The (Power) Struggle is Real: Forging Harmony With Your Teen

Understanding power struggles is key to working through them with your teen.

Posted Feb 21, 2019

As a psychologist practicing for almost thirty years, I’ve discovered three key principles that resolve power struggles between parents and teens:

  1. Know thyself
  2. Cultivate responsiveness
  3. Nourish the relationship
RawPixel/Pexels
Source: RawPixel/Pexels

First: know thyself by healing your past wounds. Fear is normal for parents. Your teen ends up in the ER for alcohol poisoning and you want to ground him for life. Your preteen reports that school isn’t for her, eyeballs glued to her Instagram feed. While a consequence may be in order or at least a sober conversation about safety or life with a sixth-grade education, anger, hysteria or extreme punishment will only drive your teen to more egregious behaviors. When our actions are generated by our unconscious pain power struggles get worse. The reason: you’re trying to solve something with your teen that can only be solved within yourself.

When your son comes in past his curfew stinking of marijuana notice what’s going on in your body and mind—first steps in managing emotions. Scan your chest, then your belly, plant your feet on the ground to weather the storm. Taking away privileges and drug testing are always options, but they wreak havoc on the relationship where we have the leverage. Notice the thoughts that are becoming more irrational. There’s a difference between feeling disrespected by your teen and managing those feelings, and being triggered by some past hurt from a mother who lied or an ex-husband who cheated on you. The hidden or unknown emotion in you will threaten the connection upon which the communication relies. 

What gets you tangled with your teen? Know what drives the conflicts you have with other people in your life. Hints: fear, anger, guilt, loneliness, perfectionism. Our teens will push our buttons unless we manage them ourselves. Your ability to stay calm will help you have a meaningful conversation about her bad attitude, his Xbox use, the car damage—whatever the indignity—the next day rather than an embattled one at the time of the offense. The Dalai Lama said, “Those who drive us the craziest are our best teachers.” What is your teen teaching you by driving you crazy?

Valeria Boltneva/Unsplash
Source: Valeria Boltneva/Unsplash

Second, cultivate responsiveness rather than reaction. A reaction, exaggerated by unresolved emotions from our past, leads to arguments that rarely keep us connected to our teen and certainly reduce our influence in their lives. Give yourself space—practices like meditation help—to sit with your reactions and get to know the feelings driving them. As you get to know your emotions you gain distance from them. If you do not have a grip on yourself, your teen will not get a grip. Response, unlike reaction, includes a pause, first, to discover how we are feeling and then to perceive how the other person feels. Response allows for you and your teen to pause from the struggle and salvage what you both truly desire: the bond between you.

Artem Maltsev/Unsplash
Source: Artem Maltsev/Unsplash

Third: cultivate the relationship. Research and therapists agree: Adolescents with strong emotional ties to parents are significantly less likely to exhibit drug and alcohol problems, attempt suicide or engage in violent behavior and early sexual activity. Your teenage daughter flips you the bird as she screeches out of the driveway in your car. Reaction would be understandable but not helpful. Finding the win-win is the only solution; when just one person “wins,” the relationship loses. And as our children become teens, the best way to have input in their lives is through the relationship. When the human connection is compromised by the speed of daily life and the hit of dopamine from Snapchat is your teen’s priority power struggles escalate fast.

Understanding your teen will help you nourish the relationship. Trust is the currency teens crave, even as they erode it with their betrayals. Give your teens space to contemplate who they are, where they are going, who they might become.

Your 13-year-old won’t take your advice on anything. You refuse to take no for an answer because guiding her with helpful hints for daily living is the way you show love. Your devotion is lost in translation. She will feel your love with trust and space, not another suggestion; as much as you know it would unlock the key to her soul.

Power struggles—those deeply stirring conflicts, messy and inevitable, done right, can be opportunities for growth. Know thyself, cultivate responsiveness and nourish the relationship and these engagements with your teen will yield greater and more sustaining bonds. How we relate to one another matters more than any other dimension of human life.