Pick Your Battles

Jillian Enright

Power Trips Lead to Power Struggles

Expert advice for avoiding power struggles

Jillian Enright, CYW, BA Psych.

Our son is the Prince of Power Struggles.

Seriously.

But you know what? In my day, I was the Queen.

As a child, I was what we might now politely call spirited, but back then I was simply called stubborn. I was also told I would probably be a lawyer one day because I am so good at argumentation. Spoiler alert: I did not become a lawyer, but I do still love a good debate.

My mother is thrilled to know that my son is exactly like me.

Our son loves a good debate, but even more, he loves to be right. Okay, so do I. Like any 8 year old child, he prefers to get his way — don’t we all? However, being twice exceptional adds a few more complexities into the mix.

Twice exceptional refers to children who are cognitively gifted and also have a disability. Our son has anxiety, ADHD, and a sky-high IQ. Gifted children often have what are called overexcitabilities or intensities (Daniels & Piechowski, 2009; Mofield & Peters, 2015).

Dabrowski’s overexcitabilities (Piechowski, 1991) have been divided into five categories:

  • Psychomotor
  • Sensory
  • Intellectual
  • Imaginational
  • Emotional

The two categories that most lend themselves to a greater propensity for power struggles are intellectual and emotional, so I will focus on those two here.

Emotional Overexcitabilities

Emotional overexcitability is partially described as depth and breadth of feeling, an intense emotional response to the most minute nuance of language or meaning (Daniels & Piechowski, 2009).

As I’ve described in a number of other blog posts, ADHD commonly causes difficulty with emotional regulation. Giftedness often comes with emotional intensity. For 2e folks with ADHD, that’s a double-whammy.

Lucky us.

Intellectual Overexcitabilities

Avid intellectual activity may lead to gifted individuals developing stringent standards and high expectations. (Daniels & Piechowski, 2009).

Yes indeed. My son and I both have very high, sometimes unrealistic, expectations of ourselves and of important people in our lives.

Gifted children more often question and challenge traditions and the status quo and are not comfortable doing things just because everyone else is doing them (Daniels & Piechowski, 2009).

Oh, heck yes. Having minds of our own is a strength, and don’t let anyone ever tell you any different. I love that my son is an independent thinker and is willing to challenge authority (most of the time).

Our children should be encouraged to speak their minds and ask questions, and we adults need to teach them how to do so tactfully and respectfully.

The other skill that needs to develop alongside a strong will is the ability to pick one’s battles. I am definitely still working on this one.

Avoiding Power Struggles

So, take my son and I, for example: We both have emotional and intellectual intensities, as well as difficulties self-regulating. Now add in conflict. Any conflict. Then take cover.

I’m kidding… sort of.

He’s now 8 years old, so we’ve had a lot — like, a whole lot — of practice managing conflict and disagreement without turning them into battles of wills and words . We succeed most of the time. We’re human, after all.

With this combination of personal experience, and having read about a million books and textbooks — well, at least 100 — I present you with my handy list of ways to avoid engaging in power struggles with smart, sassy kiddos like mine… and like me.

Pick Your Battles

It’s worth repeating, so I did. Pick your battles. As I mention in another blog post: before you decide to make a case of something, make sure it’s worth the emotional energy. Ask yourself, is it only a problem for you, or is it a problem for your child, and for important people in your child’s life?

I wholeheartedly admit to taking issue with something my son has done, and upon self-reflection, later came to realize that I only had a problem with it because of my own insecurities or anxieties, and not because there was something potentially harmful or unkind about his behaviour.

“We need to have conversations with our kids that don’t come with the undertones of us needing them to be different so we can feel better.”—(Stiffelman, 2013)

It’s not our children’s job to make us look or feel good. Our children can be held responsible for their choices, but they are not responsible for our emotional responses to their behaviour.

“Let go of giving your children the power to make or break your serenity depending on how they behave”—(Stiffelman, 2013).

Your child can have a bad day does not have to mean you also have a bad day. It’s not easy, but it is possible. We can support our children through their difficulties without joining them in their gloom.

Give a reason, not a rebuttal

2e kiddos are often highly logical. In fact, most children who don’t just follow blindly will cooperate if given a valid reason for an expectation or boundary. The difficulty is in the word valid, and whose definition of valid you are using.

To elaborate with a recent example, not long ago we were camping with our close friends whose children are also very smart and strong-willed. My friends’ young daughter was sitting very close to the fire and both of my friends were busy with something else.

I asked the little girl to move back so she wasn’t so close. She crossed her arms in that adorable, petulant way that young children seem to be born having perfected, and said “it’s myyyyyy campsite.” (Writing this now, I hear it played back in the style of Robert Munsch, but I’m pretty sure that is only in my imagination).

Now, if this had been my son on that same evening, I probably would have just said “move your butt back or else” — and threatened him with missing out on something fun later. Maybe effective, but confrontational, and that approach wouldn’t allow him to practice the skill of processing a boundary and choosing to follow it. Instead, he would be doing what he was told in order to avoid a punishment, without really using his own critical thinking skills.

Because it was my friend’s daughter, and because she’s younger than my son, I was more patient than I typically would be and took a gentler approach. I knelt down in front of her, and said, “Yes, it is your campsite. I’m worried that you’re sitting too close to the fire and could get hurt. We wouldn’t want you to get burnt, that would hurt a lot.”

She looked at the fire, looked at me, looked at the fire again…. and then moved without further resistance. I wasn’t forceful with my tone or manner, and she was able to make her own choice to keep herself safe.

This approach avoids a power struggle, while allowing children to internalize and practice the skill of managing their own behaviour, rather than having it managed for them.

Now, if this were my son, that might have gone a little like this:

Me: “Honey, I don’t want you to get burnt, please move back.”

Son: [scoots chair back a fraction of a millimetre]

Me: “A little more please, I am worried you’re sitting too close to the fire and could get burnt.”

Son: “No, I won’t! I sat this close last night and nothing happened.”

This is where give a reason, and not a rebuttal, comes in.

If I start arguing with my son about the ways in which he could get burnt, that opens it up for a debate. Instead, my intent is to validate his perception and experience and also set a firm, explicit boundary.

I might say, “Buddy, I know you’re a very experienced camper, and you know how to be safe around fire. The thing is that fire is not always predictable, and I’d rather err on the side of caution, because I don’t want to risk you getting a serious burn. That would be incredibly painful. I’m going to insist that you stay x distance away to be on the safe side.”

This approach clarifies that I’m not asking because I don’t trust his judgement or abilities, I’m asking because I care and don’t want to see him hurt. I avoid the power struggle about whether or not he would get hurt sitting that close. Once I’ve explained my rationale, I kindly but firmly make it clear that this boundary is not up for debate.

Power Trips = Power Struggles

“In every power struggle between an adult and a child, there’s an adult who wants their own way, too.”— Dr. Ross Greene

Once I was at the cottage with my in-laws and extended family on my husband’s side. One of my brothers-in-law is an outspoken guy who likes to tease all of us in a friendly, light-hearted way. He also calls me out once in a while, which I’m okay with because we’ve known each other for more than 15 years, and because I can do the same to him.

My son was probably only about 6 years old at the time. I’d asked him to do something that he didn’t want to do, and I pulled the do what you’re told right this minute because I’m the adult and I said so card. Out of the earshot of others, my brother-in-law teased me about power-tripping. Dang it.

He was absolutely right — but don’t tell him that.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t so important that my son had to do it immediately, but I had made my request and felt I had to follow through in order to show him who’s boss. That wasn’t exactly what went through my mind, but that’s really what it boils down to if I’m being honest with myself.

In hindsight, it probably would have been more effective to quietly talk to my son about what I wanted him to do and why he didn’t want to do it right then. He was probably on his way to play with his cousins, which is guaranteed more fun than whatever I’d asked him to do. I could have said something like “sure, you can go play now, we just need to make sure this gets done before lunch time”, and then reminded him in a little while.

“Should thoughts prompt us to come at our kids — provoking their defensiveness and resistance — rather than coming alongside them, which promotes their receptivity.”—(Stiffelman, 2013)

So, if you like lists, here is a summary of my top three ways to avoid engaging in a power struggle with kids:

  • Pick your battles. Kids will take you more seriously if you only put your foot down when you really mean it. If you play the heavy all the time, then it won’t be very meaningful. This also role models for our children that we can be flexible sometimes, and we can choose wisely whether we feel something is important enough to quibble over.
  • Give a reason, not a rebuttal. It’s fair for people to want a reasonable explanation when you set a boundary. We can clarify, validate, and empathize. Then we can move on without engaging in a debate.
  • Power trips lead to power struggles. Are you getting hot under the collar simply because your child didn’t obey your parental authority? I, for one, want my child to have a mind of his own and for him to feel free to use it. It is up to us to help our children develop tact and to teach them how to disagree respectfully.

(c) Jillian Enright, ADHD 2e MB

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References

Daniels, S., & Piechowski, M. (2009). Living with intensity : emotional development of gifted children, adolescents, and adults. Great Potential Press.

Greene, Ross, W. (2021). Lost & Found: Unlocking collaboration and compassion to help our most vulnerable, misunderstood students, and all the rest. (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Mofield, E. L., & Peters, M. (2015). The Relationship Between Perfectionism and Overexcitabilities in Gifted Adolescents. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 38(4), 405–427. https://doi.org/10.1177/0162353215607324

Piechowski, M. M. (1991). Emotional development and emotional giftedness. In N. Colangelo & G.Davis (Eds.), A Handbook of Gifted Education (pp. 285–306). Allyn & Bacon.

Rinn A.N., Majority K.L. (2018). The Social and Emotional World of the Gifted. In: Pfeiffer S. (eds) Handbook of Giftedness in Children. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-77004-8_4

Stiffelman, Susan. (2013). Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. Simon & Schuster.

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Neurodivergent. 20+ years social work and psychology experience. I write about mental health, neurodiversity, advocacy, education, and parenting. Founder of Neurodiversity MB. CYW, BA Psychology.

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