I thought I knew all there was to know about handling power struggles. When my daughter was two and three, her tantrums and emphatic “No!” taught me the difference between requests and commands, the difference between power and force, and the value of using choices. Now she is fourteen. There are teen demands, teen complaints, teen rumination on issues and teen temper tantrums. Because she is a highly verbal being at fourteen, what is happening between us feels more intensely charged and quicker to escalate than when she was a toddler; however, what is below the surface remains the same.
What I found triggering my own reactive temper tantrums was being attached to my teen daughter’s behavior. In Redirecting Children’s Behavior™, we suggest that the first step in effectively handling a power struggle is to detach. That may sound simple, yet it actually can be the biggest challenge for parents. I know it is a biggie for me. One key to detachment is to be conscious of your own inner dialogue. That inner dialogue may talk us right into anger if we believe what we are saying to ourselves. Here is an example of how it worked for me:
At a performance, my daughter said she was hungry and wanted a snack during intermission. I said, “We are going out to eat after the performance. Let’s wait to eat good food then rather than having a sugary snack now.” Her demands, sulking and intimidating stares continued, and I felt angry. Later, in talking to a friend about what happened (thanks, Pam!), I explained that I had made sure she had eaten before we left, we had had something to drink at the theatre, and she knew we were going out to eat afterwards. My friend’s comment that I had done everything that I could to take care of things sparked the realization that I was interpreting my daughter’s demands as meaning something about me. I translated my daughter’s reaction into “I can never do enough.” Saying “no” to her request for a snack meant I was denying her something basic to life…that I was not doing enough…that no matter how much I did (take her to see a Broadway show, take her out to dinner), it was never enough. That was my internal dialogue. No wonder I felt angry! With that conversation, I could never win and my daughter was defined as ungrateful and demanding. Being attached to her behavior, my goal then became getting her to behave differently because only if she were wrong would I be right in this scenario. Only if she admitted being OK with waiting to eat something until we went out to dinner would I be a good mom.
Attempting to get her to behave differently immediately created a power struggle over who was right. I was pulling on one end of the rope declaring that she was ungrateful with my tone of voice and she was tugging on the other declaring that I was mean with hers. The power struggle distracted her from looking at her own behavior and from taking responsibility for it. I made myself responsible for it by continuing to power struggle with her.
I undermined my own detachment because I believed my inner dialogue! Am I a good mother? Yes! I was not denying my daughter something intrinsic for life. I was actually guiding her towards healthy eating. I had done everything I could to set this up well – having her eat before we left and making sure she drank water. When I quit taking it personally – that my daughter’s reaction said something about me – it became simple to detach. Learning how I undermined my own level of serenity and detachment blew me away!
When I detached, my daughter was not distracted by my reaction because my response was calm and centered. She could then look at her own responsibility and behavior. When I detached, I didn’t act mean and I didn’t take responsibility for her behavior. I was no longer trying to prove that she was wrong. I was confident in my belief that I did do everything possible.
Next time we go to a show, my daughter can carry a healthy snack in her purse in case she gets hungry. In my detachment is where her growth happens. In examining my own inner dialogue is where my detachment begins.