Understanding the Factors that Maintain a Cycle of Power Struggles

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Once language processing issues, temperamental issues, and executive skills issues have started a pattern of power struggles between a challenging child and his or her parents (see my previous post on what causes power struggles), other factors can arise which maintain and even intensify the pattern of struggle. Here are several ways that patterns of power struggles can become further entrenched. As a history of power struggles becomes entrenched over time, maintaining factors become even more important to understand and address if the cycle is going to be interrupted.


Unintentionally Rewarding Your Child for Fighting with You


When a challenging child starts pleading, begging, harassing, arguing, and fighting with us when we set a limit, or when we say “no” to something he wants, it is very tempting to give in and let the child have his or her way. Nobody wants to fight with their child, and nobody wants to see their child so upset, but by giving in to the tantrum, we unintentionally teach our child that explosions and power struggles are a way to get what you want. In giving in to the explosion, we reward the behavior, thereby making it more likely to occur.


Another way to unintentionally reward our child for engaging in power struggles is to allow ourselves to be drawn into the struggle. Children need our emotionally engaged attention. In the busyness of our lives and in the midst of constant pulls on our attention from work, household responsibilities, or our phones, it is easy to be less than fully present for our kids. If they feel unable to get our positive engaged attention, our children often misbehave and cause struggles to at least get our engaged negative attention. They don’t do it consciously; it’s an automatic reaction to inattention. To children, bad attention is better than too little attention. If our kids succeed in getting our engaged, passionate attention by being uncooperative, we unintentionally reward them for misbehavior.


Negative Beliefs and Expectations


A repeated pattern of power struggles can leave parents and children not only with bad feelings, but also with negative beliefs and expectations. Power struggles and fights can lead a child to conclude incorrectly that his parents don’t like him, that they don’t want him to have what he wants, and that they don’t want him to be happy. A child with these beliefs feels that he can’t get what he wants from his parents through cooperation. He thinks that the only chance for getting what he wants is through fighting. These negative beliefs and expectations create a self-fulfilling prophesy. They lead a child to pay attention only to interactions with the parents that confirm his negative view. Positive interactions are given very little weight. Also, because these beliefs and expectations lead to more fighting, the child experiences more negative interactions with his parents which, in turn, solidify his negative beliefs.


Parents also can develop negative beliefs and expectations about their child. They can come to see their child as disrespectful, selfish, self-centered, disobedient, manipulative, etc… These negative beliefs can lead parents to overreact to misbehavior, to misinterpret their child’s motives as malicious, and to be slow to recognize change in their child.


Parental negative expectations interact with the child’s negative expectations about the parents to create a vicious cycle in which each looks for and brings out the worst in each other.


Anger and Self Esteem Problems


Children with difficult temperaments, language processing problems, and executive functioning issues often feel frustrated, incompetent, and bad about themselves because of all of the difficulties and struggles they experience with other people. When the feelings are angry feelings, children can cause fights and power struggles to express their anger. When the feelings have to do with negative self-image (I’m bad, I’m not lovable), children can cause fights and power struggles to get the anger or punishments from their parents that they feel they deserve.


Some parents can find it difficult to recognize self-esteem problems in their challenging children. Their child might refuse to apologize for hurtful behavior, the child might insist that he doesn’t care that he has acted badly or hurt someone else. The child might appear superior, arrogant or aloof rather than appropriately remorseful. When kids act like this, I often hear their parents express a worry that their child has no empathy or seems cold hearted. These behaviors that appear unempathic – refusing to apologize, saying “I don’t care” in the face of another’s hurt, or acting aloof – in most cases actually reflect the child’s efforts to protect himself from the pain associated with low self-esteem. Most children do not want to be hurtful and bad, but when they already feel badly about themselves, requests for apologies or a show of remorse can feel to the child like he is being shamed.


Power Struggles are Communications


It is important to point out that oppositional behavior in a child is, above all else, a communication. First the struggles are a communication to you about your child’s temperamental difficulties, language processing problems, or executive functioning deficits. Second, your child might be telling you with his actions that he feels angry, depressed, bad about himself, unloved, in need of your attention, etc… Most of us, however, draw incorrect conclusions about what is being communicated in the oppositional behavior. We think it’s personal (“I don’t respect you”), or it’s a statement about your child’s character (“I’m a selfish person”), or it’s a prediction about the future (“You think I’m difficult now, wait until I’m 15!”).

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