Want to Avoid Power Struggles? Respect Their Reality

It sounds easy to respect your children’s reality—until it’s different from your own.  Respecting our children’s reality means letting them feel, think about, and experience things in a different way than we do;  the primary tool for doing this is empathy. 

Like over-functioning, disrespecting our children’s reality is something we are generally not aware of doing.  We have to pay attention to notice all the ways in which we unintentionally disregard or question their feelings and reality.

Here’s a scene I overheard the other day, which demonstrates a common example of how we inadvertently disrespect our children’s reality, which can lead to emotional distance and power struggles.  After the example, I'll "replay" the scene with an alternative response to show you how to put this parenting tip into action.

A father came to pick up his daughter after a day of summer camp.  She was happily playing with her friends when he arrived.  When he told it was time to go, she replied:  “I don’t want to go yet. I’m having fun.”  Dad then said:  “But you’ve been here all day.  You’ve had enough.”

Daughter then started to become upset, and protested again that she wasn’t ready to go.  This exchange went back and forth until eventually Dad became very stern and somewhat forcefully took his daughter’s arm to lead her back to the car.  Needless to say, they were both in sour moods following this exchange. 

When Dad said “You’ve had enough” what he actually meant is that if he had been the camper, he would feel ready to go; he would have had enough.  That’s his perspective.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t his daughter’s experience or reality.

A more skillful way to handle that situation would have been to practice empathy right from the start.  When Daughter said she didn’t want to go, Dad might have responded:  “Sweetie, I can see you’re having a lot of fun and you really don’t want to go yet (empathy).  I’m sorry about that.  But we are meeting Mom for dinner and it wouldn’t be nice manners to be late (rationale).  Would you please say goodbye to your friends and go get your things? (request)”

Here’s another example and "replay" of how we unintentionally overlook our children’s reality, and how doing so can create conflict when your goal is just the opposite. 

A first-grader doing his math homework is struggling.  He gets frustrated and says, “I can’t do this.”  Many well-meaning parents respond with something like this:  “Yes you can, sweetie, it’s easy.  See, let me show you.”  Although your intentions are good, you are essentially telling him he is wrong about his experience; you are arguing with his reality. 

By telling him the problem he is struggling with is easy, that he really can do it, you are intending to motivate him to keep trying.  However, in many cases this type of response paradoxically makes kids even more likely to hold on to their belief that they cannot do it:  “NO I CAN’T!!”  Now the situation has unfortunately escalated from frustration with homework to frustration/anger/sadness at not being understood. 

A more skillful way to respond would be, again, to practice empathy.  “Dylan, I can see you’re struggling with this and it just feels really hard right now (empathy).   Can I come sit with you?  How about a hug?  (Hug or other positive touch.)  OK, show me where you’re feeling stuck with this; let’s see if we can come up with some other ways of approaching this problem (coaching).  I can see this math is pretty tricky for you right now (avoiding labels).

TRY THIS:  Be watchful for opportunities to reflect and show empathy for the different ways in which your child experiences the world.  Let your kids have their feelings and perspective, even if you don’t understand or agree with it. 

If you need to disagree, try saying so in a way that also acknowledges the validity of their way of seeing things:  “Well, you don’t think this park is fun, but I see it differently.  I guess different people like different things.”

Keep in mind that you don’t have to agree always with your child’s perspective, you only need to acknowledge that it’s her way of seeing things. 

More tips on avoiding power struggles here.

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