How to Defuse a Power Struggle with Finesse

Parenting is not about negotiation. Parents are in charge and children have to learn how to listen and obey. Parents don’t have to compromise or offer concessions – but yet smart parents don’t rule their home highhandedly. They try not to be overbearing and – if they’re really wise – they do everything they can to avoid power struggles with their children.

Whatever the outcome of a power struggle, the parents are the losers. If they are strong enough to make their child do whatever it is they’re fighting about, their child will do it begrudgingly and their relationship will sour; and if they can’t get their child to do what they say, then they displayed a lack of control and that they’re not really ruling the roost.

So avoid power struggles. Speak calmly, confidently, craft your words right so your kids listen, do your best to not take your kids’ words personally, and follow all the rules in the never-written parenting handbook so that you know that no matter what, you’ll never get caught in a clash. Yeah, right!

It happened to all of us. At times, in middle of a discussion with one of your kids, you realize that your voice is raised, that you’re telling your kid point-blank to do something, that you’re mad at their chutzpah and that you’re affronted that they don’t appreciate all the good things you’ve ever done for them and you want them to go clean their room RIGHT NOW.

And you realize that, somehow, you fell into a power struggle.

Help! What do you do now?

It’s hard to stop in your tracks, but that’s what you need to do. Stop, inhale and exhale, count to ten and don’t say anything for a few seconds or even a minute or two.

Use this short interim to calm down. Even if your child was unforgivingly insolent and said things that need to be addressed, you will calm down.

Once you’re calm, you’ll be able think of a creative way to defuse the situation.

Right now, the issue at hand isn’t whether or not your child will clean his room. Right now, the issue at hand is defusing the situation in a manner that will leave you in a strong position but will, at the same time, make your child feel that he was treated lovingly and respectfully.

The easiest way to defuse the situation is to simply smile and tell your child that you’re done fighting. You can say any variation on the following suggestions:

"I don’t want to fight about cleaning your room. Let’s talk about something else."
"Hugging is much better than fighting. Let’s do that instead."
"Hey, I love you, and I’m not going to fight about cleaning your room."

Stopping the argument doesn’t make you a loser. Since you are the one taking the initiative and telling your child that the argument is over and that you still love him, you’re now the leader of the situation.

This calming of the situation is in and of itself an important accomplishment. It teaches your child that your love for him or her is much stronger and more important than cleaning the room. It’s also a great model of anger control – and that’s a wonderful lesson for all kids to learn.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that you have to give up on a clean room. Once you’re back in charge and you’re calm, you’ll think of ways to enable your child to listen to you.

When you were fighting with your child, you triggered defensive and defiant reactions, so they really couldn’t listen. But now, when you’re lovingly conveying what you expect them to do, they’ll be more eager to follow your instructions.

Tell your child what you expect them to do, but don’t tell them exactly how and when to do the job. Let them take responsibility for doing the job so that they don’t end up feeling like the "losers" of the previous fight; like they gave in to your demands.

Here are some examples of statements that convey that idea. Look at your kids when you say them, catch their eye and speak confidently so they know that you mean what you say:

"I’m glad that we’re not fighting about the room anymore. But it does need to be cleaned. When will you have time to clean it?"
"The mess in your room spills over to the whole house and makes us all feel messy. Please clean it up before supper tonight."
"I trust that you’ll clean your room as soon as you can. I’m waiting for you to report that you’ve cleaned it."

Lucky are the parents who never find themselves in a power struggle. But most parents will probably fall into the power struggle trap at one point or the other. It may take calmness, courage and creativity elegantly extricate ourselves from those situations, but when we succeed, we stretch our own relationship skills and model them for our children.

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