To point out the absurdity of parent–child power struggles, one of my teachers used to ask us to imagine a prizefight. The announcer booms . . .
“In this corner, in the red trunks, weighing 190 pounds, Pow-er-ful P-op!”
The crowd roars!
“And in this corner, in the yellow trunks, and weighing 40 pounds, we have Kan-tan-ker-ous K-id!”
The crowd goes wild! Both combatants raise their gloved hands over their heads and acknowledge the cheers from the crowd. The referee stays carefully between them, underlining how likely they both are to erupt any moment. . .
The situation becomes all the more absurd as “The Kid” wins more than a few rounds.
Why do some kids push so hard to make it clear that they will not tolerate parental control? Why do some parents engage in verbal and sometimes even physical battles with their kids almost daily?
Kantankerous Kid’s Side
Gaining a sense of personal power is a normal developmental stage. Every 2-year-old figures out the power of a simple “No.” If the first “no” doesn’t succeed, they try out a loud “NO!” or a repeated “No. No. No. No!” – much to the distress of parents who are just trying to civilize them or at least keep them safe. This is normal stuff. Learning where parents leave off and we begin is crucial to developing an individual identity. Learning that we have some say in what happens to us in life is part of becoming less dependent. Learning how to use our ability to be in control in the right circumstances is practice for taking charge and being responsible.
But some kids don’t seem to know when to quit. Dr. Rudolf Dreikurs, a mid-20th century psychologist, used to tell those in his parent education classes that such children become “power drunk.” Telling the big people “No I won’t. You can’t make me” is intoxicating stuff. Some kids can’t seem to get enough of it. Indeed, these children often do act with the bravado and bluff of the drunk. What would they do with the power if they actually got it? What would it do to their sense of security and their ability to trust that their parents could care for them if they consistently won every battle?
For some kids, the normal pushback of the 2-year-old becomes their primary response to others. By being in control, refusing to be cooperative, and fighting with others, they develop an identity that is grounded in a mistaken need for power. It’s as if the only way they know for sure that they will be noticed, that their needs will be met, that others will see them as important is to keep engaging in fights and winning as many of them as they can. It’s not a happy way to live but the tension and release of a good fight makes them feel alive. Engaging in skirmishes and battles means that people are involved with them – even if they don’t like them.
How does it happen? Kids in power struggles have learned either by observation or by experience that throwing their weight around gets them what they want or gets them out of things they don’t want to do. Every time they “win,” the lesson gets stronger. Even though you and I know they ultimately lose – friendships, others’ true respect, or even a sense of their own worth when not flexing their verbal or physical muscles – the temporary victory is preferable to feeling powerless or bossed.
Powerful? Not really. Pops, and Moms, who get on the other end of battles with kids, especially with little kids, already are bankrupt and the kids know it. Deep inside, the grownups know it too. “Because I said so” works only as long as the parent is bigger (and maybe scarier) than the kids. Parents who get caught up in power struggles desperately are trying to hold onto a sense of authority, even as they know in their hearts that that they don’t have much. As soon as the kids get big enough to have other places to go, they do exactly that – with a few choice words and a slam of the door.