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Useful tips for diffusing family power struggles

Preschooler Problems

My preschooler son is amazing until he decides to be defiant. He’ll put his foot down and simply not listen to what we ask him to do. This happens at least once a day. The other day at the playground we gave him a five-minute reminder that we would be leaving, and he seemed okay, but when the time came he threw an epic tantrum. Our morning routine is the worst of all. When we are finally out the door (after a LOT of coaxing!), he starts crying, stands still, and does anything he can to delay leaving. We have tried many things””bribing him, carrying him, trying to reason with him””but to no avail. Is there something wrong with my child? Please help!

Sounds like you have pulled out all the stops to deal with your son’s strong will. I understand that you may be feeling helpless, but you can take heart that your child’s behavior pattern is most likely a healthy developmental milestone. His motor skills are improving rapidly, enabling him to explore his surroundings independently. He is also developing a sense of self, trying to define who he is and what he can do. So you find him exerting himself, pushing and experimenting with boundaries, which stems from his evolutionary need to learn life skills and establish autonomy. But a lot of his inexperienced adventures might be dangerous””like playing with a kitchen knife””or simply unacceptible, such as a whim to decorate your family photo with ketchup. It isn’t surprising that his misadventures are therefore frequently met with the word no, leaving him confused and disappointed. Now you are the lucky one with the responsibility to encourage his independence while teaching him limits. Sounds like a tall order! Let me share a step-by-step guide on how to manage these situations.

1. Check safety

Use your keen parent instincts to assess if your child is putting himself or others in danger during his explorations or tantrums. If he is having a meltdown in the middle of a bustling street, quickly remove him from danger. Try to stay calm while doing so. Remember, you are his role model, so choose your reactions wisely.

2. Check in with yourself

Once you ensure your child’s safety, it’s time to hit your own reset button. Take a full deep breath. Dissolve any anger or frustration. Tune in to your body and relax any tense muscles. Now let go of expectations, including that of your child’s compliance.

3. Use empathy

Now put yourself in your child’s shoes. What is he feeling? Why is he feeling that way? Bring yourself to his eye level. If he is sitting down, sit with him. Tell him what you think he is feeling and why. If your child likes touch, give him a hug or hold his hand. When he feels understood, he will be open to work with you in reaching a resolution. A child’s misbehavior is often a mode of communicating something deeper.

4. Identify and address triggers

Think of the last five tantrums. Do you notice a pattern? Look beneath the surface as there could be a deeper cause, such as transition to a new school, moving, parental stress (yes, even when you think you are doing a great job hiding it), bullying at school, being tired and hungry, or developmental delays. If you think his increased frustrations are due to speech or motor delays, or they seem odd, then consult a clinical professional. Otherwise, address what you think might be the underlying cause. If the trigger is your own stress, use stress relief strategies such as practicing mindfulness meditation daily. In fact, research shows improvements in a child’s behavior even when just one parent practices meditation.

5. Communicate

Since tantrums are a child’s way of communicating stress, they are also a great opportunity to teach them effective communication. The first step is to recognize that he is not throwing a tantrum to punish you. Listen carefully to what he is saying or doing. Understand where he is coming from and say it. For example, if he does not want to leave the playground after you give him a five-minute reminder, say, “I understand that the playground is a fun place and you want to play a bit more, but it is getting late for dinner. How about we come back again tomorrow?” When he hears these words, he realizes you understand why he is upset and you are offering him a solution. By modeling such communication, you will create a future expert communicator.

6. Become mindful together

You can prevent tantrums simply by giving your child the gift of your time. All you need is five minutes a day to play with him mindfully. Choose a time when you won’t be rushed, such as after school. Let him take the lead. Repeat what you see him doing and saying. Praise him for his actions during this mindful playtime. Enjoy becoming a child with him! This will boost his confidence and enrich the parent-child relationship.

7. Teach correct response

Once you build a solid foundation of trust, your child will be more receptive to being disciplined. Discipline is not about punishing. It is a way to gently teach boundaries, so your child can navigate the world smoothly. When you give instructions, you set him up for success. If you want him to listen to your instructions, give precise, short, three-step instructions. Remember that a child’s attention span is short. He may not listen to you because he simply forgets long and vague instructions. When your child listens, praise him for it. Be specific as to why you are praising. You could even set up a reward system. If your child is being stubborn, offer him a couple of options so he feels that he is making the final decision, not you.

In the end, see if you can become mindful and take the “power” out of the power struggle between you and your little explorer. Be patient with yourself and your child. Use this bump in the road as a learning experience for both of you.

Teenager Caught In-Between

I am a fifteen-year-old girl. My parents decided to separate six months ago. I always thought we were a happy family, so I was shocked to hear their decision. When I ask what happened, they blame each other. My mom is depressed and expects me to fill the void left by my dad. My dad feels guilty, so he gets defensive with me and my mom. I miss him. I know my mom misses him too, which isn’t obvious when they see each other. I try to get them talk it out and get back together. They start talking, which always ends up in a fight. I get so exhausted being their mediator, so I have started giving up hope to repair the family. My grades at school have started slipping, and I have even started cutting classes. I am depressed and feel like hurting myself. I have no one to reach out to. Please help!

Dear friend, this must be such a tough situation for you! Marriages break up for various reasons, but the children are often left with a sense of guilt and responsibility. It is normal to have these feelings, but remember that this decision was solely your parents and not your fault or within your control. With the family structure changing, you might feel a sense of uncertainty about the future. You probably have many unanswered questions: will you have to move or change schools, how often will you get to see each parent, and so on. These are valid concerns with practical implications. I recommend that you write down these questions and discuss them calmly with both parents to get concrete answers. But you’ll also have to deal with issues with less concrete solutions right now, such as how to cope with the crisis while continuing to love your parents. Here are some tips on how to face this challenge.

1. Draw boundaries

It is easy to get caught in a tug of war between warring parents. While the parents sort things out, you need to step back and protect your mental health by preserving your own boundaries. The world around you might feel chaotic, and you don’t have full control over defusing it. But you can control how much you expose yourself to it. Respectfully remind your parents that it is not your role to play their messenger, you do not have to take sides, and they shouldn’t talk to you about their issues with one another. It is also not your responsibility to fill the void that is left by one parent. If you hear arguments in the house, find your own space, put some headphones on, and tune in to your music. When you feel angry or disappointed, take a deep breath and ask yourself if and how you wish to respond.

2. Practice self-care

In order for you to draw effective boundaries, you need to first take care of yourself. Your mind and body need a lot of nurturing, so play your favorite sport, go to the gym, or do yoga. Eat healthy food. Meditate ten minutes a day. Pick a time when you will not be interrupted. Set a timer and simply tune in to the physical sensation of your breath. With this mind-body self-care regimen, you will be able to introduce stillness amidst the chaos.

3. Talk it out, write it down

You also need ways to vent. A great strategy is talking to adults (besides your parents), friends, or a therapist. You are not necessarily looking for advice, but someone who will listen, provide a shoulder to cry on, and give you hugs. Journaling is also a great outlet. Venting is cathartic as it helps you dissolve anger and disappointment. If you feel like hurting yourself, please reach out to an adult for help.

4. Accept it

You are going through a tough situation, and it’s okay to feel overwhelmed. No matter how difficult the situation may be, everyone will get through it. Accept the discomfort and then bring yourself back to the physical sensation of a full breath. Let it go. Practice forgiveness. Don’t dwell on the pain, because that will not change the situation. Your parents will be happier separated than being sad together. The earlier you can accept it, the sooner you will heal.

5. Stay busy

Keep yourself busy with positive habits such as fun hobbies, volunteering, learning a new language, and playing sports. Keep loving your parents while focusing on your school. Take it as a challenge to excel against all odds.

Remember that time is the best healer. Your parents’ separation feels painful now, but as the dust settles things will get easier. You will heal and emerge stronger and more resilient than before.

Ten Tips for Diffusing Power Struggles

Let’s be honest, it feels great when things go our way. We use power to feel like we are in control. But so does everyone else. The result? We get into the wrestling match of power in which winning makes us happy and losing makes us sad. Power struggles create unpleasant peaks and troughs of emotions. True happiness, in contrast, is achieved through an even temper. So we have two choices: engage in power struggles and live in a constantly fluctuating mental state, or end power struggles and live happily. Here are ten tips to pursue the latter option.

1. Tune in to the body and breath

A power struggle is a psychological wrestling match, but to our bodies it feels like a physical fight. The body gets tense, the breath becomes shallow, and the heart rate goes up. When you are about to engage in a power struggle, be aware of any tensing muscles. For some, this could be the tightening of the jaw; for others, it is the raising of shoulders. When we trick our body to relax, the mind starts thinking we are calm. The need for the ego to win becomes unnecessary.

2. Let go of expectation

When our expectation of an outcome is violated, we try to reverse the situation. The need to exert control is a power struggle against the present moment. While expectations might help us shape our goals, being attached to them is the root of suffering. By maintaining an emotionally neutral relationship to outcomes, we relinquish the need to resist the present moment. We enjoy life more. Surprisingly, the moment we let go is often when events start lining up in our favor.

3. Listen mindfully

While the ears listen, practice nonjudgment, openness, and full presence. A power struggle between two people results from the ego’s need to be right. By practicing mindful listening, we discover the merits of the other person’s standpoint. The “us versus them” mentality is dismantled, and the struggle loses its power.

4. Practice nonjudgment

Judgment of other people often leads to a belief that we are better than them. This sense of superiority is food for the ego, which wants to keep the power struggle alive. By consciously realizing that everyone is entitled to their own views, we learn to respectfully differ. Unlike a power struggle, disagreement without the obsessive need to establish dominance is a healthy form of communication.

5. Act in love and with kindness

Kindness has the power to immediately disarm an opponent. The truth is everyone wants to be loved and understood. Once that need is met, their need to be right becomes less important. The next time you feel angry or disappointed by someone’s actions, pause and make an effort to genuinely send them love.

6. Have opinions, but do not get attached to them

Having a voice and opinions is an important survival mechanism. But when we start identifying ourselves with our views, we feel the urgent need to keep those views true and alive. When someone challenges them we react as if our entire existence is threatened, which is why we often initiate a power struggle. Next time someone challenges your views, notice if an emotional response arises within and try to pause it.

7. Forgive and forget

Resentment can blur our view of a person. They might have hurt us in the past. We can take a fresh perpsective, however, by keeping in mind that someone’s actions don’t necessarily define them or predict how they might act in the future. As a result, we become less defensive toward their future actions. By letting go we also relieve ourselves of the burden of holding a grudge.

8. Use empathy

When we find ourselves in the middle of a power struggle, we must learn to put ourselves in the other’s shoes””no matter how outrageous that might seem. We all have our moments of emotional outbursts rooted in deep-seated insecurities, and power struggles are a manifestation. By taking a sympathetic view of how tough it might be for the opponent, it is easy to abandon our own insecurities.

9. Give up (some of your) ego

Ego identification is an innate, sometimes necessary trait. Our egos help us carve out what is materially and rightfully ours. But it sometimes gives rise to irrational behavior. It is an important, life-long challenge to strike a balance. Like every crisis, a power struggle is a great teacher. Next time you are in a power struggle, objectively notice whether your actions arise from the need to be right. If so, try giving up some of that power.

10. Respond don’t react

We must respond when a crisis arises. When faced with a confrontation, take a deep breath and a momentary pause before doing anything. Chances are these actions will prevent an emotional reaction. When you do finally respond, it will come from a place of logic and calmness.

About the Contributor

Ayman Mukerji Househam is a former Wall Street executive, longtime meditator and yogi, and researcher of mindfulness physiology who teaches mindfulness to families, corporations, and individuals. A clinical social worker in training, Ayman combines Eastern meditation with Western therapeutic techniques, and she is an active speaker on this topic. She authored a book on neural findings in the autism spectrum disorder, and her recent scientific publications and TEDx talk unravel how mindfulness practice changes our immune system, gut, and even our genes.