How to Give Appropriate Power to Children

Have you ever found yourself engaged in a power struggle with your child?  Most parents have and they can also relate to those uncomfortable feelings that often accompany such struggles.  Ironically, those feelings of frustration, being misunderstood and unappreciated, anger, exhaustion and powerlessness are all too commonly experienced on both sides of the struggle- by you and your child.

Feeling that we have influence over our lives impacts our sense of security and self-efficacy.  Think about this in the context of parenting.  When your children follow rules to complete their homework before watching TV and subsequently earn good grades, you feel that you are able to parent effectively.  You feel good about this and, ultimately, you feel good about yourself.  You are aware of the connection between your help with the child’s schoolwork and the resulting good grade.  This is true for children as well.

One way to manage power struggles is actively to elect to give your child power in the situation through choices.  You are not relinquishing your authority as a parent, but rather providing an opportunity for your child to grow.  Providing children with choices allows them to learn the connection between their behavior and the consequence (good or bad).  It also allows children to feel they have a positive way to impact their life.  As adults, we need to help children find those positive opportunities for them to  feel powerful.  As children see making a choice is an effective way to have influence and express oneself, children are less likely to engage in tantrums or power struggles as they can see there is another way that works.  Furthermore, as children grow, learning to make choices increases their sense of independence and self-esteem.  This is particularly important as children move into the teenage years where they are faced with difficult decisions and peer pressure.  Teens with higher self-esteem are going to be more likely to make safe and positive choices even in the face of peer pressure.

Tips for Giving Children Appropriate Power:

  1. Giving kids powerRecognizing your own feelings (without judgment) is an important step in taking control of these situations.  Once you are aware of your feelings, you can make a choice to model self-regulation and positive decision making for your child while you work to address the situation.
  2. Provide children with opportunities to make choices.  Giving children choices allows you as the parent to provide structure and security while fostering independence and self-esteem.  Children are more likely to connect their behavior with a consequence (good or bad) when they have the opportunity to make a choice that includes their action and a result.
  3. Natural consequences are a great first step in providing choices.  For instance, if a child throws a toy across the room, first ask the child to pick it up.  If the child will not pick it up, then provide a choice of picking up the toy or taking a time out.
  4. Allow children to express anger, frustration, and emotions in appropriate ways.  Encourage them to share this with you.  Listen and validate their feelings.  Even if you do not agree with your child, your child’s emotions are real to him/her.  Knowing he/she can share this with you even if you feel differently decreases their need to express this in maladaptive ways.  During this time, try to refrain from jumping into problem solving mode as this takes away the child’s sense of power in addressing these.
  5. Accept your child’s choice even if it is not the choice you had hoped they would make.  Acceptance–without showing your disappointment or frustration in that moment–will allow the child the autonomy of experiencing his choice.  Sometimes children may make a choice to earn a consequence for reasons that had not been apparent to the adults.  When all are calm, ask the child about this in a genuinely curious and non-judgmental fashion.  This may provide you with important insight.
  6. Put less emphasis on the punishment and more emphasis on earning privileges.  Children will be more motivated to work for a goal rather than to avoid a sanction.
  7. It is important to be consistent and follow through.  Structure allows children to feel safe.  This increases a child’s sense of security, independence, and self-esteem.
  8. In the case of older children, a great way to work in opportunities for them to feel independent and powerful is asking for their input on age appropriate issues.  For instance, in planning a birthday party for Grandma (assuming she does not care) you might ask your child, “Do you think Grandma would like chocolate or vanilla ice cream with her birthday cake?”  This shows your child his/her opinion matters and validates self-worth.  Building up self-worth in times when things are not a midst a power struggle helps to mediate the more difficult times.
  9. When things don’t go well, talk about it with your children.  It is important to share how you might have made a better choice as well as ask them about their part in a power struggle.  This is not effective when emotions are high: it is important to wait until both you and your child have had the opportunity to calm down.  You might even ask your child how to better manage this in the future.
  10. An appropriate way for kids to feel power in relationships is through play.  Play is the child’s medium for making sense of the world.  Initiate a game of make-believe with your child and allow him to assign you a role.  Allow him (assuming the play is safe) to be the powerful character.  As you continue to play, you may find the child will change the roles; this shows his process of working it through.  Play strategies are appropriate for older children as well.   Play is a great way to give children power and a sense of self-efficacy: playing games together provides problem solving practice and creates opportunities to practice winning/losing in an appropriate manner.

In essence, as a parent, helping your child find positive ways to have control in your relationship is a strong life lesson.  This is a challenging task and requires you to relinquish control of some things you may want to go a specific way.  In the bigger picture of your child’s life, however, if the child is safe and you feel you can accept a minor change in a plan, it will be well worth all your efforts.