Power Struggles with Teens

Power struggles almost seem to be a way of life when a teen lives with you. Teens are in the stage of development that is designed to resist limits. Meanwhile, adults are committed to enforcing limits. It’s a natural conflict that leads to battles of control. However, it’s important to realize that the only power struggles you truly win are those that you avoid. During a “battle” with you, your child is actually getting your full attention, a chance to vent, and occasionally, they even get you to give in. The key is for parents and teachers to learn strategies that will avoid or defuse disagreements. Your ultimate goal should not be to “make” your teen do this particular thing in this particular moment, but rather to learn to make choices that will lead them to be successful in their lives.

Be Clear and Consistent

The best way to start avoiding power struggles is to develop some ground work before a disagreement ever pops up. Create a few (not a lot) house rules. The rules should be non-negotiable, important items for the family. They might be “no television until homework is finished” or “put dirty clothes in the hamper.” Your expectations for your child’s behavior and the consequences for breaking the rules should be clear. One of the best ways to make certain everyone understands is to write a contract. Your teen should have input in this process. A contract might say how often their room should be cleaned, what exactly is expected to be done for the room to be considered clean, and how your teen’s privileges (allowance, computer time, etc.) are tied to those results.

When a teen pushes back on one of the house rules, don’t argue over details or negotiate. Simply say, “Sorry, that is against the family rules.” Teens will try and outwit you, find any hole in your argument or start a battle. Don’t over-explain or renegotiate. Simply remind them of the rule. Additionally, if the teen knows the adult is likely to wobble, that only increases their resolve to argue or resist. Adults who do what they say they will, and enforce their rules each and every time, will have less issues with power struggles than those who don’t.

Pick Your Battles Wisely

Spend time with your spouse and decide what is important stuff and what is insignificant stuff. Then, concentrate only on those issues that truly need your attention to protect your teen’s well-being. Does it really matter if your teen dyes his/her hair? Will it be the end of the world if they wear those clothes? Many family conflicts are not worth your time and energy. The key to successful parenting is to know which battles are worth tackling. Sometimes you just have to let it go. Ignore the attitude. Agree to disagree. By avoiding minor disagreements, you create a peaceful environment and the space for a teen to approach you on more significant issues.

Stay Calm

A power struggle takes two people, so do not engage. When kids test limits or are disrespectful, it’s easy for adults to get emotional. However, when adults raise their voice, become irrational, or say something they regret later, the intensity level of the entire situation increases. The goal should be to stay calm, and help the child stay (or regain) calm.

Whenever you start to feel your emotions rise, remember that you are ALWAYS modeling behavior to your teen. Your goal is NOT to win a fight but to teach your teen life lessons about responsibility. Besides keeping your mind focused on your goal, other ways to stay calm are counting to ten, taking deep breaths, using positive self-talk, and taking a time-out.

Shift Responsibility

Power struggles occur because everyone wants to be in control. Rules, consequences, and limits often make teens feel powerless. Try to give your teen as many choices within their limits as possible. So, if your teen hates taking out the trash, allow them the choice of when they take it out so long as it occurs by a deadline. Having your teen give input into the house rules is another way that helps them feel in control. By turning the ownership of responsibility over to the teen, you have actually helped build their self-esteem.

Stay Respectful

Kids can often come across as rude and disrespectful to their parents, teachers or other authority figures.  No doubt, it can be incredibly frustrating. Unfortunately, many adults will respond by being rude and disrespectful back. Remember that you are the adult – you must take the high road (you do not need to prove that you are right and they are wrong) and model behavior you want to see.  If a teen sees you being disrespectful, then they will assume that their behavior is appropriate (regardless of what you say). When an adult responds to a teen with sarcasm, insults, and other jabs, they diminish and damage their relationship. Also, it is never good to humiliate the child in front of their peers and you won’t build positive relationships if you do. Talk to teens in private. Parents should wait until their friends leave or call them out of the room. Teachers should call them out of the classroom or speak to them after class. Also, avoid switching the focus of the situation onto the teens’ attitude; that only dilutes the importance of the issue at hand. Instead, address disrespect at another time.

Keep Consequences Proportionate

How many of us have yelled out “You’re grounded for the rest of the year!” in a moment of total frustration? It is so tempting to throw out severe and harsh punishments when tempers have flared and emotions are high. However, irrational consequences are meaningless to teens because they know they won’t stick.

Never give out a consequence in the heat of the moment, unless it’s one that you had predetermined in a contract (as discussed above). Instead, tell your teen that you will let them know their punishment tomorrow. This allows both of you time to calm down, deescalating your child’s anger and giving you time to reflect on a consequence that is proportionate to the crime. Another option, once you both have calmed down, is to involve the teen in discussing what they think appropriate consequences would be.

Keep Consequences Enforceable

It is important to choose consequences in which the adult has complete control.  For example, reducing allowance, refusing access to the car, and limiting time with friends are all punishments that can be enforced by the adult. Choosing a consequence that that relies on the teen’s cooperation, such as extra chores, are difficult to enforce and usually result in a new power struggle. Additionally, choose consequences that you are willing to enforce. If a parent states a punishment, but then lets it slide and doesn’t follow through, then the parent has lost all credibility and the teen has learned nothing other than mom or dad are pushovers.

Thank Them

Don’t ignore their good behavior.  When they meet your expectations, let them know you appreciate it! Reward their good behavior with positive remarks (thank you, great job, etc.), extended privileges (1/2 hour longer on a night out, removal of one chore, etc.), and/or a small token (certificate for a special treat, gas money, card with your thoughts of appreciation, etc.).

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