The Three R's: Receive, Redirect, REGULATE
According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, "power is defined as the "ability to act or produce an effect" or the "possession of control, authority, or influence over others". A power struggle between a child and a parent occurs when either the child or the parent is trying to produce an effect (or a reaction) or the child or the parent is trying exert control, authority, or influence over the other. Very interestingly, the definition in the dictionary is completely accurate! The quote (pictured) by the Attitude Magazine refers to a parent often feeling threatened when a child is trying to gain control. The adult may become triggered that his/her power is actually being taken away by the child. In actuality, the child is desperately trying to gain some of his/her own power.
I distinctly remember when as a child my family got their first microwave. Wow! Instant! We immediately received gratification by making microwave popcorn or made an entire Lean Cuisine meal in just minutes. Just think now how much instant is in a child's life with the advancement of technology. With cameras even on our watches our children can post/share pictures with their friends instantly (no more developing film and waiting for days to see the pictures). This mentality of "now!" has made it harder for parents to feel they can have a positive power with their children.
For example, in a typical meltdown state, a child's world from their perspective is falling apart. At that very moment, when the following may begin to occur: yelling, their arms and legs begin flailing, hitting, and throwing objects, parents immediately start to have a reaction. The limbic part of our brain (the emotional center) begins to over our response. Our own mammal reaction of either fleeing, fighting, or freezing may be aroused. The parents are on the verge of matching the state of the child and flipping their lid or having an amygdala hijack as well. Once that occurs, the power struggle begins!
So, how do the three R's fit into the equation at this point? Before I get to the three R's I want to raise three points about power struggles.
How comfortable are you with your own anger response? Examine your own level of acceptance of this emotion. If as an adult you struggle with the many feelings anger brings up, this is an area you may want to explore alongside a professional therapist.
More than likely, the child trying to gain negative attention during the tantrum has worked before. It is a learned action that has possibly produced desired results in the past. So, from the child's perspective, why change now?
We do not have to like the action or the behavior that the child is showing, but the child does need to see and hear that we understand their level of anger. Let me iterate that point: We don't have to agree with or like the behavior to understand their feelings.
The THREE R's: Receive, Redirect, REGULATE. When a child is melting, first we need to gain control of our own feelings and emotions. If we are nearing the tipping point of having our own tantrum, then it is completely acceptable for you to excuse yourself to take a few deep breaths, do some stretching, or other mindfulness activities to calm your amygdala from erupting. Of course, the situation needs to be stable enough for you to leave the room. If all you can do is go to another corner of the room, that is okay as well.
Receive: We want to receive or acknowledge the child's feelings and emotions. Their line of thinking (for example wanting the second donut rather than the piece of fruit for their snack) may be completely not logical, but that really does not matter to the child at that point. We may want to yell at them and look at them as if to say, "you have got to be kidding me!" However, logic is not really the point at this stage (at least from the child's perspective). What is most important point is that we SEE and HEAR their emotions by receiving them. In other words, we simply are noticing that they are having anger. Receiving may sounds like this: "I see and hear that you are furious with me that you cannot have the second donut as your snack." or "You are so mad at me for not giving you the donut. I see and hear that you are very angry." Notice the phrase, "see and hear" is in both examples. That phrase is absolutely key! Guess what is the next key point...the parent must be quiet and look at the child in their eyes (if you can get down on their level even better). That means, the adult cannot say a word after the phrase of "I see and hear...". By the way, this is the hardest part of the three R's for us as parents!
Redirect: If this is a new way of reacting to your child's tantrum, the child may very well look at you like you have 5 heads. That is okay. Now, it is time to bring in some logic or redirection. In the example of the donut, you may say, "hmmm, as you know in our house, we only get one sugary snack a day, so you have already had a donut. I wonder if we could solve this problem together of what for you to have as your snack." Depending on the age and strong negotiation skills of the child, some serious bargaining may ensue. You may have to go back up the to the three points above. If the parent is about to start the negotiations as well, then he/she may need to take a break to deep breathe. The most important phrase of the redirection statement is "I wonder if we could solve this problem together". We want the child to begin to feel empowered to make a positive choice with their words and actions. By asking them to help solve the problem together, you are allowing him/her to feel they have power of their own. Refer to the quote in the picture above.
REGULATE: The regulation step occurs as the result of the first two R's (receive and redirect). It is not as simple as 1+1=2. Because, once you begin to receive and redirect your child's anger on a regular basis regulation actually occurs all during the process not just as the result. A synonym of regulation is synchronize. Synchronized swimmers are all moving harmoniously. Balance is achieved when harmony occurs. I do want to make sure to point out that boundaries are a very important part of this whole process. If the parent struggles with where he/she ends and the child begins, then it will be difficult for the the three R's to be accomplished. Just as important as the first point earlier about getting professional help if you struggle with anger, same with boundaries.
In conclusion, reread the definition of power. The parent and child ultimately both desire to produce a positive effect on each other. Parents desire to have a lasting influence with their children. Power struggles can produce quite a lot of disruption in the family. Actually putting the three R's in place takes time and lots of practice. I encourage parents to say out loud the phrases (make them your own) in their car while driving alone or in the shower. The more you can feel comfortable with the language, the more you will be able to naturally react by receiving, redirecting and regulating.