Pulling the Plug on Power Struggles

As our children go through the significant transition from child to teenager, most of them produce some interesting behaviours. Criticizing or shutting out parents, defiance, mouthiness, doing things to irritate you, the list goes on. It’s important for parents to understand what these behaviours really are rather than simply label them as disrespectful. In their move toward independence our kids are teaching us to treat them differently. This is individuation at work, teens are learning to handle life’s stress and pressure on their own and with their friends support rather than their family’s. A lot of needless power struggles can erupt when we take this behaviour personally.

When teens lose their heads or act poorly, they don’t need to deal with parental panic. They need parents who are strong enough to deal with their emotional struggles. Lectures on respect and moral values don’t usually go too far at this stage. Better to model self-control and remember to breathe deeply: in through the nose, out through the mouth.

When my daughter was 14, I expressed that I was feeling hurt by something she had said. Her response was, “I’m a teenager, Mom, I’m not supposed to be thinking of your feelings all the time. Just ignore me when I act like this. (Yes, she really said that.) Ignoring some of these typical behaviours is not being a neglectful parent. It is important to see them as part of a stage and not take them personally. This can require an incredible amount of self-discipline.

When behaviours cross so far over our boundaries that they can’t be ignored, we need to give ourselves time to think and cool down. When stress and anxiety are high and anger (ours or our teen’s) escalates to the point of no return, we only have one good choice: disengage. Get out instead of having to prove that we are right. Do not come up with consequences in the heat of the moment as this can devastate our teen and send him running out the door. Effective consequences are never born out of anger. Waiting until we feel calm will give us time to be effective and fair.

When it comes to teaching responsibility, a lot of great parenting is about what we don’t do. Not nagging and not rescuing kids from their responsibilities and the natural consequences of their choices is doing something powerful. In our children’s younger years we take time to teach them and give them feedback and guidance until they know how to do tasks comfortably. But once they have been taught, love means pulling back. In letting go of teen issues (such as hygiene, diet, bedrooms, laundry, homework, choice of friends, clothing and money) we give our teens a chance to experience real life learning, including small failures and how to recover from them.

When we back off from some behaviour and from issues that are our kids’ responsibility, we remove a lot of power struggles in the family. This gives us more room to maintain our own boundaries and deal with family issues: those behaviours that affect more than one family member, such as respect, contributing to family chores, keeping noises at a comfortable level for everyone, limiting phone use so others can receive calls, privacy, locking up at night, coming home when expected, safety, care of the family car, and using illegal drugs or smoking in the house.

Most family issues can be dealt with through communication. Use non-judgmental language and encourage respectful problem solving; these are powerful tools during the teen years. If we start by talking about feelings and needs rather than by criticizing our teen’s behaviour, we have a much better chance of having a respectful discussion. “I worry when you don’t come home on time. I need some reassurance and need to know that you are safe. Would you please call me and let me know you’re okay?” Some issues will need to be negotiated. Teens need to develop these skills to help them be accountable and to create choices for themselves. Communication can help parents relax and creates more freedom for teens.

Problem solving can work if everybody agrees they want to solve the problem. Family members need to agree to speak respectfully and not interrupt. Effective problem solving includes:

1) Identifying the issue and sticking to it. Avoid bringing in other issues or bringing up the past. Stick to the point.

2) Identifying everyone’s needs. Listen to your teen first. Make sure you understand exactly what she is saying and how she is feeling. Listen until you really understand your child. Once your teen has been heard, she will be much more receptive to hearing your concerns. Keep it brief and concentrate on your needs and feelings.

3) Brainstorming possible solutions. Have someone (you or your teen) write down all the ideas. Do not judge anything during this time. Just get creative, have some fun and bring in all kinds of ideas.

4) Looking at the pros and cons of each idea and choosing those everyone can live with. Compromise is the key.

5) Putting the plan into action and setting a time to follow up to see how things are working out. Two weeks is usually sufficient.

It might take some time to put all of this into place but the payoff will be well worth the effort. Teens need to know that they can be loved while they separate into their own, unique selves. Take time to enjoy and support your teens, and don’t miss any opportunities to give sincere, positive feedback. Even though he may not show it, your teen wants your acceptance, guidance and approval.

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