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Family Power Struggles: How to Avoid Them

“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.”
– Peggy O’Mara


In my November 5, 2014 article“Family Power Struggles: Unintended Consequences”, I discussed the many ways parents are lured into power struggles with their teens, and how these struggles can erode family relationships and contribute to extreme teen behaviors.

I posed several questions at the end of my article for parents to consider, “Am I walking into a no-win power struggle? Am I giving my teen an excuse to vilify me? Can I find the leverage I need to set limits without using force?”

Here you will find four key principles and related tips to help guide you through the traps and snares of power struggling with your teen.

Principle 1: Refuse to take the bait

Are you taking the bait? Do you yell? Engage in arguments? Nag? Lecture? Threaten consequences? Give the silent treatment? Don’t look like the villain to your teen. Manage your reactions and avoid confirming your teen’s biases against you. Below are a several ways to avoid these traps.

      1. Don’t get angry. As I described in my preceding article, “A parent’s anger is often more convincing to a teen of the parent’s ‘villainy’ than any limits the parent may set, regardless of how strict.” While easier said than done, work to manage your impulse to react.
      2. Avoid arguing. Parents often argue with their teens in the hope that they will convince them, often though logic, that they should change. But arguing is usually viewed by a teen as a parent’s attempt to “win.” Like anger, arguing can cement the power struggle.
      3. Dump the lectures. Lectures don’t work. Teens usually know what you think even before the first lecture. The sixth or seventh explanation won’t influence them any more than the first.
      4. Stop talking about the importance of your authority. Over-emphasizing your authority is like wearing a “kick me here” sign. A teen learns very quickly that defying your authority is a way to get back at you for perceived wrongs.
      5. Buy time. Some parents feel powerless to manage their emotional reactions. Others think they need to respond immediately to their defiant teen in order to reassert their authority. While immediate consequences are useful for young children, a quick response is not always necessary with a teen. In either situation, buy yourself some time before reacting or tossing-out consequences.

Principle 2: Refuse to allow ‘power’ to define your relationship

Power struggles are often built upon years of conflict between a parent and child. Like a great sports rivalry, one team’s victory over the other only reinforces the losing team’s commitment to regain their advantage. A parent and teen must redefine their relationship to change these long-standing rivalries. Here are a few suggestions on how to do this.

      1. Reinvest in the relationship. Many parents feel lost about how to connect with their teen. Instead of hoping your teen shows up for ‘family game night’, take the initiative and join him or her in an activity he or she already enjoys. Get curious about your teen’s activities—even if at first you don’t find them interesting. It’s much harder for teens to vilify a parent who is also taking the time to explore their interests.
      2. Figure out what your teen really wants from the power struggle. Help to focus the conflict by discovering what your teen is really looking for. Here are four common ‘wants’ teens hope for during a power struggle. A teen may want one or several of these during a conflict:(a) To ‘get back’ at you—they’re mad at you, and you’re gonna get it! What did you expect? Again, if this is the case, don’t react in anger.(b) To advocate and/or negotiate for something they want—teenagers may lack the tact needed to clearly express their needs and wants. If a teen is sounding self-centered, try not to assume the worst about his or her intentions. Collaboration can work well here.(c) To feel understood—it’s incredibly vulnerable for a teen to just come out and say it. A teen’s defiance may be a backwards (but safe) attempt to get noticed and feel heard. Listen and summarize what your teen is trying to communicate.(d) To be left alone—if you’re in the habit of lectures, nagging, or excessive ‘check-ins,’ expect your teen to be wanting this one. While a teen’s arguments may tend to draw you into the fight, find ways to create boundaries and space for your teen.
      3. Draw out the locus of your teen’s pain. If you can empathize with your teen’s underlying distress—the locus of his or her pain—many power struggles can be circumvented before they even begin. To draw out the locus of pain, take time to listen, summarize what your teen is trying to say, and work to validate him or her. In our July 2014 blog article, Valerie Bond, MA described how to effectively validate others.
      4. Allow your teen to ‘save face’. ‘Eat crow’ when possible. Parenting is a humbling experience—embrace it by admitting when you’re wrong. You may be surprised when your teen starts to own a piece of the problem as well! As I shared in my introductory quote, “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.”
      5. A teen’s defiance may point to larger family problems. Defiance in a family is often a sign that something larger is amiss. If your parenting goal is primarily teen ‘compliance,’ then you are most likely overlooking important feedback that could lead to healthy changes in your family as a whole (and possibly an end to the conflict!).

Principle 3: Refuse to accept the burden of responsibility

Many power struggles result from parents attempting to force a teen to change—often motivated by their anxiety for their teen. Paradoxically, as parents press for change, their teenager often feels less of a burden to manage that area of life. “Mom and Dad will remind me anyways… why worry about it?”  Only the teenager can choose to change his or her life. Here are some ways you can shift the burden of responsibility from you to your teen.

      1. Give your teen the choice to comply. It’s a mistake to think that we can control a teen’s behavior. Instead we need to provide him or her with choices and allow the consequences to play out according to their decisions. Pre-plan consequences (suggestion #3 below) to help accomplish this suggestion.
      2. Leverage natural consequences. Why play the heavy all the time when real life can do the work for you? Recognize when natural consequences will speak the loudest.
      3. Leverage consequences that are in your control. Before I enter a power struggle, I often ask, (a) Can I enforce this consequence? (b) Can I leverage an alternative consequence that doesn’t require a power struggle? (c) Can I frame the potential consequence such that my teen will feel ownership of his or her choices? Often accomplishing these goals requires some forethought.
      4. Stay ahead of the game. Whenever possible, pre-plan consequences—discuss them ahead of time with your teen. When consequences are pre-planned with your teen, it is much harder for your teen to blame your reaction for the severity of the enforced consequence.
      5. Forecast consequences. Teens often have trouble considering longer-term consequences. Offer a clear picture of the longer-term consequences (both natural consequences and your own interventions) to allow your teenager to more fully consider his or her choices. If it turns out your prediction comes true, then your teen may end up surprised by your parental insight and/or consistency with limits. And in a better scenario, your teen may try to prove you wrong by making a good choice, and thus avoiding negative consequences.
      6. Get buy-in from your teen through a behavior contract. Include your teen in deciding what are appropriate limits for misbehavior. Teens often come up with reasonable consequences and rewards (unless they are committed to sabotaging the process). With a successful behavior plan, the behavior contract gets blamed when the rules are enforced, not you.
      7. Allow the consequences to hurt. If it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t work. Don’t rescue your teen from the pain of his or her choices. Don’t ‘forget’ to enforce consequences or reduce time restrictions—except in rare instances. An exception to this rule is when your teen is in immediate danger or in a high-risk condition. At times, the ‘right choice’ is not available to a teen due to the severity of the issue, and we must act on their behalf. We may need to intervene ahead of time to prevent our teen from a trauma or tragedy.

Principle 4: Refuse to play on the opposing team

As I suggested in my article “Family Power Struggles: Unintended Consequences”, a teen, consciously or unconsciously, may want you to react in anger. A strong reaction may become a ‘red herring’ (or a distraction) for the teen, preventing him or her from facing their own contributions to the family problems. Your reaction may also reinforce their perception that you are the villain—the problem. Resist playing the opposite role with these suggestions.

      1. Stand on the sidelines and cheer for your teen. You’ve likely done this at your teen’s sporting events, now do the same in other areas of his or her life. Encourage, praise, notice when he or she rise to the occasion, admire acts of care for others, and acknowledge whenever he or she shows great effort.
      2. Let your pre-planned consequences play the heavy. Why have a discussion about the consequences in the moment when your teen is already aware of what the consequences will be. Let your consequences do all the talking for you.
      3. Ask your teen what kind of support is needed from you to be successful. Teens often feel a greater burden of responsibility when they know you’re following their lead. It’s also much harder for your teen to act resentful toward you when you offer him or her help, as you are simply complying with what is asked of you.
      4. Master the use of ‘Socratic Questions’. Socratic questions are designed to elicit answers your teen already knows, but may not be considering. The goal is to stimulate thought and increase responsibility for his or her choices. Examples of these questions could include phrases such as, “What does our contract say?” and “Will this get you what you really want?” and “I wonder how you will feel a few days from now when I have to enforce that consequence.” I would not expect answers to these questions. In fact, I often dodge teens answers, particularly if I think it may cause them to ‘lose face’ or if they might tell me what they think I want to hear.
      5. Use language that shows you are playing on your teen’s team, but stay committed to your limits.Both empathy and limit setting can occur in the same breath. Here are some examples: “I would like to let you have the car this evening, but I don’t know how I could, considering our contract.” Or, “I know your friends are really important to you, and I wish I could let you go out on Friday night, but we know what happened when you went out the last two Friday nights.” And also, “I wish there was a way I could release you from this consequence, but I’m not sure I could and still be a good parent for you.”
      6. Empathize with your teen when he or she experiences a consequence from their own behavior.Our temptation may be to respond with a lecture, or say, “I told you so… now if you’d just start listening to me!” Instead, listen to them and offer encouragement. Show teens that you believe in them and want them to achieve their goals.

Avoiding the many traps and snares of the power struggle can be more than challenging. Practice these suggestions when parenting your teen. You may be surprised how quickly the power struggles end, and more importantly, how a new rewarding relationship with your teen begins!

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Brendan Bell, MA, LCPC

Brendan Bell is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in Illinois. He has worked in private practice for the last 20 years, with offices in both Deer Park and in Wheaton. His expertise involves working with middle schoolers, adolescents, and their families, with extensive experience addressing behavior disorders. Brendan also works with adults and particularly enjoys counseling artists.

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