If your family is anything like mine, you have seen an increase in power struggles with your kids. These struggles seem to go on all day long about everything. Please brush your teeth… “no.” Please eat your lunch… “not gonna happen.” Please play all day in your p.j’s while eating chocolate and ice cream… “I don’t want to.” Wait, what? Are you just saying no to say no?
It certainly feels that way.
With the perilous situation of the pandemic we are living day after day with very little control or say in how our lives look. We are constantly provided information about death, dying, disease, with little sprinkles of hope and the expectation that we continue life with some structure and normalcy.
This means, as parents, we just don’t have a lot to offer our kids in the form of something to look forward to, something to be happy about, or a light at the end of the tunnel. Even thinking about going back to school is so complex and wrought with danger and anxiety. I think about my child spending hours a day with a teacher who is terrified of getting sick, who feels like they are being sacrificed, who is anxious, angry, and preoccupied and I think maybe this isn’t something to look forward to. Will there just be more power struggles?
Just like us, children have lost a lot of choices and they are responding by refusing. It’s clear that we might all be grasping for something to control. Moods are shifting rapidly.
So, what happens when we feel like we’ve lost control? Often, we try to find control in any area that it might present itself, maybe by increasing the amount of exercise we’re getting, monitoring our diets or our budgets, cleaning the house, rearranging furniture, or buying new stuff. I’m sure, if you thought about it, you could come up with a list of ways you’ve tried to feel better by controlling something you could control. Let’s do that now. How have you tried to regain a feeling of control?
Losing control feels scary. It’s unpredictable. It means we have to constantly be ready to react or respond to keep ourselves physically and emotionally safe because we don’t know what’s coming. This is called hypervigilance and it is exhausting. Have you noticed a feeling of exhaustion just in trying to maintain your household? You certainly aren’t alone.
I think we can recognize that these power struggles are inevitable – they will happen in small ways and in big ways. They are probably a reflection of how your child is feeling. Small power struggles might just give your child a sense of control, they are choosing to follow the routine not agreeing with you that they have to. But the big power struggles, those might be more about wanting to feel safe, to feel hope. They could be an outlet to find a reason to cry or yell and feel the anger, sadness, and frustration that comes with day to day living right now.
Coupled with the fact that children already have less control of their lives than adults and are experiencing hypervigilance and exhaustion, how do we help them have a sense of control?
Thinking about other ways to allow your child to have a feeling of control can be helpful. Since we are the adults we can try and guide healthier ways of feeling that sense of control. We can even have a conversation about how having a choice and some control makes us feel better when things are unfair and unpredictable. Just like you might have found ways to feel in control at times, what could your child do?
Here are a few suggestions. There are so many once you get started brainstorming and your child probably already does some things on their own (feel free to add them to the comments).
You can –
- Set times when your child/children can choose what movie or show to watch
- Allow them to have choices about what is for dinner and let them help
- Take care of an animal
- If you are one of those people who use cleaning to feel some control, offer this experience to your child. If it’s not a chore but is explained more as an activity that helps you feel better, they might be interested in trying some cleaning or organizing themselves as long as it’s their choice.
- Creativity! Can they create something with boxes, paint, clay, food, pinecones, sticks…?
- Find bugs, catch them or rescue them
- Games – they can choose the game. Think of games where it takes strategy and they can visually see their decisions and results (Connect Four, Risk, Checkers, Don’t Break the Ice, Jenga)
- Music, let them create or play music that helps them feel better. If they’re older encourage them to talk about their music.
- Blocks, build a tower and then make it crash
- Dress-up or trying on clothes
- If they play a sport, practicing that sport
- Build a fort
- Books/reading – choose your own adventure!
- Plan their ideal vacation or share what they want to do “after the virus”
- Make a volcano
I know it’s frustrating to have to be in this situation with your child or children. Most parents don’t enjoy power struggles or the way it feels to be at constant odds with one another. Sometimes just stepping away and refusing to engage in the struggle can bring the emotion to the forefront. The most important thing is to allow the feelings to exist and to provide the empathy that we all need a way to have some sense of control right now.
Written by April Galligan, LCSW, IMH-E®