11-year-old Maria has a limited palate, 10 food items to be exact. She refuses to eat anything besides frozen waffles, French fries, chicken nuggets, strawberries, macaroni and cheese, peanut butter on apple slices with chocolate chips on top, cashews, spaghetti with butter sauce, cookies, and triscuit or cheese-it crackers. Notice there is a lot of yellow in her plan and little protein. Her parents have engaged in power struggles with her over this issue for three years to no avail.
Amy, 16, delivered a 1.8 GPA for her 1st semester grades, and her parents went off on her once again. They have nagged, yelled, punished, threatened, and done homework for her, but Amy continues to put forth little effort. Even when her parents have forced her to finish her homework, she “forgets” to turn it in. Her parents are exasperated.
These two vignettes illustrate two of the primary reasons why kids and teens engage adults in power struggles: for connection and for control. Instead of responding to these behaviors with anger, punishments, and control, understanding the etiology for the mischief can guide parents to more effective solutions.
Maria shared with me that her 16-year-old brother has mild autism, and takes a lot of her parent’s time and energy. Her 18-year old sister is a star athlete, and so Maria gets dragged along to all of her games because her parents won’t let her stay home alone yet. She told me through tears that she used to get attention from her parents by being the cute baby who needed taken care of until that stopped when she entered grade school. She wanted to be noticed, and refusing foods became the only way she found to get her parents to deal with her.
We developed a plan for Maria to find better ways to get love and notice at home. Her parents committed to spending some special one-on-one time with her, and Maria committed to telling her parents if she felt left out and to ask for what she wanted.
Amy is a strong-minded, intense girl who has demanded more autonomy since her toddler days. She will engage any adult who is disrespectful, doesn’t listen to her or give her a say in things, or who is controlling. The payoffs for refusing to invest in school are a sense of control and power. I have seen girls willing to fail, shut out their families completely, or date the scuzziest guy in school as a way to let their parents know, “You can’t control me!”
I help teens see that they might win the immediate battle but they are losing the war. They also need to understand that even though they feel powerful when they go toe-to-toe with adults, in reality they are giving their power away because they are still not making choices for them. It’s still about their parents, either doing or not doing something to show people. Often times, their choices are not in their best interest, like Amy’s GPA; thus they lose the war.
Kids like Amy need parents who refuse to engage them in power struggles, and who proactively give them more power and control appropriately by giving them: more choices and decision-making, places to lead and be valuable, chances to solve their own problems and conflicts, greater responsibility, the ability to set boundaries at home, and places to take risks and stretch themselves. In this way you are giving them what they are craving, appropriate power and control over their lives.
Wanting to feel loved and important and wanting more control are both desires that are reasonable and universal. When you fulfill these needs, the power struggles quickly melt away, and you will get your child’s best instead of their worst.