The most powerful tool for solving power struggles is a parenting journal. In your parenting journal you will record a narrative description of each power struggle, explosion, or other type of upsetting interaction that you have with your child. Each of these narratives will begin with the last moment that everything seemed fine and will include every detail you can recall of what you and your child did leading up to the power struggle and during it. In order to get the most complete and accurate description of the event possible, try to write the narrative as soon after the power struggle as you reasonably can.
You might feel that you just don’t have time to do this. Being a parent keeps life very busy, but even if you spend only 10-15 minutes a day with your journal it will bring big benefits. Power struggles take a lot of time too, and the bad feelings that they leave behind can detract from all other activities.
You might feel that it would be too painful to keep a parenting journal. Most of us feel so guilty, angry and awful after these episodes that we want to forget about them and move on. However, keeping a parenting journal actually helps prevent the unhealthy build up of painful feelings and stress that can result from family conflict. Psychological research shows that people who remember and write journal entries about upsetting events actually get over the bad feelings faster than those who try to forget about the events and move on. Recalling and writing about painful events is physically healthier too. It is associated with a reduction of health damaging stress hormones in the body.
In addition to providing a place for expressing and relieving the stress and strain of the conflicts you are having with your child, a parenting journal will provide you with the means to solve the problems underlying the power struggles. The painful emotions associated with power struggles disrupt our thinking and make remembering the important details very difficult if we don’t write them down. As philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is in remembering and writing down narratives of the conflicts that you are having with your child that you will create a record that will allow you to determine the cause of the struggles and make a plan to resolve them. Family dynamics are sticky. If we don’t remember and analyze our problematic interactions, we inevitably get sucked into repeating them over and over.
So let’s get started! First select your journal. Will it be a leather bound or other type of decorative journal book? a spiral notebook? on your computer? or on your phone? All are fine options. What matters most is that your journal can be kept in a place where you can access it relatively easily, but that you can be sure that others, especially your children, will not be able to read it.
After each power struggle, melt down, explosion, or tantrum find a few quiet minutes and write down what happened. Begin at the point that things seemed fine. Maybe you were preparing dinner and the kids were happily watching TV. Maybe you were waking them up for school. Next think about anything that might have been going on before the problem emerged. Your child seemed tired, or you noticed that he hadn’t eaten his lunch, or you recall that you were stressed or preoccupied with something. Often struggles or tantrums start with something small, but then build quickly in intensity. Try to remember what the initial moments were like. Your kids were jostling each other on the couch and you stepped in to stop things. Finally, record how things went wrong and what got the episode to end. You asked your child to turn the TV off and he blew up. You yelled, or maybe you gave in and let him keep watching TV so that you could have dinner in peace for once. Try also to record the thoughts and feelings that you were having. “I can’t take any more of this.” “I am failing as a mother.” “He’s so rigid, just like my brother (or husband, or father).”
Here’s a sample entry from an imaginary mother of a 10 year-old boy named Sam:
It was Friday afternoon and everything seemed fine when Sam came home from school. I was relieved that it was the weekend. I felt relaxed after a somewhat stressful workweek. I decided to let him have some extra computer time after his snack while I did some chores around the house. He knew we had a dentist’s appointment to go to and when I told him to get off the computer for the appointment – to my surprise – he agreed without too much grumbling. In the car on the way to the dentist’s office I mentioned that we would be stopping at Costco before going home. He blew up. He was yelling that it wasn’t fair, that he thought we were going home right away so that he could get back to his game. He threatened not to go in at Costco. I couldn’t understand what the problem was. He usually loves Costco. He pouted through the entire dentist’s appointment, but he did go in and more or less cooperated. Finally, I had to bribe him with ice cream to get him to go to Costco without a fight. I feel like nothing is ever good enough for him. Give him and inch and he’ll take a mile. I had given him extra time on the computer, but he’s not satisfied. He’s just like my brother. If he doesn’t get his way, he throws a fit.
In this entry there are a lot of clues to what might be going on. It’s Friday after school, so Sam might be tired from a week of school. He had a snack so hunger probably isn’t an issue. Although he handled leaving his computer game to go to the dentist, Sam indicated in his outburst that he expected to return to the game later. There were many unclear expectations around the computer game. Sam’s mom gave him extra time that she expected him to be satisfied with. Sam’s expectation was that unrestricted computer use would continue when he got home. The unexpected trip to Costco tipped things over the edge. We also see that Sam’s mom has some negative feelings that he might be reacting to. She was stressed at work. She associates him with her difficult brother. She sees him as a kid who wants too much.
So much information can be present in a single vignette like this. When you start adding several together, you will see a clearer picture of how the power struggles with your child get set off and what causes them.
Exercise: Write your first journal entry. Select a recent, or a bad episode with your child and record as much as you can remember. What was going on before it started? What were you feeling? How had your child been that day? What happened and how did it resolve?