It's good to talk: how dialogue can nip power struggles in the bud
Sarah and her son Jeremy, 15, often get into power struggles. It used to be so easy, she says. 'If I asked him to do something he did it. If I said no he accepted it.'
For his part, Jeremy says he's sick of his mother's nagging. Sarah feels that if she doesn't keep at him nothing gets done. This is affecting their relationship.
Power struggles with adolescents arise because parents no longer have the ability to fulfil or restrict their needs. Punishments don't hold as much punch and parents trying to exert their authority often see it being ignored.
This leaves parents without the leverage to get their teen to comply with requests, and results in conflict.
Conflict can be beneficial. If handled in the right way, it can bring people closer together. Each person has a chance to express their feelings and needs. Resolving conflicts in a healthy manner is more important than how many conflicts you are having. It will eventually lead to fewer arguments over time.
The problem with the way that conflicts are normally played out is that, when one side experiences defeat, anger ensues. Sarah is having a war of wills. 'I want Jeremy to come home at midnight, but he often wanders in around 3am. He believes I am being over-protective. I know he is safe but there need to be rules so he learns responsibility.
'My husband and I agreed that one night out on the weekend is enough. But he insists on going out on Friday and Saturday. He gets tired and does not put much effort into his homework. Sometimes, he does not even do it.
Sarah berates herself for calling Jeremy lazy and thinking negatively of him. 'I don't like thinking ill of my child. But I am not at all happy with him right now.' Nagging parents are generally the ones forcing their children to do what they ask rather than giving them the chance to co-operate. With a choice and some negotiation, adolescents feel they have some governance over their own actions and behaviour. This leads to self-disciplined and responsible children.
Jointly imposed solutions mean a child will be more invested in carrying them out. This will lessen the resentment if they are forced to do something. If parents use power to dictate their children's behaviour, the child's motivation is diminished when the parents are not around.
When I talk with Jeremy, he questions his mother's love for him. He thinks his mother doesn't like him very much. He feels that nothing he does is good enough for her and he is stressed by the constant threat of arguments.
Jeremy wants to ask his parents about drinking and drugs, as both have been passed around on his nights out. But he's afraid they won't let him go out if he tells them.
The closer a child feels to his parents, the easier it is to come to them when situations arise. Jeremy has tried alcohol. He refused drugs, but is curious about them. Parents deprive themselves of crucial conversations with their children if they are overly permissive or too controlling.
To resolve conflicts, the outcome must be acceptable to both sides. Parents should invite a discussion with their child when there is an issue. They need to contribute several solutions and analyse them before they decide which to use.
Paraphrasing will improve your ability to relate to your children, helping them to feel understood and accepted. You have to reflect back what you have heard. The tone of voice used and the body language need to be open and receptive. Here's an example of paraphrasing:
Jeremy: I don't see why I need to come home at 12. Three is fine, nothing will happen to me. I'm with my friends.
Sarah: It's just that you are tired the next day and find it difficult to get your homework done.
Jeremy: I am getting it done.
Sarah: Yes, but do you feel that you put in your best effort?
Jeremy: I am just having fun. Why can't you get off my back?
Sarah: You just want to have fun at the moment.
Jeremy: No, but I am stressed with school and you are always going on about my studies.
Sarah: You're not happy at school.
Jeremy: I hate it and I hate my teacher Mr McKenzie. He keeps saying if I work harder I will get better grades.
Sarah: It sounds like you are annoyed and that Mr McKenzie would like you to do better.
Communication like this gives teenagers a chance to release their pent-up emotions.
When you try to understand rather than judge, they are more willing to co-operate.
To get a different outcome parents must do a different dance, even if it feels a little foreign to be learning new steps.
When you provide a win-win solution for all and listen to your child's feelings and needs, your relationship will noticeably improve.
Hayley Thomas is a therapist specialising in child, adolescent and family issues