Dr. Dave, I am having a problem with my eleven year old son. It seems like all we do is argue and I am tired. I try to explain what I am doing in terms of my parenting decisions and why I am doing it but it never ends. He is so strong willed but I am the parent. He needs to listen to me. Help!
Scott, You are not alone! For lots of parents, simple conversations can quickly escalate into a power struggle. As our kids start flexing their own muscles of independence, one of their developmental jobs is to find the outer boundaries of appropriate behavior. How far can I go? Who cares? This is especially true during key developmental windows (namely, the "terrible twos" when children begin the important work of developing self-will, and adolescence, when the prefrontal cortex goes under construction).
This can be especially challenging for parents of kids with strong-willed temperaments. It might feel like it is your child's personal mission to test you at every turn. It is exhausting! As you can probably guess, there isn't an easy way to completely iron out the road given that testing the limits is entirely developmentally appropriate. That said, there are a few tools we can keep in our tool kit to try for a smoother ride.
Remember his strengths
It can be difficult to remember in the heat of an argument, but your son's confidence and strong-willed nature is also his strength. What may manifest as a power struggle in your home can show up as leadership, persistance, or determination on the baseball team or in debate class. While you do want to guide your son and help him regulate his emotions, you don't want to squash his spirit. To keep perspective on his strengths you might try:
- Asking other adults in his life to reflect on his strengths with you. Parents tend to trigger power struggles like no other adult. Request a window into his behavior when he is around others - you might be quite proud of what you see.
- Reminding yourself that by navigating disputes inside your home your son is gaining skills that will serve him well outside the home. Studies show that teens who practice arguing calmly and persuasively with their parents are better equipped to resist peer pressure.
- Catching him "being great." Make sure you allow your son to continuously start with a clean slate. When we get into a pattern of arguing it can be hard to see outside of it. Recognize respectful conversations and tell him when you are proud of what you see.
- For parents of younger children - imagine the activities your child might participate in down the road. How will determination and self-direction benefit them? Keep this vision in view as you struggle with your toddler or preschooler's budding independence.
It can be tempting to want to prove to your son "who's in charge," especially if he is blatantly defiant. Turning to an "authoritarian" parenting style might be tempting in the moment but research shows that it merely causes our kids to comply out of fear of punishment or backfires and amplifies power struggles. Compliance is not the only goal. What we really want is for our kids to develop the internal capacity to make good choices and regulate their emotions. They can only do this with space to practice.
Of course, "permissive" parenting swings in the other direction and doesn't provide the structure our kids need to thrive. The most effective parenting style is a "balanced" approach with firm limits and consequences, respect for opinions, and limited negotiation.
We aren't going to be perfect parents and there is no such thing anyway. But it can be helpful to check in with yourself and your caregiving team (partner, grandparents, etc..) and consider whether you are practicing a permissive, authoritarian, or balanced parenting style. What do you want to continue? What do you want to change?
Everybody loses in a power struggle
Finally, in the inevitable case that setting limits and consequences does lead to an arguing match or power struggle try to remember these tips:
- Listen to what your child or teen has to say. You may not ultimately agree, but listening increases the odds that they will listen back.
- Do not debate, argue, or endlessly repeat yourself. Your job is not to "win" the argument or convince him that you are right. This is an unrealistic and unhelpful goal. Enforcing consequences calmly will help teach your child to ultimately take responsibility for his actions and regulate his own behavior down the road. That is the long term goal.
- Take three deep breaths. Take three more if you need to. Increased oxygen in the brain reduces stress hormones and increases the likelihood that you will respond using your cortex (thinking brain) instead of your limbic brain (the seat of emotion).
- Say to yourself, "I can stay calm." Repeat the mantra as often as you need to.
- Picture yourself staying calm. Do not get on your child's emotional roller coaster.
- Calmly repeat the expectation, rule and consequence. Do this only once.
- Follow through with the consequences consistently.
- If your child escalates, check out our tips on setting limits with an explosive child or what to do when kids hit.
- Have reinforcements available if possible. Call in a friend or family member if you need to take a time out yourself.
- Seek support from understanding relatives and friends or a parenting group. You are not the only parent challenged by power struggles!
As our child grows older, brain science is helping us better understand why parent-teen conversations can turn so quickly into arguments. These communication tips on how to talk to teenagers can improve the odds that every conversation doesn't end in a power struggle.
Dr. Dave and Erin Walsh
(A father-daughter team who endured a fair number of power struggles back in the day and have lived to talk about it!)