Surviving Power Struggles with your Teen

Practical Advice if you have a Challenging Teen

By: Denisa Nickell Hanania

Power struggle. The words alone bring to mind anger, manipulation, bullying. Not what you want as a part of parenting. Unfortunately, for many parents, power struggles comprise the majority of their communication with the children they love so deeply.

 How do you identify a real power struggle?

A power struggles reveals its nature in the details. It’s often about something small and seemingly unimportant or a ridiculous demand. “No, you can’t skateboard on the ice around the dam.”

As you deal with the crisis, keep in mind that from the perspective of your teen, a power struggle is all about the win and not so much about what is being won.

Whose power struggle is it?

Is there a parent alive who hasn’t sometimes insisted on their own way just to make the point he has the power to do that? We’re all human. Sometimes we’re tired. Sometimes we want the feeling of power. Ask yourself why you are saying no. Is the issue a clear matter of right and wrong? Could it be a choice? Good parenting involves checking our own motives.

Parent Teen Power Struggle

Mother and Son at Odds

First respond without Words

Emotions are catchy so even if you don’t feel calm on the inside, once a power struggle has started, use your voice to communicate you are personally not out of control. Do this by looking him in the eye and waiting a few seconds before responding. When you do, intentionally lower the volume of your voice.

Assess the situation

Ask good questions in a way that does not ridicule him. This can be hard to do when emotions are escalating. You may be thinking, “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” Or “How can my child who seemed so bright in elementary school be so devoid of logic now?” Instead ask clear open-ended questions such as, “Help me understand your reasoning.” Or ask, “If you go to Seth’s house now, when will you be able to complete your English paper?” “Help me understand why this is so important to you.”

De-escalating the situation.

Try to de-escalate the situation by identifying an area of agreement. State “I agree with you ….” Doing this is difficult because frankly, you’re not focused on where you agree. You’re mentally already trying to get him to come around to your viewpoint. But surely there is something you can identify with. “I understand you want time with your friends.”

Once you have stated what you agree on be very careful to never follow that up with the word but. When you say but you are communicating, “Forget everything I just said. This is what I really mean.” It leaves the listener believing you are trying to manipulate him and it deepens his resolve to fight.

Allowing Mistakes

Teens mature by learning to use their power responsibly and part of that process involves making mistakes just as it did for us. So how do you determine if this is a mistake they should be allowed to make?  If the parent is having trouble deciding whether or not it is important enough to take a stand, it might not be. There are times to let a child suffer the consequence. Clothes seem to be one of those repeat issues for many kids. Wearing shorts outside when the weather is 42 isn’t smart. Hopefully, it will make your child cold, regretful, and a little bit wiser the next time. If you are worried about frostbite, print out the National Weather Service (NWS) Windchill Chart and let an expert decide. You and your teen can both see exactly how long a person can be exposed to temperature/windchill before getting frostbite. As long as the consequences aren’t permanent, let him suffer.

 Consequences or Not

Voicing a different opinion is not wrong. But IF the power struggle leads to behavior that necessitates giving consequences, then just like when your child was six, fit the consequences to the action. Don’t let your anger or your frustration at not being obeyed incite you to increase consequences beyond what is necessary.

Another option is to honestly say, “I’ll let you know the consequences later. I want to be fair and right now I am too angry about how disrespectful you are being to make a fair decision.” That response allows them to see you want to make a good decision and it models self-control.

You also have the option of tying consequences to changed behavior. You can say, “No more gaming until you can consistently talk to me without raising your voice.” Then when they have earned the privilege back make it clear it is contingent upon the good behavior continuing.

The most important thing to remember about consequences is never threaten something you cannot or will not do. Stop long enough to consider what happens next. Do you have a habit of giving big consequences then regretting them and backing down? Will a spouse or grandparent nullify the discipline by allowing the teen to do what he wants?

Never give consequences that you either can’t or won’t follow through on. All that does is short-circuit your power in the relationship and make him listen less in the future. Whether with big consequences or small, state them clearly and remain consistent to your word. That’s how you communicate that what you say matters.

What about you?

Sometimes you have your own reasoning for needing things your own way and your teen may not realize that. Considering your own need doesn’t make you a bad parent. Simply communicate the need honestly.

When our eldest son earned his license he felt he had earned the “right” to drive any time he was in the car. Usually, I didn’t mind. It gave me a chance to see if he was getting too comfortable with his skills. One day as we left the house, he grabbed the keys as usual and headed for the driver’s side. I announced, “I need to drive today. It has nothing to do with you or your skills. My life is just feeling out of control and I need to feel in control of something. I can at least be in control of the car.” He was startled and wordlessly handed over the keys. I followed up with, “Don’t you sometimes just need to feel in control of something?” (I was careful to model responsible driving.) The incident stuck with him because years later he and I were walking out to get in my car and he said, “Mom, life feels out of control. I need to drive.” So I handed over the keys and we had a good talk while he drove.

Consider why your teen feels the need for a win.

If everything turns into a power struggle it is possible your teen has a legitimate need for greater control in his life. That doesn’t necessarily have to be about you. She may wish she had more power in a relationship with friends but won’t tell you because she feels admitting it would be disloyal to them. Maybe you need to give her more control (in a safe way she can manage) or maybe you need to help her see she has power she’s not using in other areas of her life.

The only time you should ever engage in a physical struggle

The only time you should ever engage in a physical struggle is if there is no other way to physically protect a person.

Even then, if it gets physical, no one wins. Physical altercations either escalate the argument immediately or exacerbate a disagreement in the future. If you have reached a point where responding physically is the only option you see then for your teen’s sake, for your sake, and for the safety of other family members, it is time to involve experienced professionals. Let us know if you need our help.

If what your family is doing right now is not effective, consider Teen Challenge’s Gateway Academy for Troubled Boys in Bonifay, Florida. We take your son out of an environment that is not working well and provide a safe place for change.

We provide opportunities for diploma completion, vocational training, one-on-one tutoring, and participation in team sports and service projects. If this sounds better than what your son is currently experiencing, contact us. We care and we can help.

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