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Avoiding power struggles with your children

The truth is that it’s a common problem that, with a little training, can be overcome.

Parents can often find themselves inadvertently creating power struggles and reinforcing their child’s troublesome behavior (see chart).

The problem starts when a child experiences a stressful event, like frustration or failure. Stress activates a child’s irrational beliefs that nothing good ever happens to them, or all adults are unfair.

These negative thoughts trigger your child’s feelings. His feelings, and not his rational forces, drive your child’s inappropriate behavior. That negative behavior is what incites you.

As a parent, you pick up on your child’s feelings. But where many parents start to have trouble is when they mirror their child’s behavior during a conflict.

They find themselves yelling back, threatening and so on. This negative reaction increases your child’s stress, escalating the conflict into a self-defeating power struggle. And although your child may have lost this battle, he wins the war by reinforcing his irrational beliefs. Then, he has no motivation to change his beliefs or inappropriate behaviors.

The first thing you, as a parent, can do is to recognize some common irrational beliefs children can have. Some examples include, “Everything must go my way all the time,” “I should never have to do anything I don’t want to do,” and “I must be stupid if I make mistakes.”

When your child has those irrational beliefs and their feelings are triggered, they may resort to bad behavior. Your response to that behavior is critical in de-escalating the conflict between you and your child. As a parent, you could be sending what’s known as “you” messages that make the argument worse. These include, “Can’t you do anything right?” “You apologize immediately!” and “Don’t you dare use that language with me!”

Fortunately, experts in the conflict management field say you can overcome the cycle of conflict. Jennifer McEldowney, executive director of No Disposable Kids, a national training program that encompasses parents, school children and educational staff, says you can break the cycle by changing those “you” comments to “I” comments.

“‘I’ comments are less likely to provoke additional aggression, are less threatening to your child, and are a model of honest exchange between two people,” McEldowney said. “‘I’ messages are also helpful in interrupting a power struggle and in releasing adult stress in a healthy way.”

No Disposable Kids has a number of additional strategies developed by its parent organization, Starr Commonwealth, that can be used for managing conflict with your child. Remember to stay centered, appear calm and controlled and try, hard as it may be, to put yourself in the psychological shoes of your child. Also, be aware of the nonverbal messages you send and be willing to accept responsibility for your contribution to the conflict.

As the parent, you make a choice to permit your child’s irrational behavior, tolerate it, stop it, or prevent it. The key, according to McEldowney, is to create a structured and predicable environment.

“Come up with clearly stated rules, and stick to them,” she said. “Establish rituals and routines and maintain a daily schedule as best you can.”

If you’d like more information on No Disposable Kids, and its multi-faceted training programs that help schools identify their strengths, analyze their weaknesses and utilize practical prevention-oriented tools for creating safe and productive school environments, call 800-315-8640 or go to

— Courtesy of ARA Content

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