or negotiate with you. But there is a good chance that he won’t spiral into complete defiance, like Trevor’s ending rant: “You can set your own table. To hell with your dinner! I’m going to Sam’s!”
When kids are as riled up as Trevor, we need to have reasonable (even low) goals. I’d be impressed with any parent that managed to avoid counter-insults in a scenario like Trevor’s. If the parent either managed to negotiate a deal or stick to the policy without adding nasties on her side of the dialogue, I’d deem it a success–even if Trevor was in dramatic high gear. Until mom got into her counter mud-slinging, Trevor was more emotional than disrespectful.
As important as parental consistency is, so is a child’s trust in his parents. Listening and negotiating are ways that children learn to feel that expressing their feelings is worthwhile. Deciding when to negotiate or not is really a personal appraisal on the parent’s part—both have potential downsides (see “J is for Judgment calls”).
Encouraging children to communicate their needs, learn to negotiate and give input to their parents’ decision-making are key aspects of the authoritative parenting style which predicts optimal academic, social and emotional competence in mature adolescents (see “A is for Authoritative Parenting”).
Children are desperate to negotiate for more independence. Research has shown the cell phones give teens a conduit for this process and also allow parents to “invade” the social space of teens. Youth programs offer opportunities for children to negotiate for independence within approved-of settings. They also help children develop self-reliance and connection with adults.
Most kids don’t enter into the same kind of power struggles with other adults that they stir up with their parents, because they are not individuating from them! With other adults, they are almost always more respectful in negotiating their agendas and successful in regulating their emotions. Parents should remember this fact when appalled at the rude entitlement and hissy fits that kids display at home.
As any good communicator would discern, all of the points in the list above are good tips for dealing with power struggles with anyone! Feisty kids push our buttons with their provocative attacks because they can “get personal” with their insults and exaggerated protestations. In a perfect world for parents, kids would cooperate, comply with policies and think of others, but that is what they learn during childhood with effective parenting. They are not there yet! Silly us, to even expect it (yet).
Thinking of clever bids for negotiation is challenging in the fray of emotional tirades and stressful lives. Staying calm when our kids are slinging mud at us also seems utterly impossible. Even though validation works better than a rational defense of our household policies, we’ll only be able to manage it some of the time when exchanges are getting dirty.
It is natural for kids feel their needs and wants intensely and try to bargain, tantrum and threaten when they are emotionally aroused. It is also natural for us to dislike this process. We work hard to take care of our family’s needs, only to suffer the slings and arrows of irate kids. But kids are just being kids, and we are the adults, so we’re the ones that need to be skillful with their “normal” emotional tirades about their needs, wants and feelings. Whoa! Isn’t it good we’re only going for “good enough” and not straight A’s in our parenting skills?