Episode summary:

Even though we may long to avoid tiring arguments and negotiations with our kids, unexamined fears and worries can fan the flames of power struggles. In this episode, Susan talks about how a mother’s childhood experiences influence how she engages with her daughter over what to eat for breakfast.

Susan Stiffelman is a licensed Marriage, Family and Child Therapist, an educational therapist and a highly lauded speaker. She is the author Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and Parenting With Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (an Eckhart Tolle Edition).Susan offers online events for parents around the world on topics like Raising Tweens and Teens, Parenting in the Digital Age, and Raising Siblings and also hosts a monthly support group with Wendy Behary on Co-Parenting with a Narcissist.​​​​​​​ www.susanstiffelman.com

Things you’ll learn from this episode:

  • Why our neediness as parents fuels power struggles with our children

  • Why kids have an instinct to push against us as they grow and how that contributes to power struggles

  • How stepping back from a power struggle can empower our kids to learn to care for their own needs

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Read the entire episode!


Speaker 1: (00:00)

Hello and welcome to the Parenting Without Power Struggles podcast. I’m your host, Susan Stiffelman. I’m a marriage and family therapist and the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles and Parenting with Presence. And I’m very glad that you’re here. So I love doing speaking events and working with parents in person. And last week I had a wonderful time delivering a presentation in San Francisco for the Bay Area Parents Coalition. The focus of the talk was on improving communication with teens, but the principles I shared applied to parents of all ages, parent from strong connection as that calm captain of the ship, manage our reactions when things aren’t going well. So our kids know that they can turn to us for guidance and support and come alongside rather than at our kids when we disagree or we don’t like what they’re doing. Because I believe these three kind of cover so much when we’re able to maintain a strong connection with our kids while managing our reactions, parenting is much easier and a lot more fun. 

Speaker 1: (01:06)

So these principles are really the basis of everything that I talk about. Write about and teach in my various programs in classes. And by the way, if you’re interested in knowing more, please visit Susanstiffelman.com for my free newsletter. I regularly send out essays that expand on the ideas you’re hearing in these podcasts and you’ll also get all the updates on our free and low cost parenting classes and events. And if you’re keen to get more personal help internalizing these ideas so that in the heat of the moment you can be that calm captain of the ship when the seas are stormy. I hope you’ll check out our monthly Parenting Without Power Struggles membership program. Twice a month I meet with parents online. I answered questions. I offer coaching to parents who want to break with those old patterns of yelling and bribing and threatening. And we have a lot of fun. 

Speaker 1: (02:01)

So you can check out the program by visiting Susanstiffelman.com/membership and use the coupon code Podcast19 and your first month will be just a dollar and you can give it a try. See if it’s a fit for you, cancel at any time. So here’s an example of how we can either fan the flames of a power struggle with our kids and make it worse or help that fire die out on its own. And to illustrate that, I’m going to refer to a role play that I did with a parent at my San Francisco event because I love doing that. I love helping parents sort of embody what it’s like to either come at their kids with advice, arguments, justifications or come alongside them in a way that fosters more connection or more receptivity. Right. When I’m doing a live event, I love role playing with parents to illustrate the two ways that we can engage with our kids when they’re upset so that we can either come at them, which fuels the power struggle or we can come alongside them and avoid generating a power struggles. One of the moms in the audience raised her hand and here was her question. She said, my daughter says she doesn’t like any of the food that I make for her in the morning. She often will skip breakfast because she claims there’s nothing good to eat. I offer her all kinds of options, but she refuses them all. I know it’s bad to go to school without a good breakfast, but she resists everything I offer. What should I do? Uh, so this was a wonderful caring parent. 

Speaker 1: (03:42)

She was understandably concerned about her daughter’s health. She knows that, you know, kids need fuel to study and learn. And she then went on to explain the different ways she had tried to get her daughter to eat. So as you listen to this, kind of imagine yourself in her situation, and I’ll bet many of you would say the very same things to your kids. If they were refusing your breakfast, she would say things like, how about if I make you this? Or what about that? Or do you want to make a list of things that you like or this was really good. Your brother loved it. Um, if all of that failed and her daughter sort of did her own thing, she would inevitably say, did you eat something? Did you grab something? How about a protein bar? So I loved the question. So many parents were nodding their heads because especially in a room of adolescents, a lot of kids claimed that they’re not hungry and yet parents feel they don’t want to fall down on their job and they want to make sure their kids are fueled. 

Speaker 1: (04:41)

I asked her to consider this quote that I have long referred to when I think about power struggles in any capacity, whether it’s with our kids, hurt with anyone. Here’s the quote. He who is most attached to a particular outcome has the least amount of power, so I’m going to say it again because I think it’s so powerful. He who is most attached to a particular outcome has the least amount of power. So think about it. In situations where you are desperately needing something to go a particular way, don’t you notice that your anxiety rises, you feel less confident and secure. You may be more forceful and aggressive, whereas when you’re kind of, well, you know what? If this happens, it’s great. If it doesn’t happen, no problem. There’s a relaxation in you that actually can be very helpful when you’re discussing options with someone or you’re trying to find a place of agreement. 

Speaker 1: (05:45)

So I suggested to this mom that although her intentions were wonderful, her neediness and desperation were making the problem worse. And this is often the case because our kids may complain about something and then very quickly if we’re super attached to the outcome to conveying to them that our way is the right way or insisting that they understand why they have to do the thing that we want. When we come off with that forcefulness coming at them, we often find ourselves engaged in a battle of wills. So there are some important things to keep in mind when you really want your youngster to do something and they’re digging in their heels. The first is to slow down your reactions so that you can sort of be present with and identify what you’re thinking and what you’re believing about the situation. Oftentimes our desperation fuels the power struggle and it’s because we feel afraid or worried or even that some unresolved hurt from our own past is getting played out with our child. 

Speaker 1: (06:54)

So in this case, when I invited this mom to kind of slow things down and identify what the narrative was that she had about her daughter and the possibility that she might go to school without having eaten something healthy, mom was able to sort of say, well, no one ever really cared about me in the morning. You know, my parents were pretty disengaged and I want to give my daughter a different experience. I wanted to know how much I care about her and how much I love her. She could start to see as we were talking, that she might’ve been trying to heal something that she didn’t get by pushing it a little more forcefully than was useful onto her daughter. And that was a beautiful moment when she could kind of step back from the situation and have a perspective that was bigger than simply this thing needs to happen every morning. 

Speaker 1: (07:47)

So she became more aware of the pain or the disappointment or the sadness that was associated with her own mother not being very involved and wanting to kind of offer her daughter something different. That was a really sweet moment and many times when we step back and look at what’s fueling our own fears and worries, they have less of a hold on us. The other thing I suggested to this mom was that she experiment with being less attached to the outcome or less interested in what her daughter was eating. Now I know for a lot of you that’s scary and there’s plenty of times when you need to be very attentive if you’re taught as health issues or is at risk for an eating disorder. But many times parents lean in too far when it comes to their child and what they’re eating and they unintentionally make meal time a place where power struggles routinely happen and it’s just not a good thing. 

Speaker 1: (08:44)

We don’t want to associate food with a place where there’s conflict and tension and negotiations. So I invited her to take a few steps back, give her daughter more space, say something like, you know, sweetie, we’ve been having a lot of arguments about breakfast. I hope and believe that by now you know that it’s pretty common knowledge that human bodies need fuel and they particularly need fuel when they’re going to do something that consumes lots of calories, which is what happens in a classroom when you’re learning and studying. So I want to trust you to make good decisions about caring for your body. And I’m here to support you in any way that I can. If that includes going shopping together or coming up with some new ideas for breakfast, I’m all in. Okay. But I don’t want to have these arguments with you. I want to empower you to make better decisions. 

Speaker 1: (09:44)

And so if I can support you, let me know. But I’m going to back off for a while and trust that you’re gonna take care of the need that your body has for food. So I was suggesting something like this to this mom and I could see that it was a sort of scary notion that she might not be as attentive to what her daughter’s eating in the morning, but she said she would give it a try. And you know, I’ve been doing this for a long, long time, decades I’ve worked with families and experience tells me that when that mom gives that a try and encourages her daughter to be in her body, to feel her hunger, to consider the foods that feel good to her in the morning without being overly interested or involved, that this young woman will brainstorm some morning breakfast items with her mom without so much drama because you know, adolescence in particular is a complicated time. 

Speaker 1: (10:44)

Our kids really need us in so many ways, but they’re also driven by a developmental imperative to step out from under our constant scrutiny and advice and Lynn were too engaged in the minutiae of their lives like, like this worry that mom had about her daughter’s breakfast. Then parents often contribute to their child resistant behavior because they are supposed to push back against us to some degree as they grow. So hopefully when mom’s slows down, when she identifies her fear, she offers food or offers her support while stepping back and showing less desperation, her daughter will have more room to stand in her own wisdom and identify the things that worked for her and that nourish her. So I’m going to wrap up with a tip this week. I want to encourage you to just notice the places where you can systemly have power struggles with your kids. 

Speaker 1: (11:41)

And consider stepping back a little bit and looking at whatever fear, concern, worry, or belief might be in the mix that might be contributing to the intensity of your desperation or need for things to go a certain way. And remember that quote, he who is most attached to a particular outcome has the least amount of power. I hope you’ve enjoyed our conversation. I would love for you to subscribe to the podcast. It would be amazing if you’d like to leave a rating or a review if you’re finding it helpful. And remember to visit Susanstiffelman.com to stay in touch with us through the newsletter or if you want to find out about our masterclasses, there’s so many wonderful topics with terrific people like Janet Lansbury and Dr. William Stixrud and Maggie Dent and Oh my gosh, the list is long on all kinds of topics like chores and homework and meltdowns. And then remember that we’re offering a special first month for just a dollar on our online Parenting Without Power Struggles membership program. Just use Podcast19 in the coupon code. I’d love for you to give it a try. 

Speaker 1: (12:51)

thanks for being with me today. Thanks for being part of this effort to change the world, one parent, one child, one family at a time. You are really emissaries for some of the ideas that I’ve been so passionately teaching for so many years. I look forward to joining you on our next episode and in the meantime, remember that no matter how busy life gets, look for those moments of sweetness and joy. I’ll see you next time.

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