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Avoiding power struggles: Parenting without bribes or threats

Susan Stiffelman is a licensed marriage and family therapist, educational consultant and parenting coach. Through her private practice, public presentations, workshops, teleclasses and website, she has become a source of advice and supp...

Captain of the family ship

Do you ever feel like you and your children are in a constant power struggle, and they seem to have the upper hand?
Captain Mom

Author and licensed family therapist Susan Stiffelman shows us how we can be the calm, confident captain of the ship in our child's life, in charge without using threats or bribes to steer the ship.

If you're a passenger on a ship, it might be fun to have the captain join you for dinner. But his true value to you isn't as a social companion; his importance is in being the one who oversees the smooth sailing you signed up for, scanning the horizon for potential obstacles and storms while you enjoy the midnight buffet. You want to be able to depend on your captain to competently handle whatever problems might come up, even if you don't understand what he's doing. It's a hierarchical relationship, with the captain assuming his rightful role as being the one in charge, and the passengers relaxing in the comfort that provides.

What you don't want is a captain who runs screaming through the ship if the rains start pouring down, shouting, "I can't handle this! Why is it raining so hard? This is terrible!"

Steady and reliable captain

When our children perceive us as steady and reliable, regardless of whether they're naughty or nice, we meet their need to feel cared for and protected. They may not understand why we want them to brush their teeth when "They aren't dirty!" or go to bed when they'd rather stay up till midnight, but their lives are generally happier when they have someone calmly and confidently running the show.

Many parents have trouble feeling they're in charge if their child doesn't do what they ask, and end up threatening, bribing or begging them to cooperate. For all practical purposes, the child, rather than the parent, is captaining the ship.

"But how can I position myself as being confidently in charge when my kids don't do what I tell them?" you may ask. "I want to be in charge, but my kids won't let me!"

Avoiding power struggles

Being the captain of the ship in your child's life begins with a decision to not let their behavior or misbehavior make you lose your cool. When you need your child to take a bath or do his homework, he senses the power he has to either fulfill your need, or withhold it. Instead, loosen the grip of the story that fuels your desperation. What are you making it mean if you child refuses to brush his teeth? That he disrespects you? That his teeth will fall out? By examining the often irrational thoughts that fuel our upset, we lessen their effect on us that feeds the drama, threats and bribes.

Kids are wired to push against anything or anyone that's pushing against them. In my book, Cool, Calm and Connected, Steering Clear of Arguments, Negotiations and Meltdowns with Your Kids, I teach parents how to master the art of avoiding power struggles with their children. Rather than coming at your resistant child to get them to do something, come alongside them, acknowledging their reluctance without lectures, judgment or criticism. "I understand you don't want to take a bath when you're having so much fun outside, sweetheart."

Gain control of your emotions

If you're able to manage your own reactions—by looking at what you've made their behavior mean—you'll be less inclined to use logic to convince them of the importance of bathing, and you'll be better able to elicit their cooperation naturally, with quiet authority.

When parents don't need their kids to behave a certain way to feel in charge and don't trigger power struggles with them, they are genuinely in charge. Just as it's a bit of a thrill when the captain of a ship momentarily hands the steering wheel over to a passenger, ultimately we want the reassurance we get when the captain is confidently at the helm, navigating the seas whether they're stormy or smooth, ensuring our safe passage.

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