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Power Struggles with Young Children

Guest Author - Dr. Gwenn

Does this tale ring a bell with you and your family moments?

A few months ago, I walked by the registration desk at work and noticed a mom very focused with the registration process while a couple small children sat by her feet. Another child, presumably hers given the interaction with the other kids, sat a few feet away near a large and very beautiful floor plant--one of those plants with endless leaves and branches that seem to reach out to you. The child seemed intrigued by the plant. Here mom looked over a few times and hurriedly commented “be sure not to touch that plant.” Well, before you could blink an eye, the child touched one of the outer leaves with her index finger. Her mother looked noticeably agitated and pulled her over to sit with the other kids. “I told you to leave that alone.” “Why?” The child quietly asked. “Because I said so.” I’m not sure who was more uncomfortable – those of us witnessing this exchange, or the small child who was the recipient of her mother’s wrath.

We’ve all been in this mother’s shoes – so focused on the task at hand that we were a bit unduly short with our kids. And plants can be dangerous – although one could assume a plant in a doctor’s office has already passed that test. Sometimes kids do have to listen first and talk about what happened later. What can be difficult during a hectic day is to remember to make sure the talking part does happen and to make sure we don’t abuse the “because I’m the parent” card out of frustration or exhaustion.

To play devil’s advocate a moment, I wonder how the child would have responded had her mother instead said “Look, Mama’s busy now and plants can make you sick,” or “Plants are alive just like us. We don’t want to hurt them.” Mom could have also regrouped after snapping by making a joke at her own expense: “Mom just needs more coffee. I have a short fuse today.” Any of these retorts would have reinforced to the child her mom’s priority in keeping her safe but being willing to compromise and be part of the child’s interests. And it would have shown the child that mom is human and sometimes makes mistakes.

Power struggles happen at times, and, as frustrating as they can be, they are also an opportunity to learn something about your child. Perhaps there is a need or interest not being met. For example, in the plant situation, that mom could have asked the child later “Why did you like that plant so much?” Perhaps the child is developing a green thumb or found something interesting about the plant.

Perhaps the power struggle occurred because you misgauged what your kids needed to stay occupied while you conducted your business. Some things, like insurance and registration matters, take more time than our children have the attention span for.
Having snacks and activities on hand can be a sanity saver for all in a pinch.

The impact of power struggles can be lessened if we foster an aura of openness and communication. That can be hard in today’s world with everyone coming and going, even at very young ages. If you are finding yourself butting heads with your kids more than you’d like, you may want to consider that the pace of your life could be catching up with you. This is one of the driving forces behind the push for more family dinners. You can’t get much more downtime than the summer – so use it to your advantage. Use the lack of carpools and chaos to find small ways to build in family time that you can carry over once the fall hits. Family dinner is less about eating and more about regrouping – catching up over the day’s goings on. If dinner doesn’t work for you, have a regular family breakfast, lunch or weekend barbeque. Be spontaneous and go out for ice cream.

Also consider the setting of the power struggle. For example, the child I just discussed was at the doctor's office. Perhaps she was about to get a shot. Perhaps she was not feeling well. Perhaps doctor's offices just make her uncomfortable and nervous - a natural reaction for small children. In this case, addressing her concerns will go a long way in helping her feel more secure which in turn will yield more cooperative behavior.

Today’s power struggle over a plant or due to fear of going to the doctor may be tomorrow’s differences over puberty issues, clothing choices, friendship choices, dating issues, and school problems. For our kids to know they can come to us when they are in a pickle, we need to cultivate an aura of fairness and openness. Sure, some broken rules will have consequences – particularly if a dangerous or destructive situation is afoot. But most times old-fashioned compromise will do the trick. Start it young and it will be second nature to all of you when the stakes are higher.

Power struggles occur in all families but sometimes they happen too much for a variety of reasons: stress, anxiety, depression, school or work issue, to name a few. Family counselling or coaching are available in every community if you are concerned your power struggles are taking over too much of your life. Your pediatrician may offer this in the practice or know folks in your community to call.

So next time you snap or your child defies you, perhaps what you all need is to find your inner latte or ice cream flavor. While doing so, you can calmly explore what really happened and hope to avoid it in the future.
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