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Dr. Jim Taylor

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Parenting Advice: When to Win, When to Surrender

Posted: 09/21/10 08:00 AM ET

Conflict is a natural part of the parent-child relationship and essential to your children's separation from you into independent beings. The challenge is not that you are going to have conflicts with your children periodically, but whether they develop into full-scale war that drives you and your children apart and interferes with their development. How you handle these conflicts, which will be fought in childhood and adolescence, will determine whether they help or hurt your children.

Childhood Battles

Early in your children's lives, you may enter these battles of will unwittingly. Children can be stubborn and very loudly and irritatingly fight against you. It's often easier to just surrender and allow them to win. Out in public, they will try to win by embarrassing you in the eyes of others. For example, when you and your children are in the supermarket checkout line and they want a candy bar that is conspicuously displayed. You say no several times, but they start screaming. Just to quiet them down as others look on disapprovingly, you give in and buy them the candy bar. Though losing these battles of will may be easiest for you, it isn't best for your children. If they learn that they can get what they want by nagging you, they'll learn a painful lesson when they grow up because adult life doesn't work that way. Instead, by handling these battles of will well, your children will learn essential lessons about self-control, delayed gratification and consideration of others that will serve them well in adulthood.

You have the power to avoid or control the battles of will with your children. Battles of will require two participants. If you don't join the fray, battles can't be fought. Remain steadfast when these situations arise. Clearly communicate that your children won't get what they want no matter what they do, and especially if they continue to act badly. If you're in a public place, remember that every parent faces these challenges, and when you stand your ground, those watching will actually envy and admire your resolve.

You can also avoid these battles by letting your children have what they want. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten caught in a battle of wills with my children and then, after a "bloody" battle, I realize that it was not a battle worth fighting. My advice is to pick your battles. If you think some situation is important (i.e., a learning opportunity, an essential life lesson), then stand your ground. But if think that the situation just isn't a life changer, then let your children have that little victory.

You can also get pulled into battles of will when you lower yourself to your children's level. When you react to their provocations by losing control (in other words, by acting like a child), you hand them a ready-made strategy for winning the battles of will. They learn that if they push hard enough, they'll ultimately tear down the veneer of maturity that you wear and reduce you to their equal. As soon as you go to their level, for example, by yelling at your children when you get angry with them, they see that they're now in a battle of wills with another, say, five-year-old child, and that is a battle they know they can win. What gives you the power to win these battles of will is your ability to maintain control over your emotions while your children lose control of theirs.

Teenage Battles

A normal and healthy part of your children's adolescence is separating from you. Battles of will are a way in which teenagers stake out newly claimed territory and assert their independence. If you attempt to win these battles outright, you will stifle your children's journey to adulthood and they may take drastic measures to claim their independence. If you lose all of the battles without putting up any fight, your children gain too much territory too early, and they're left to battle the world alone without the capabilities to emerge from that battle unscathed.

As your children enter adolescence, they are driven by no more powerful force than being accepted by their peers. The two-pronged impact of separating from you and being accepted by their peers can drive a wedge between you and your children. And peer pressure's influence on both of these forces encourages your children to instigate and attempt to win battles of will with you.

Your children are looking for a fight as they enter their teenage years. And you're more vulnerable to being pulled into these battles of will. Your children want to separate from you, but, like most parents, a part of you wants your children to stay young and dependent on you forever. You may fear for their safety as they move out into the world on their own. You may be reluctant to give up the control of their lives that you've held for so many years. You may question whether they're ready to go it alone. You may mourn their impending separation from you.

If you engage them in a battle of wills to keep them, rather than allowing your children to gain independence, you are sure to lose. At some point, they will leave you whether you like it or not. This battle of wills can also cause your children to take extreme, and sometimes destructive, steps to win the conflict and assert their independence. Forays into drinking, drugs and sexual activity are a few of the dangerous ways in which your children assert their independence if they feel overly restricted. When your children take these extreme measures, both you and your children are casualties.

In adolescence, battles of will should foster increased independence while maintaining a safe environment in which your children can gain comfort in their newfound freedom. This is accomplished by allowing your children to win, but on your terms. Only by intentionally and judiciously losing some of these battles can you ensure that both you and your children ultimately emerge as victors.

Early in your children's teenage years, you must win most of the battles to protect them from their world while allowing them to gain small victories that let them feel like they are gaining independence. You win by setting and enforcing reasonable limits. You give your children some wins by establishing those boundaries a bit farther than you might feel completely comfortable, but well within safe limits. For example, you might not like the music they are listening to, but you accept that it will probably not permanently scar them, so you let them listen to music that they want. Or if they want to have a 11 p.m. curfew and you want a 10 p.m. return time, so you compromise on 10:30 p.m. and allow them to earn the 11 p.m. curfew. You have to decide for yourself, based on your values, where you give your children victories. But give them you must, so they won't feel the need to go after big--and harmful--victories.

You can also use the battles of will as opportunities to talk rather than fight. Create a dialogue with your children about why you are setting limits, the consequences of violating the boundaries, and how your children can extend those limits over time. Provide guidance and direction to your children, and help them to make good decisions.

Though they won't admit it, your children want and need you to guide them toward adulthood. As your children mature, this balancing act involves ceding more and more victories and, in the end, surrendering to your children leaving you and becoming independent adults. The eventual victory in this war of wills should go to your children. Yet it is also a triumph for you because your children will be healthy and mature adults with whom you have a strong and loving relationship. In the end, you have to trust that you've prepared them well, loosen the reins, and let them go.

Learn more about Prime Family. If you have questions or comments about this post, feel free to email me here.

 
 
 

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