The three top causes of power struggles are: difficult temperament, delays in language development, and deficits in executive functioning.
Before discussing the causes of power struggles in more depth, I want to talk first about easy kids, kids who don’t get into frequent and intense power struggles. Most of us know easy kids. In fact, many parents of challenging kids also have an easy kid. These kids from birth just have fewer meltdowns, tantrums, explosions and power struggles than challenging kids. They generally get off the computer, accept that they can’t get the toy they see in the store, fight less with their siblings, clean their rooms with much less nagging, and do their homework with much less struggle than challenging kids. It’s not that easy kids never engage in these difficult behaviors, it’s just that they do so with less frequency, less intensity and they are far less easily triggered. With easy kids there’s more room to relax as a parent. You don’t need to be on top of them and on top of your game every minute of the day to get the minimum level of compliance needed to keep life more or less on course.
Challenging kids, in contrast to easy kids, beg for “just ten more minutes” on their computer game and then go ballistic an hour later when, fed up, you shut the computer off. Challenging kids plead, argue, berate, harass and finally explode when you when you say “no” to something they want you to buy them or to something they want to do. They hit their siblings with seemingly no provocation. To get them to clean up their things or do their homework you have to supervise every minute to keep them on task, and still you frequently end up in a fight. With challenging kids it seems like you have to be on alert 24-7 to keep things under control.
Why are challenging kids and easy kids so different? We call easy kids “good kids” and we have all sorts of negative labels for challenging kids: oppositional, defiant, willful, manipulative, angry, rebellious, and many people just call them “bad kids.” Ross Greene has a wonderful phrase in his book, The Explosive Child: he says, “Children do well if they can.” What he means is that all kids deep down want to be “good.” What distinguishes easy kids from challenging kids is that challenging kids frequently lack the skills they need to be good.
Challenging kids often are born with, what researchers call, a difficult temperament. They are just moodier and more irritable than their easy temperament counterparts. It’s difficult to resolve conflicts with others when your thinking is overwhelmed by negative feelings. We all know that when we’re in a bad mood we get irritated, snap, take our bad feelings out on others, and are generally quite difficult to get a long with. Some kids are battling these bad moods much of the time.
Challenging kids also frequently have developmental delays in language processing These language processing delays can be present even in kids who were not delayed in learning to talk. The processing delays I am referring to are related to the speed with which children can process and comprehend what is said to them. It also refers to difficulties understanding and expressing subtle or abstract ideas. These delays can mean that it is more difficult for the child to express him or herself verbally – such as what he wants, why she want its, or what he feels. We often tell little children to “use your words,” but these kids have a very difficult time doing this. It’s frustrating not to be able to express yourself. Because words are so difficult for these kids, they use yelling, door slamming, or hitting instead to express their unhappiness, anger, and frustration – actions that often set off fights and power struggles. Children with language issues can also have difficulty understanding exactly what is being asked of them and what the rules are in a given situation. Many times their lack of compliance results from a genuine misunderstanding of what may seem like an obvious request.
In addition to temperament issues, and language processing delays, I have found in my practice that almost all kids who engage in frequent power struggles are behind in their executive functioning development, which makes it more difficult for them to deal effectively with the frustrations, disappointments, and interpersonal conflicts that life presents us all with. This is true even of kids who do not have a diagnosable condition, such as ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Anxiety, Mood Disorders, or Learning Disabilities.
Executive functioning refers to the group of cognitive skills that enable a person to decide upon a goal and pursue it, and to respond adaptively to new or complex situations (like interpersonal conflicts). Just as an executive in an organization establishes the vision, or goals, for the organization, and then makes decisions and manages the individuals in the organization in order to achieve those goals, so too the executive part of our brains is in charge of setting goals, making plans, and managing the impulses and emotions that arise in us that may prevent us from achieving our goals.
It’s important to point out that executive skills are independent from intelligence. Very smart children can have poor executive skills. It can be quite confusing when your smart kid acts in seemingly “dumb” ways because of deficits in executive functioning.
To review, a pattern of power struggles doesn’t start because your child is bad – that is, lazy, manipulative, oppositional, etc… They start because the way your child’s development is delayed in ways that make it very difficult for him to comply with requests that other children have a much easier time with. It is also the case that a pattern of power struggles doesn’t start because you are a bad parent who uses inadequate discipline.
Let me repeat. A pattern of power struggles does not begin because you are a bad parent, or because your child is a bad kid. In the heat of a struggle it can feel like the problem originates with your child’s will when it is really his or her lack of skill. We tailor what we ask our children to do based on what is developmentally appropriate to ask of them. We ask a 5-year-old to clear her plate, but we don’t expect her to be able to prepare dinner. If we did, there would be a tantrum. She simply hasn’t developed the skills to prepare dinner. It’s not a matter of being willful. No amount of bribing, threatening, lecturing, yelling, etc… can give a 5-year-old the skills to prepare an edible dinner. Similarly, when we meet with oppositional behavior in our child it is frequently because we have asked him to do something that he simply lacks the skills to do, even though many other kids the same age can successfully accomplish what is being asked. So let’s put away the temptation to place blame – blame doesn’t solve anything – and get started addressing the underlying problems.
These two books are excellent places to get started resolving the underlying causes of the power struggles you are having with your child.
Ross Greene’s The Explosive Child. (click here to go to my review of The Explosive Child).
Stanley I. Greenspan’s The Challenging Child.