Winning the Parenting Power Struggle

Power Struggles with Children: How to Stop the Drama by Enforcing ConsequencesEvery Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week, let’s talk about power struggles with children.

I recently read about a dad who dialed 911 when he discovered that his teenage daughter had posted naked pictures of herself on Facebook. He was desperate, and to him this was an emergency. The dispatcher, though, wasn’t amused. She wasn’t in the position to do anything about it, because she wasn’t the girl’s parent. He was.

He was in the midst of the battle of all battles: power struggles with children.

Yet too often, by the time we have teenagers, we feel helpless.

Parents, there simply is no one else. You are in the unique position to influence your teens’ lives, and you need to take it. Does your teen have a cell phone? Does your teen have a computer? Internet access? A comfortable room? Dessert? None of those things is a necessity, and likely most of them are paid for by you. Therefore, you have leverage.

Unfortunately, by the time the Parenting Power Struggle rages in the teen years, winning it is much harder. Power struggles with children are easier to defeat than power struggles with teenagers. Yet too many parents give up in the early years, perhaps without even realizing it. Their kids don’t want to go to bed until midnight, so they stay up late. The kids want to eat junk food, and are picky eaters when anything else is in front of them, so the parents serve chicken fingers. Because of the absence of arguments, the parents feel like the children are obeying—after all, they’ve found no need for discipline. But children can’t obey if no rules are laid down. The parents have thrown in the towel.

But what happens when we throw in the towel too early?

We don’t end the Parenting Power Struggle. We simply delay it. Think of the amount of freedom that you give your kids as the shape of an upside-down pyramid. When kids are little, you don’t give them much leeway. But because of this, they learn to make good decisions, since you’re providing structure, security, and a moral foundation. As they age, you can give them progressively more freedom—the wide part of the pyramid—because they won’t abuse it.

If, instead, we let our little ones rule, you’ll find your parenting more like a right-side up pyramid: you’ll have to crack down hard in their teen years. Just when you should be loosening the strings to let them out of the nest, you’re tightening them because you’re scared of what they’ll do.

So how do we enforce standards when they’re young?

It doesn’t involve being mean, and it certainly doesn’t involve yelling at your kids. If you yell a lot but your child never actually changes his or her behaviour, then you haven’t done anything except raise the volume of the house and teach your child to tune you out. How much better to remain calm, express your disapproval, and then remove a toy, enforce a time out, or take away TV privileges. Do something with consequences, and kids will learn. Raise the roof, and kids will keep doing whatever they want to, they’ll just do it more sullenly.

This kind of effective, consequence-based discipline is hard, though, because it requires consistency, and some days we just don’t have the energy to deal with a kid who is screaming because they have lost their game boy, or their Lego, or their chance to watch cartoons.

That’s why we need that long-term perspective. Put in that work in the first five years, and you’ll have less of a chance that your daughter will be broadcasting X-rated pictures of herself ten years later. Don’t be afraid to be the boss, whether your child is 7 or 17. Steering kids in the right direction is what a parent is for. And there really is no substitute.

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  1. Happy Friday, Sheila! I just sent an email to your email address because a young lady who contacted me for advice needs your help! Her question was WAY out of my league but I know you are the perfect person to give advice on the situation. Thank you in advance for responding to her. I truly appreciate it!

    BTW – Did you see some of the comments on the question I posted on our FB community regarding your post?
    Fawn Weaver recently posted…The 4 Benefits of Making Love–For Her!My Profile

    • Thanks, Fawn! I’ll get to her question maybe tomorrow afternoon? I’m speaking at a retreat all weekend so I’m away from my computer most of the time! I’ll link to the post tomorrow, too. :)

  2. I feel like I am constantly in this battle with my oldest, and now his younger brother is starting to display the same attitude and disregard. Frustrates the banana’s out of me. But I am now trying to yell less, because I realized I was turning into “that mom”. And that isn’t the kind of mother I want to be.

  3. Oh this is what I needed today! My sweet little strong willed mouthy almost five year old pushes my buttons. To know that the limits I’m setting will hopefully (and prayerfully) pay off later down the road is just what I need to hear. :)

  4. Thanks for this encouragement – I’m just about to start down this road. I’ve always agreed with your pyramid principle that young kids need structure and rules and as kids age they should earn more freedom. Hope ill be able to implement these principles with my kids. I also think we need to keep in mind relationships. Yes definitely have consequences but we need to talk with our kids and explain Gods truths to them every chance we get….

  5. SO instead of making something else for our son who is very picky, when I make dinner and set the plate down in front of him, he is about to be 6 by the way, what do I say and do so he will eat and not whine at the table. Any and all advice is needed. This is one area his dad and I struggle in with him.

    • Honestly, Heather, some quick thoughts:
      1. Make dinner fun. Have a conversation that involves all of you. Play a trivia game, an I-spy game, memorize Bible verses, tell jokes, anything so that he’s involved in the conversation. If you’re speaking around and over him, he’s more likely to whine.

      2. Give him VERY small portions of everything. Then if he wants more of any one thing he can have it, but this is the minimum that he has to eat. That way it’s not overwhelming. But if he really likes mashed potatoes but hates meat, for instance, he has to eat his meat and carrots before he can have seconds on mashed potatoes.

      3. If he whines, give him a warning.

      4. If he whines again, remove the plate and have him sit in a time out, away from toys, until you and your husband are finished dinner. Keep his plate in the fridge. If he gets hungry later, reheat it.

      Do this for a week and you’ll likely have no trouble!

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  1. […] “Unfortunately, by the time the Parenting Power Struggle rages in the teen years winning it is much harder. It’s easier to have an effect when children are younger. Yet too many parents give up in the early years, perhaps without even realizing it…But what happens when we throw in the towel too early? We don’t end the Parenting Power Struggle. We simply delay it.” – Sheila Wray Gregoire  Read More HERE […]

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