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Years ago I was driving my son to school when another parent, headed for the same destination, had a diabetic seizure.
Realizing that his unconscious mother would not be able to prevent the car from careening out of control, her eleven-year-old son unhooked his seat belt and attempted to steer the car to safety. When he realized that he couldn't figure out what to do, he frantically belted himself back in just seconds before their Suburban hit four cars—including ours. His mother woke up when she crashed into a guardrail. Thankfully, none of the eleven people involved in the accident was badly hurt.
Children are meant to be passengers. They aren't equipped to drive a car or sail a ship through storms—and they know it.
But when no one is in the driver's seat, they instinctively try to take over. They don't want to be in charge; it's just that they know somebody has to be, because they understand that life is not safe unless someone competent is behind the wheel.
Captain, Lawyer, Dictator
In my book Parenting Without Power Struggles, I described three ways that parents can engage with their children: being confidently and calmly in charge, negotiating for power, or fighting their child for control.
Captain (parent in charge)
Two lawyers (no one in charge)
Dictator (child in charge)
Parents who are calmly and confidently in charge as the Captain of the ship come across as clear, loving, and capable of making good decisions on behalf of their children—even if those decisions upset their kids because they can't have what they want. When we are captaining the ship, we are responsively flexible, choosing how we engage with our child during one of his storms rather than reflexively reacting based on triggered behaviors we inherited from our own upbringing.
Here is a brief example. Your thirteen-year-old asks if she can go to a party where the only supervision will be an older sister who is not known for her good judgment.
Mom: "Honey, I know you want to go, but unfortunately, I don't feel it's a good idea."
Daughter: "Please, Mom? I promise nothing bad will happen."
Mom: "Oh, sweetheart. I know it doesn't seem fair, and I know how much you want to go, but I'm afraid not."
Mom is being the Captain, demonstrating empathy and kindness while remaining decisive and clear. Depending on how accustomed your child is to you changing your mind or waffling, she may attempt to draw you into the next way of interacting.
When parents engage in quarrels, power struggles, and negotiations with their kids, no one is in charge. I call this mode the Two Lawyers. Kids push against their parents, parents push against their kids, and the relationship is fraught with tension and resentment. Here ‘s an example:
Daughter: "Mom, you treat me like I'm a two-year-old. You never trust me!"
Mom: "You're never happy unless you get what you want! Carey's sister is immature, and I don't trust her to keep an eye on you guys. She'll probably just have a party of her own! In fact, last year I heard that she…" Mom argues for her position, and her child argues right back.
Daughter: "That's so not true! She was blamed for smoking pot in the school bathroom, but she wasn't even smoking! She just happened to be there when those other girls were doing it!"
These kind of parent-child interactions are characterized by fighting, arguing, and bargaining.
Finally, when the child is the one calling the shots, the parents feel out of control and even panicked, especially if they imagine that others are judging them for not managing their kids well. They try to restore order and control by overpowering their children with threats, bribes, or ultimatums, similar to how a tyrant or despot—having no authentic authority—asserts control through fear and intimidation. I call this mode the Dictator.
Here's an example:
Daughter: "You just can't accept that I'm not your little baby anymore. Why don't you get a life, so you can stop trying to control mine?"
Mom: "That's it, young lady. You never appreciate all the things we do for you. I work hard just to put food on the table, and you never even say thank you. You're grounded!"
As you can see, this situation rapidly deteriorates, with mom quickly losing her footing and shifting from Captain to Lawyer and, finally, entering Dictator mode.
Staying in Captain mode requires that we become comfortable setting limits so that we can parent with kindness, clarity, and confidence.
In my counseling practice, I often see well-meaning couples who are committed to avoiding the mistakes their own parents made, yet who confess to having a tremendous lack of confidence when it comes to handling challenging situations.
"Is it okay if I let my fourteen-year-old experiment with smoking pot? His friends are all trying it."
"I tried to cancel my son's World of Warcraft subscription, but he got so furious he punched a hole in the wall!"
"My kids become little terrors when we go out to eat unless I turn my cell phone over to them. Should I give in to keep the peace?"
Unsure of themselves and afraid to set limits, they convey to their children that they don't know where they stand, or perhaps more accurately, that they are simply afraid to take a stand, lest they upset their children.
What I find interesting is that the very kids who have outbursts when they don't get their way almost always long for their parents to create some real connection and structure.
Sometimes, when I meet privately with youngsters like these, they tell me that they wish their parents weren't so wishy-washy. And other times, they make this known simply by responding positively when someone combines limit setting with deep and secure attachment.
Susan Stiffelman, MFT, the Parent Coach advice columnist for the Huffington Post, is known for her expertise in helping parents enjoy the journey of parenthood, while raising joyful, resilient kids.
Author of Parenting Without Power Struggles and Parenting with Presence (An Eckhart Tolle Edition), Susan delivers practical, user-friendly strategies based on her work with thousands of parents and children—from celebrities to everyday moms and pops.