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‘Parenting Without Power Struggles’: Who is in charge?

In "Parenting Without Power Struggles," licensed psychotherapist and a marriage/family therapist, Susan Stiffelman offers simple, innovative steps to make your relationship with your children towards a stronger, healthier and happier one. Here's an excerpt.How to Be the Captain of the Ship Through Calm and Stormy Seas A frightened Captain makes a frightened crew. —Lister Sinclair If you’re a p
/ Source: TODAY books

In "Parenting Without Power Struggles," licensed psychotherapist and a marriage/family therapist, Susan Stiffelman offers simple, innovative steps to make your relationship with your children towards a stronger, healthier and happier one. Here's an excerpt.

How to Be the Captain of the Ship Through Calm and Stormy Seas

A frightened Captain makes a frightened crew.

—Lister Sinclair

If you’re a passenger on a cruise ship, it’s kind of cool if the Captain joins you for dinner. But his true value isn’t as a social companion; you want and need him to be the guy who oversees the smooth sailing you signed up for, steering the ship through storms or around icebergs while you blithely sing your heart out at the karaoke bar. You want to be able to depend on the Captain, whether or not you like him or understand everything he’s doing. It’s a hierarchical relationship, with the Captain assuming his rightful role as the one in charge, and the passengers relaxing in the sense of safety that comes from knowing they can rely on someone to competently steer the ship through calm and rough waters.

Many parents believe it’s important that their children see them as their friends. But in truth, children need us to be the Captains of their ships. I’m not suggesting parents should be in control of their kids; I’m suggesting they need to be in charge. There’s a difference. Control—as I’m using the word—is an attempt to compensate for feeling powerless or afraid. Being in charge means that we’re capable of keeping our cool even when the seas are rough—or our kids are pushing our buttons, defying our requests, or melting down.

When our children perceive us as steady and calm—regardless of their moods or behavior—they can relax, knowing they can count on us to get them through the challenging moments of their lives.

Imagine our reaction as passengers if we saw the Captain completely lose his cool upon discovering that his vessel had a leak. Wouldn’t our confidence in him take a nosedive if he ran around the deck screaming, “It can’t have a leak! This is a state-of-the art ship! We spent fifty thousand dollars getting it checked before leaving port!”

If our Captain were incapable of dealing with reality, it would significantly undermine our sense of security. If he responded to rough waters by running through the ship, shouting out in panic, “Oh, no! I can’t handle this!” we’d be very worried. In the same way, when we refuse to deal with reality as it is—our child’s anger toward his sister or our teenager’s use of alcohol—we leave him without the sense of comfort that comes from knowing he has someone capable of getting him safely through whatever crisis he might be experiencing.

When our children perceive us as steady and calm—regardless of their moods or behavior—they can relax, knowing they can rely on us to get them through the challenging moments of their lives.

We want a Captain who anticipates where the rough waters might be, who adjusts his course to avoid bad weather when possible, and who stays cool when things go wrong. If there is a storm, we are far more comforted by a Captain who takes charge, calling out directions to his crew with authority and issuing instructions to the passengers about where to go to stay safe, than we would with one who cowered in a corner or jumped ship. Similarly, when we fully inhabit the role of Captain of the ship of our home and family, we set the stage for providing the quiet and comforting authority that our children so profoundly need.

Pushing Creates Power Struggles and Resistance

In my workshops, I illustrate an important idea by having participants stand up with their palms against mine. Without giving any instructions, I lean forward, pushing forcibly against their hands. Invariably, they push back with equal or greater force. After this demonstration I ask, “Did I ask you to push against me?” Their answer is always, “No, actually, you didn’t!”

What we discover is that when one person in a relationship starts pushing, the other instinctively pushes back. But you can’t have two people pushing against each other if one of them doesn’t participate! You can’t have a power struggle with only one person engaged.

Although the actual words and actions you take with a child who won’t get up in the morning will depend on all kinds of variables—his investment in getting to school on time, his age, the consequences he might face from teachers if he’s late—what’s important is the energetic place you inhabit as you parent. When you’re firmly rooted in your authority as the Captain of the ship, these dramatic, escalating interactions with your children cannot happen. The Captain doesn’t negotiate with his crew or passengers to be in charge; he simply is in charge.

What is the first requirement for staying grounded in your authority? Remain calm, at all costs. It becomes much easier to stay centered when you let go of giving your children the power to make or break your serenity depending on how they behave.

Children Want and Need to Feel Dependent on Us

As fun as a passenger might think it would be if the Captain were to hand the steering wheel over to him, after a moment or two he would start to feel edgy and insist that the skipper take over. As passengers, we want the sense of security that comes from knowing the Captain is confidently at the helm.

Have you ever noticed the difference in children’s behavior when there’s a blackout or a disaster, or when they’re in a foreign country? Kids are more compliant and cooperative when they’re in an unfamiliar situation; their natural instinct to follow their parents is fully activated in these situations. There’s something about being dependent on a parent that’s comforting to a child. (I’ve even seen parents who’ve tripped the circuit breakers in their house when things got terribly out of hand in order to “create” a blackout situation in which the kids had to look to Mom and Dad for guidance and comfort!) Children want us to be lovingly in charge. They need it. There are hundreds of situations in which parents forfeit their position as Captain, but I’ve yet to see one that couldn’t be corrected by these ideas:

• Focus on loosening your need for your child to behave properly so that you can feel you’re a good parent.

• Explore the meaning you’re assigning to your child’s problematic behavior.

• Let go of the drama and threats that simply emphasize how out of control you’ve become.

• Come alongside your child, rather than at him, so he feels you’re his ally and advocate.

• Create a plan and stick to it with quiet authority, even at the cost of having your child dislike you.

• Love your child in the way he most needs it: by being the calm, confident Captain of the ship as your child navigates the sometimes smooth, sometimes rough, waters of growing up.

Excerpted from PARENTING WITHOUT POWER STRUGGLES by Susan Stiffelman, MFT. Copyright © 2012 by Susan Stiffelman, MFT. Excerpted with permission by Atria, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.