Certain summers as I was growing up, my family went to Maine to visit my grandparents’ cabin on a lake. I remember my grandpa allowing me the privilege of going out early morning fishing with him if I promised to be very quiet. We would board the canoe, push off, row to a sweet spot where the fish were congregating, and cast our lines. One thing I clearly recall being key to good fishing – having the right bait. If you lured your fish well, he would bite down hard and you could reel him into the boat with great triumph. Our kids can lure us into power struggles in the same way.
Hook, line, and sinker
It’s not like they intentionally bait us. though sometimes our children are frustrated, and they engage with us from a heart of anger. Usually, our tug-of-war moments with our children happen without much premeditation on either their part or ours. Let’s take a look at an unfortunate example from my family this week.
When my son woke Sunday morning, I reminded him we were having some friends over for lunch after church. He had forgotten about our plans and began to bemoan the fact that he wouldn’t be able to fit in completing his homework. I answered that he had been informed. We weren’t springing this on him. I added he could have done his homework anytime Saturday, or he could complete it after our friends left. He didn’t like that answer and continued to serve me a side-order of grumpiness over breakfast.
After church, my husband mentioned these passes we have for the movies, saying we should use them soon. The boys got super excited saying we could go later that afternoon. When I brought up the homework, my son said, “Oh, it’s not that much, and I can do it later in the evening.” I told him that wouldn’t work. He said, “Well, I’m not going to tell you when I have homework if you are going to hold it over me like this.” Bait … on the hook … and … she bites! I retorted that if he didn’t tell me when his homework was assigned, I was going to do x, y, and z. From there the throw-downs went back and forth between us. Not pretty.
Unhooking for good
Thankfully, in our home, we’ve been working on avoiding power struggles like this one for years. My oldest and I are the two in the family prone to engage in this kind of tit-for-tat. To his credit, my son left the room to calm down. I followed suit. As I sat in my room, I considered canceling his phone. I even went as far as to get on the phone company website to start the process. I realized I was in retaliation mode, so I stopped and prayed. Once I had calmed down, I went to my son’s room, knocked and checked to see if he were calm too. He let me in, we talked, apologized, hugged, and restored.
Even though we got caught in the unhealthy pattern of bantering, my son and I were able to disengage, take space, and calm down. Sometimes we think health in a family means never messing up. The longer I mother my own children and support other moms, the more I see deep health comes from being able to walk through difficult interactions, coming out on the other side with even more solidified love and connection.
Healthy families don’t necessarily have fewer conflicts. They simply know how to weather storms by calming down and restoring alliance as quickly as possible. Respect and love dominate the atmosphere. Humor also helps. Thankfully we have that in spades over here. Once we exit a conflict, we usually end up making a joke out of how ugly we all behaved. Laughter is a balm in families.
Steps to avoiding power struggles
Just by looking at the experience between me and my (precious) son, you can learn a lot about avoiding power struggles, and how to be freed from them once they start to ensnare you.
- Remember you are on the same team. In our home, we talk a lot about “Team Scott” and tell our boys that we are all on the same team. When we feel ourselves looking at our child as our adversary or opponent, our heart has slipped from a healthy place to one that is vulnerable to getting ensnared in a power struggle. Remind yourself that you are a guide and an ally to your child. Ideally, a mom will be their child’s strongest ally all through life.
- As soon as you recognize you have gotten into a power struggle, drop it. No one wins when we engage in dominating, proving our point, or overcoming our child. Even if you or your child “get your way,” in the end, the power struggle takes more than it gives. Realize that your best move involves backing out of the battle so you can return to the role of ally and guide.
- Allow yourself and your child to calm. When you back off to take space, you can move out of the fight-flight part of your brain. You will then be able to hold boundaries with kindness instead of losing your cool and lowering yourself to a verbal wrestling match.
- Reconnect your heartstrings as soon as everyone is calm. We can lead by example when we approach our child to apologize for our part in the power struggle. Talk through misunderstandings or hurts. End by hugging, praying, and restoring.
A resource for you
I have created an easy-reference tip sheet for avoiding power struggles. I use it myself during seasons when I find myself more prone to take the bait. You can find it in “the vault” along with a bunch of other freebies I made for you. Head over and sign in.
If you aren’t subscribed to my twice-monthly letter, sign up and you will get the password to access the vault in your welcome email. I send you encouragement and parenting tips that I know you won’t want to miss.
I am grateful you allow me the privilege of pouring into your motherhood.
This is so important. I always feel like I have to WIN any fights, and there are no winners. Thanks for these tips!
Thanks, Brittany. Yes! That insight has blessed me so much in my motherhood. Either we both win, or no one wins. So glad you came by!
Sarah Butterfield says
Loved this! I get into power struggles with my oldest from time to time and making space for both of us to calm down is key! And I loved what you said about reconnecting heartstrings at the end!
Sarah, I hear you. I remember my friend, Jessica, telling me it was never going to go well if I didn’t take space to calm. This was years ago. She said, “It may seem like things will get worse when you leave a heightened situation, but they won’t. Train yourself to go to your room to calm.” My son had a habit of going after me when he was younger. He would stand outside my door saying, “Mom. Mom. Mom.” I would say, “I’m calming down and then I’ll be out.” Then I would breathe and pray. It’s been a God-send to learn that skill. I don’t always practice it as I would like, but it has been a life saver and a family-changer when I do.” So glad you chimed in here.
Francess Levi says
Deep article,Patty , and very vital. It’s not very mature for a grown up to butt heads with younger ones anyway, although generation gap (one factor I believe is responsible for adult/child clashes ) and tech advancement in the recent age make it near impossible to get along! God help us all.
Thank you, Francess. I sure appreciate your comment and thoughts.