Picture the scene: Your child comes home from school, dumps his backpack on the ground and starts rummaging through it looking for the new Pokémon eraser his friend had given him in a trade. Books, papers, pencils go flying around as he looks for his beloved item. When he’s unable to find it, tempers go flying.
Child: “MOM, where is my eraser????!!!! Did you take it? I can’t find it anywhere! I NEED it!”
You (feeling a bit surprised and maybe a little annoyed that he’s so upset over such a little thing): “I’m sure it’s here somewhere. Now come pick up this mess!”
Child: “No! I have to find it! You don’t understand!!!” (As he storms off in a fit.)
This is an example of a common scene I play out when I teach my workshop on power struggles. I ask the parents how they would typically respond to such behavior. After a “Oh, yes, I know that behavior well” chuckle from the group, they invariably say they would follow their child upstairs and insist they clean up the mess they made; that the behavior is “irresponsible” and/or “unacceptable.”
Upon further discussion, we get to the crux of the issue. Namely, these well-meaning, well-intentioned parents worry (and fear), among other things, that if they don’t “nip (the behavior) in the bud,” it will only get worse.
When I ask parents what they really want from their kids, the vast majority says, “I just want my kids to LISTEN!”
Can you relate?
As a parent of two very strong-willed kids, I understand, first hand, what it feels like to be constantly negotiating and simply wishing my kids would just listen the first time I make a request! This constant frustration over what my kids weren’t doing and how triggered I was becoming, led me to Positive Discipline as well as to the study and practice of mindfulness and mindful parenting.
According to Carla Naumburg, Ph.D., author of Ready, Set, Breathe: Practicing Mindfulness with your Children for Fewer Meltdowns and a More Peaceful Family, mindful parenting is about “making a choice to focus our attention on the present moment, with kindness and curiosity, so we can make a thoughtful choice about how to proceed rather than react out of frustration or confusion.”
In studying mindfulness, I came to understand how often we are either worrying about the future or ruminating over the past. When thinking about the past or the future, we are anywhere but in the present moment! That worry, fear, anger, disappointment and stress over past and/or future greatly impacts our thoughts, decisions and behaviors. When under stress, we lose the ability to think clearly and rationally; to see our child’s behavior as a cry for help versus manipulation. On top of that, we have our own histories of how we were raised or treated as children, which greatly influences our reactions as well! Oh my!
Becoming aware of this process (without judgment) is key – with awareness, comes choice and opportunity. Namely, the ability to choose an appropriate response and the opportunity to model the very behavior we want to instill in our kids as they grow. Almost 95% of what kids learn is through modeled behavior. Those little eyes are always watching and pay much more attention to what we do versus what we say. So, as they say, let’s “be it to teach it.”
Taking all of this into account leads us to the million-dollar question…”So what do I DO the next time I’m faced with a power struggle??”
With the above in mind, here are 5 ways to more mindfully approach and manage power struggles:
1.) Stop, drop and roll – When you feel annoyance or anger arise, STOP what you are doing, even if you are mid-sentence. With compassion, recognize that you are lost in thoughts and emotions that are not constructive and that the only thing you have control over is yourself and your reactions. Take 3 deep, calming breaths.
Next, DROP into your body and the present moment – notice sensations in your body (tightness, shortness of breath, tension); notice and name the emotions you are feeling (“anger,” “annoyance,” “frustration”) and any self-talk (“What’s the matter with him?” “I’m sick and tired of this behavior!” “She’ll grow up to be a spoiled brat!”); continue breathing.
Lastly, using this intentional, compassionate awareness, ROLL out a more calm and connected response. Understand that what you’re feeling may also be what your child is experiencing. Reframe your self-talk (“He’s having a hard time and needs my help.” “I can handle this.” “She’s acting like a child because she is a child.”)
2.) Acknowledge and validate feelings, while limiting inappropriate behavior (a.k.a. “Connect before you Correct/Redirect”) – Our kids are not out to get us, they are simply still learning appropriate ways in which to get their needs met and need our calm presence to guide them. What they are feeling is not good or bad, right or wrong. It just is! Without judgment, acknowledge what your child is feeling, limiting any inappropriate behaviors. For example, in the case of hitting, “I can see you’re having a really hard time right now. I love you and it’s never ok to hit me. Hitting hurts. It’s ok to feel angry, it’s never ok to hit. I’m here to help. What words can you use to tell me what you need?” Recognize your child may need time to calm down before he can problem-solve.
3.) Acknowledge and validate needs, while offering limited choices – So often, power struggles happen when there’s a mismatch in parent-child agendas – we want one thing, our child wants another. We want them to take a bath; they want “5 more minutes” of playtime. And so, the “struggle” develops when we put our agenda ahead of theirs. Instead, realize that our child’s agenda is just as important to them as ours is to us. Drop the desire to “win.” Focus on staying connected to your child and understanding the need beneath their behavior. Adding a limited choice offers a sense of power during a time they may feel powerless. For example, “I can see you are having SO much fun building your Legos. You would probably build your Legos all night if you could, huh? I see how much fun you’re having AND it’s bath time. Would you like to bring some Legos up to the bath with us or keep them here for when we’re done. It’s up to you, you decide.”
4.) Search for “win/win” solutions – When in the midst of a power struggle, take a step back. Check in (with yourself and your child). How might you be “showing up” in that moment? Is your tone of voice and body language inviting cooperation or resistance? Next, recognize that your child is most likely feeling powerless in the moment. Look for ways to join together to come up with a solution that can meet both of your needs. For example, “Seems we have a problem here. I would like help setting the table for dinner and you really want to keep playing your game. Mmm, I’m wondering how we can make this work for both of us? What are your ideas?”
Keep in mind that involving children in this process meets their hardwired need to feel a sense of belonging (connection) and significance (that they matter/have something meaningful to contribute), while also modeling respectful communication. Searching for solutions with your child is also one of the best ways to build problem-solving, decision-making and critical thinking skills.
5.) Take care of YOU – Self-care is imperative to cultivating open, connected and loving relationships (with yourself as well as others) and is a crucial component when it comes to mindful parenting. Despite knowing this, many parents continue to put themselves at the very bottom of their “to do” list. They say, “yes” to everyone but themselves. The airline analogy is an important one, “Secure your own mask before that of your child.” The reality is, we can’t pour from an empty cup. Be mindful of how you’re feeling and what your own needs are. Make sure you are doing something kind, compassionate and nourishing for yourself as often as possible, no matter how little it may seem.
There is no doubt that parenting is hard work and there is simply no such thing as a perfect parent. Be kind to yourself. You are learning right alongside your child. Just know that you’re not alone – we’re all on this incredible journey together!