Captain Mom

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?

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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Tags: kids discipline

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Comments on "Avoiding power struggles: Parenting without bribes or threats"

Sey August 03, 2012 | 10:01 AM

Write article that speak to the parent, not to development help professional. What are the concrete solutions you are offering? What DOES actually work?

RT2K May 29, 2012 | 2:51 PM

This article is a waste of time, it begins with an over-simplified analogy that does not quite translate to the complex parent-child relationship. A captain of a ship is a figurehead, they guide the ship from afar, occasionally interacting with the guests, leaving specific interactions to lower ranked crew members. Parenting is a hands-on, fully-interactive endeavor. As other posters have noted, you offer no real working solutions or alternatives. If you think that saying, "I understand you don't want to take a bath when you're having so much fun outside, sweetheart," is the end of the bath debate then you obviously do not have children as another poster mentioned. Obviously I am here because I am looking for alternatives to punishment methods, however, the only thing worse than someone telling what you should do, is someone telling you what you SHOULDN'T do without offering alternatives.

Mindy Miranda December 07, 2010 | 9:03 AM

I agree with other responders - the article doesn't offer solutions, or examples of. Obviously this is to entice us to purchase the book, which is fine, however I would need to see SOMETHING workable before I put my $'s out. I don't agree with what is said about time outs. The idea is to get the child to calm down, then the learning can begin.

Joyce November 06, 2010 | 7:22 PM

How about some practical tips for handling those times when they will not brush their teeth or get dressed, etc. I agreed with many of the ideas in the article, but what I supposed to do instead of using threats or bribes?

MT August 23, 2010 | 9:14 AM

I don't know why I would buy this woman's book. This is the second (short) article that doesn't offer any alternatives. Okay, I agree with your reasoning about time-outs, the bribing, etc...but NOW WHAT? Ms Stiffelman, look at the section in each article that supposedly contains the "solution" and you'll notice that you don't actually give one.

Sandy Phillips May 02, 2010 | 7:27 AM

Listen some of that is true mainly the power struggles children do know how to use that to there advantage,'s wise to set the limits then the boundaries also.

Aaron April 19, 2009 | 7:47 AM

rework your example of the captain on a ship where the passangers are all children and he will be running around freaking out...logic with kids...brush your teeth because...ha

Aaron April 19, 2009 | 7:44 AM

you obviously do not have children.

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