Just seeing the term “power struggle” probably makes us reach for the migraine medicine. Part of being a teenager is breaking free of parents and others to become their own person.
However, since their brains are not fully developed until the age of 25, teenagers still need guidance in areas such as decision making, planning, and impulse control. This is one of the reasons that power struggles are such a headache when parenting teens.
Luckily, there is a way to diminish those struggles. By offering choices to kids, we can limit the scope of decision-making and allow them to still feel in control of their choices. Offering choices is a solution that is better than any headache medication for parents of teenage kids.
When Both Parties Need to Feel in Control
A power struggle develops when both parent and child need to feel in control. Parents know what is best. We need to maintain respect. We know the “big picture.”
While all of these things may be true, the phrase “choose your battles” is one of the most extraordinary pieces of wisdom when parenting teens. Too often, we as parents can lose our children to risk-taking behaviors or worse because we prioritized our need for control over listening to their needs.
Teens also want control over their environment. So often, they feel out of control over their bodies, friends, romantic interests, or their lives in general. Digging in at home and trying to assert some control with parents is a natural consequence of this need for control in their lives.
Teenagers know how to manipulate, push our buttons, and hurt us better than anyone else, too. When both parties need control, it is the perfect storm for a power struggle.
The Emotional Landscape of a Power Struggle
Power struggles can begin when either party says or does something that the other one takes issue with. Whether or not it is an issue can be different on any given day, depending on stressors, hormones, or other environmental issues.
It is an action-reaction-action-reaction-escalation process that can often lead to harsh words, yelling, or acting out on the part of the parent, child, or both. It is not uncommon for both parties to say and do things they regret when a power struggle arises.
As parents, we need to realize that we are not always right just “because we said so.” The way we react and the consequences we offer in the heat of the moment may always be the best choices for our kids in the long run.
When our reactions are emotional and inconsistent with previous parenting choices or guidelines, we may actually be unfair, like many teens will accuse parents of being. Avoiding falling into the emotional traps of a power struggle will help both parties resolve conflicts with less fallout short and long term.
Defusing the Struggle Before It Begins
One of the ways to defuse a power struggle is to have clear guidelines and consequences laid out in advance. This allows both parents and kids to have clear expectations when a situation arises.
For example, you might use “if…then” statements to create boundaries yet still allow your teenager to be in control of their choices. Knowing that if they exhibit a specific behavior, then there will be a fair, direct, and related consequence allows them the power to choose.
Consequences and the importance of following through with them are the topics of a “Beyond Risk and Back” podcast from Fire Mountain’s Aaron Huey. By clearly laying out the boundaries and consequences in advance, you not only diffuse the struggle before it begins, but you also give them both consistency and some control in their choices.
Offering Choices: Limiting the Scope of Discussion
Parents can also offer simple choices when potential power struggles arise. For example, saying “you can either have a friend over or play video games online tonight” allows them to choose an activity but cuts out choices of going out, going to a friend’s house where there is no supervision or other potentially risky situations.
As a result of offering simple choices, your teen still has control over what they do tonight. However, you have limited the activities to those which are safe and reasonable.
Offering choices allows them to make decisions while still allowing you as a parent to guide them. Power struggles are diminished or eliminated when you offer fair, reasonable choices in situations that could become emotionally charged.
Being consistent and offering choices that have the same consequences every time creates trust and gives your teenager a better sense of control over their environment.
Power struggles between parents and their teens are common and a natural part of development, but they do not need to tear the family apart or result in negative behaviors. By offering kids choices, you can diffuse the struggle before it begins while still allowing them to make their own decisions and feel like they have some control of their environment and life. Helping both parents and kids is the mission of Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center. We are an inclusive facility dedicated to educating about and helping resolve adolescent behaviors related to substance abuse, mental illness, and more. When it comes to family conflict and kids who are struggling, we aim to be the ounce of prevention and the pound of cure. We offer an extensive parenting curriculum, resources, and coaching to help your family heal together. Contact us at (303) 443-3343 to see if our program is right for you.