Any other families get on one another’s nerves during this stretch of unbearable weather and absent Internet connections?
After being cooped up together in a tiny house with a faulty air conditioner and no access to Netflix, my daughters almost took over the asylum and, in return, were treated to one too many episodes of “Mom TV” (more on that below).
Oh, the return of the academic year, with its cool breeze and rigid schedules, seems like a far-off mirage.
Susan Stiffelman has some advice. She’s an expert on family dynamics who is a popular speaker on the subject and the author of the recently published “Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected,” Atria Books, (March 2012)
Stiffelman is adamant that it’s best for all involved if a parent maintains a position of authority during skirmishes.
One of her requests to audiences is to ask them to imagine themselves on a ship that runs into trouble. What would the passengers want the captain to do? Wouldn’t they feel best if he seemed confident and in charge?
Kids feel that way, too, Stiffelman says. Despite appearances to the contrary, they would rather the parent know best.
Yet the biggest mistake parents tend to make now is to shy away from the role of authority figure and instead rely on bribes (check), threats (check) and punishments (check), she says.
In talking with her recently, I asked for more guidance on how a parent might establish more authority in the house during the long days of summer ahead.
Here are excerpts from our Q&A:
Tell me more about your philosophy on how a parent can maintain the authority role in the face of challenges?
There are four basic elements in my approach, which support a parent being calmly and confidently in charge.
The first is attachment and connection. When kids feel close to us — when they know that we like them, and enjoy their company — they’re naturally inclined to cooperate rather than resist and negotiate. By inviting a child to spend time with you before she asks, or acknowledging something you love about them, you help prevent those power struggles that can wear you down.
The second is … parenting from strength, rather than neediness and desperation. I counsel parents to avoid making requests that begin with, “I need you to,” because it puts the child in the position of either satisfying our need, or create drama around resisting it.
The third is helping kids handle frustration so that it doesn’t turn into anger and aggression. As tough as it is to see a child struggling with disappointment, it’s better to help him feel his sadness than it is to try to talk him out of his unhappy feelings or fix his problem.
And finally, I teach parents to stay cool and calm, rather than turning on what I affectionately refer to as “Mom TV.” We often encourage our kids to engage in power struggles with us because our reactions are so interesting and dramatic. By looking at what we’re making our child’s behavior mean and not taking it personally, we can stay out of the drama, negotiations and battles that allow power struggles to happen.
Many families with multiple siblings have the children together during stretches of the summer, creating a struggle for power not just with the parent but among each other. Can you talk about how this plays out and how a parent can defuse the situation?
One of the best ways to deal with power struggles is to prevent them from happening. In the same way that a good captain steers away from the storm, parents can avoid power struggles by noticing when they’re most likely to happen.
If your kids typically melt down before dinner, lay out a project for them to work on that focuses their energy so they don’t act out with one another. Or have them decorate the table in an interesting way, or take turns being your sous chef.
If car rides tend to deteriorate (“He hit me!” “She hit me first!”), have car games ready to give kids something to do.
Make sure each child gets time alone with you to lessen sibling rivalry. Even a few minutes a day of your undivided attention will reduce the chance that your kids fight with each other for the prize of you focusing entirely on them — even if it’s negative attention.
Match-make between siblings, letting each one hear something you’ve observed their sibling saying or doing that helps them feel their brother or sister likes or admires them. “I noticed your sister watching you intently this morning when you were describing what happened at the park. She finds you so interesting. ... Have you noticed?” In other words, plant positive ideas in each of your children’s minds that help them see their sibling in a more favorable and friendly light.
In general, why do children need to test parents so much?
I think children have a primal and profound need to know that someone is competently and confidently in charge. When kids test us, they are trying to reassure themselves that we can handle the ups and downs of life without jumping ship, to use my captain analogy.
In my work, I describe three hand positions that sum up the idea of being in charge, versus in control. The first is with the right hand — which represents the parent — being above the left hand, which represents the child. This illustrates the parent being the calm, confident captain of the ship that reassures the child that all is well.
When the two hands are side by side, no one is in charge. This is where you have pushing and pushing back, negotiation, arguing and the like. I call this the Two Lawyers.
Finally, when the child’s hand is above the parent’s hand, the child is effectively in charge. They may temporarily be exhilarated by a sense of power, but it actually generates tremendous anxiety in a child to feel he or she is running the show so they test us, because they want to see if we’re actually capable of being in charge. When our hand is below the child’s, we feel desperate and out of control. In an attempt to regain control, we bribe and threaten.
Being the captain of the ship is about being in charge, in a way that comforts the child. When you’re the captain, you don’t get pulled into power struggles, and for the most part, you enjoy smooth sailing.
Are you witnessing more power struggles in the summer? What’s your strategy to stay in charge?