How is this happening again?
Just a few short moments ago, you were enjoying a calm, relaxing moment together with your child when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, came a full-blown power struggle!
Cue the tears, yelling and hurtful words.
If you’re like most parents, you desperately try to avoid these moments.
They’re not fun.
They’re embarrassing. (Especially with judgmental onlookers questioning your every move.)
But the worst part about power struggles is that they seem to take away way too many of those precious moments you have with your kid (and he’s growing so fast, you don’t want to miss any more of them).
You’ve probably tried all of the standard advice for preventing power struggles…
- You pick your battles
- You give him choices
- You ignore what you can tolerate
- You might even give in every once in awhile because his request isn’t that out of line
But even with these tactics, sometimes avoiding a power struggle just isn’t possible. When he’s acting in a way that’s inappropriate and cannot be ignored, you feel like you’ve got to do something.
How do you sidestep the argument so that you don’t have to get caught in yet another stressful power struggle, yet remain the type of parent you want to be, one who has expectations and rules, not a doormat who folds at every sign of conflict?
As a counselor in residential treatment centers and child protection cases, I’ve seen some of the most oppositional, defiant, and argumentative behaviors there is to see.
On a daily basis, I found myself on the losing side of a never-ending cycle of power struggles. Boy! Did these kids know how to argue with anything!
I was exhausted and starting to resent the job that I had once loved.
Over time, out of sheer desperation, I had to develop some techniques that would help me survive these encounters, while also teaching the kids a valuable lesson. Becoming permissive during these situations was only going to cause more problems for these kids in the long-run.
These techniques, when practiced over time, helped change that fighting mentality into a cooperative mindset (and restored my love of my job!).
Now that I’m in private practice and run a blog for moms of strong-willed children, I share these techniques in a step-by-step guide that helps stressed out parents who ask in desperation, “Why does everything have to become a fight? Why can’t he just say, ‘OK’ every once in awhile?!”
When parents ask me how they can avoid the power struggle without becoming a permissive parent, I share one of my favorite tricks with them. I call it, The Narrator Technique. This technique–with roots in a research-backed counseling technique called person-centered counseling— helps your child to figure out the right answers on his own, with you as a guide, but not the expert.
When done correctly, this little trick allows you to:
- Stop the headbutting of a power struggle,
- Help your child figure out how to make an appropriate choice, and
- Retain the positive, loving relationship you have with your child
Sounds great right?
Now I’d like to forewarn you…whenever I share this technique with parents, they give me a funny look.
They think that it sounds silly and awkward…
They think it sounds too simple to have any impact…
And – because they’re so sick and tired of arguing with their kid – they’ve become pretty pessimistic that anything is ever going to work, so they think that there’s no way this trick will work for their kid…
And many times it doesn’t … at least not right away.
Typically, when I first share this trick with parents, they return to my office or send me an email saying, “That didn’t work at all!” As I talk with them, I learn that they started the technique off right, but then quickly lost sight of the goal of the technique and returned back to their old habits…and found themselves embroiled in yet another power struggle.
But, once these parents are able to use the technique in its true form (and keep old habits out of the picture), they’re shocked to realize that not only does this help to stop the power struggle, but they actually enjoyed having a conversation with their child (and he actually learned something in the process!).
So, before you write this technique off as too simple to work with your argumentative child, give it a shot! Follow each of the guidelines below and see what kind of impact it has on your child’s behavior. (And your relationship with him!)
The Narrator Technique
When you are involved in a power struggle, you are an active participant in the argument. You have an opinion and a goal, which typically includes finding ways to encourage your child to realize that you are right and to come over to your side of the argument.
Quite often, this is not successful. If you have a strong-willed child, it’s almost never successful.
In The Narrator Technique, I ask you to step out of the role of “Active Participant” in the argument and transition into the role of “Narrator.” Instead of justifying your opinion and providing counter-arguments to your child’s opinion, you’re simply present to narrate your child’s words, actions and opinions.
Sounds weird, right?
It does feel a little bit weird at first, simply because it is so out of the norm from our experience.
As adults, we are accustomed to giving directions or commands to kids. In fact, at a Keynote I attended last Spring at a conference for early childhood educators, Teacher Tom shared an alarming statistic about the communication adults have with children: 80% of the words adults speak to children are commands.
Isn’t that an alarming amount? No wonder power struggles are so frequent! We aren’t really giving kids a chance if we spend 80% of the time we talk to them ordering them around. At this rate, we’re begging them to argue with us!
The Narrator Technique allows you to step away from that obsession with giving directions thus eliminating the need for any power struggle.
Let’s take a look at The Narrator Technique in practice to give you a better idea of what it looks like.
Alex: I want to go to the park.
Mom: Sorry Alex. We can’t go to the park right now.
Alex: You never let me do anything I want to do!
[The Narrator Technique begins]
Mom: So you feel like I never let you do anything you want to do; that I’m in charge of everything and you get no say in what happens.
Alex: Yeah! You’re always telling me what to do and I hate it!
Mom: You hate it that I am in charge of you and that I get to tell you what to do even if you want to do something else.
Alex: Yeah. I want to go to the park but you say “No” because you’re mean!
Mom: You think I said “No” because I want to be mean to you, to make you feel sad, not because we have to go to the birthday party?
Alex: Well, we do have to go to the birthday party too I guess. But you’re happy because it makes me mad.
Mom: OK…so you understand that I had to say “No” to going to the park because of the birthday party, because that’s something on our schedule today. But you’re also worried that I like when things make you mad, that I’m happy whenever you’re feeling mad?
Alex: [Pauses] Well, not always. But sometimes.
Mom: So sometimes you can tell that I say “No” to things because I have to, but sometimes you still think that I want to make you mad so that’s why I say “No?”
Alex: Yeah…maybe. I don’t know.
Mom: Right now, you’re mad that you can’t go to the park, but you know that I had to say “No” because of the birthday party. You’re not sure if I did this to make you mad or because we had to go to the party.
Alex: I guess it’s because we have to go to the party. But can we go to the park when we get home?
Mom: That sounds like a possibility. We might have time when the party’s over.
In this example, Mom focused simply on narrating what she heard and observed instead of trying to convince Alex that she wasn’t the monster that he was painting her out to be. There wasn’t any pressure on Alex to argue back and get stuck in a power struggle because Mom didn’t have an opinion; Mom’s goal was simply to use the technique to help him to come to a conclusion on his own. She acted as a mirror for his own emotions.
As I mentioned before, this technique can be incredibly effective…if it’s done correctly.
Unfortunately, since old habits die hard, parents frequently forget to focus simply on narrating and instead get too involved in trying to prove they aren’t a monster who says no to everything. They revert to old habits which render the technique no longer effective.
When using The Narrator Technique, try to avoid the following pitfalls:
Pitfall #1: Getting Emotional
Remember how this conversation between Alex and Mom started, with Alex telling his mom that she never lets him do anything he wants to do?
Now I don’t know about you, but my initial gut reaction to a statement like Alex’s is…
Never? I never let you do anything you want to do? What about the pool yesterday? Or the movie I let you pick out last night? See if I ever do anything nice for you again!
It irks you when your child doesn’t recognize when you’ve done something nice for him and he better look out when he claims that you never do anything nice! This might be the thing that sets you over the edge.
Maybe you start listing all of the nice things you’ve done for him recently.
Maybe you call him ungrateful.
Maybe you threaten to take away all the good things you’ve ever given him in his life.
Maybe you do something else that’s rooted in the pain that you feel because your kid is exaggerating and making you look like a terrible parent who never does anything nice for him.
No matter how justified you feel in these reactions, responding in this way only makes the situation worse, and unproductive. If this interaction wasn’t a power struggle yet, suddenly you have just created one.
If you want to make your conversation productive, sidestep the argument and help your child to develop the skills to make more appropriate choices. Put your emotions on the back-burner during the conversation and focus solely on your child’s experiences. If necessary, you can discuss your emotions with your child at a different, and non-confrontational, time.
Pitfall #2: Forgetting the Important Details
Think about the narrator’s role in a play. The narrator gives the audience background information so that they better understand the scene. The actor says the words, but the narrator provides context.
Your child needs you to provide context.
To productively handle the situation, you may need to add information to the conversation that helps tie your child’s words, actions and opinions together within the appropriate context.
In the example, you’ll notice that Alex never said anything about a birthday party. However, mom knows about the birthday party and also knows that it might be a valuable addition to the conversation since it has contributed to why Alex is so upset right now. She adds it so that he can explore how his behavior might be affected by it, but not to prove that this is why she has to say “No.”
As the narrator in conversations with your child, add the details that you think are necessary to help your child’s exploration of the problem. This could include many things, such as…
- Interpreting an emotion for the child (i.e. You’re crying, so you’re feeling sad about this)
- Predicting the child’s intention (i.e. You’re packing your bags because you’re planning to go somewhere else)
- Discussing past events that are related to the situation (i.e. When I said “No” to going to the park it reminded you of the time that I told you that you couldn’t go to the pool and you felt left out)
When adding the details, keep these two rules in mind:
Rule #1: If your child says that you’re wrong, you’re wrong.
If you say that he feels sad and he says that he feels frustrated, then he feels frustrated.
If you interpret something for him and he corrects you, his correction is accurate and you must adjust your narration according to that detail.
Rule #2: The details you provide should be focused on helping your child resolve the issue, not to prove your point.
In the example, mom easily could have said, “You know we can’t go to the park because we have to go to the birthday party. Now get your coat and let’s go!”
While this might be a completely true statement, providing context and then combining it with a demand only fuels a power struggle. Alex may become more defensive and argumentative when the information is presented in this way, versus the non-combative way.
Pitfall #3: Adding Too Many Details
This pitfall tends to occur when parents are impatient and overly emotional. They think that they’re “narrating” what the child is saying and doing as well as adding the details that are important to help the child reach a practical understanding of the situation.
What’s really happening though is that the parent wants to push the child quickly to a productive conclusion by adding the details they wish the child would have come up with on their own by now. The parent is still having an opinion and trying to force the child onto their side under the guise of the technique.
To give you an idea of what this looks like, let’s look at the example with Alex and Mom again.
Alex: You never let me do anything I want to do!
Mom: You’re overreacting again and think that I never let you do anything. But you’re forgetting about last night. Remember how I let you go to Brian’s house last night when you asked?
Alex: But that’s like the first time in a million years that you let me do what I wanted to do.
Mom: So you’ve forgotten a lot of the things I let you do. You’re being forgetful and maybe need a reminder of all of the things I’ve let you do just this week?
Alex: Well I want to go to the park now but you say “No” because you’re mean!
Mom: So because I said “No” one time, you’re going to say that I never ever let you do anything you want to do? Now you think I’m being a mean mom?
This isn’t going in a good direction. Technically, mom is narrating the situation and providing context. However, her focus is on getting him to agree that she does actually say “Yes” to things sometimes instead of allowing him to explore what’s got him so upset about this situation. If she continues on this pattern, a power struggle is sure to happen (if it hasn’t already developed by this point).
Using The Narrator Technique to Your Advantage
Part of what makes this technique so effective is the fact that it is so different from the way parents and kids typically interact.
While it is an incredibly effective tool for communication with your child, try not to overuse it. If you use this technique as the standard way you communicate with your child, not only will you sound silly, but you will also decrease its effectiveness.
This technique can be used in a variety of situations (which I illustrate here) but should not be used all the time, nor should it ever be used in an emergency situation, for obvious reasons.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Think about the last time you were caught in a power struggle with your child.
Was the issue important? So often we find ourselves getting into arguments over meaningless things. If the issue isn’t all that important, ignoring the issue and moving on may be more productive than trying to address it head on.
Were your statements aimed at helping your child come to a productive conclusion or more focused on proving your point? If the issue is important and you have to engage in conversation about it, the best way to avoid a power struggle is to turn it into an exploration for your child instead of a lecture. The Narrator Technique is a great option to address an important issue without turning the conversation into a power struggle.
Were you happy with the result? When the dreaded power struggle is finally over, both parties tend to feel terrible. Even if you were able to prove your point, you don’t feel great about it. Using The Narrator Technique helps you to still teach your child what you want him to learn without having to feel terrible after every attempt at teaching the lesson.
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Whether you’re raising a strong-willed child or simply find yourself frequently caught in power struggles with your child because of the developmental stage he is in, know that because humans are naturally oppositional, you’ll have fewer power struggles and more enjoyment with your kid if you are able to set aside your need to be right and instead help guide him to the opinion that is right for him. He may not come up with the same solution that you had, but many times, that’s the best part of the journey.
This technique is an incredibly powerful technique if it’s used correctly. To ensure that you’re using the technique effectively, I suggest you take a few moments to reflect on your experience in a journal after you use the technique.
Summarize the Interaction
- What was the issue your child was experiencing?
- How did your child respond to the technique?
- What conclusions was your child able to come up with?
Evaluate Your Role
- Did you encourage your child to come to his own conclusions or did you push for your own answer?
- Did you allow time for your child to come to a conclusion or did you rush the process along?
- Did you narrate what he was saying and doing, or did you make demands?
- What can you do differently to make The Narrator Technique more effective next time?