How to Win Power Struggles
Do you have a child who engages you in power struggles? It can be completely infuriating when your own child challenges you and manipulates you in order to get what they want. Plus, it can even make you start to question whether you’re doing a good job as a parent. Is there a way to diffuse a power struggle and keep your child in line without raising your voice and starting an argument? How can you stay in control of the situation while still making your child feel heard and loved?
In this article, bestselling author Oren Klaff breaks down the psychology of family power struggles and provides a step-by-step plan for stopping a power struggle with a difficult child. Oren is the author of Pitch Anything, the international bestseller that teaches business people how to overcome a power struggle during an important meeting in order to close a big deal. His new book, Flip the Script, reveals his revolutionary method for sales people to avoid power struggles altogether by getting others to think your idea is their idea.
Oren Klaff’s Parenting Master Class
This video-based interactive course, taught by Oren Klaff, goes even deeper into the concepts from this article and includes step-by-step exercises to help you generate scripts you can use on your children next time they try to start a power struggle. By the time you work through these 9 short lessons, you’ll have a complete plan for how to avoid power struggles and put the concepts Oren taught you into action.
Why Power Struggles Happen
Power struggles occur, Oren says, because parents don’t understand how the teenage brain processes information. We tend to think of information as entering the brain similar to an email. If I attach an Excel file to an email, you’ll immediately open it right up in Excel in order to read it. But communication works differently. When you are communicating, you compose your message in your Neocortex, or the linguistic problem-solving, mathematical, capable, thinking part of your mind. Unlike an email, however, your child doesn’t immediately open the message up in their own Neocortex and start analyzing it. First, your message has to get past the lower levels of your child’s brain. And this can be very difficult to do, especially during a power struggle.
How the Teenage Brain Works
Neuroscientists break the brain up into three major sections. Understanding how these work will help you win power struggles with your child. The Old Brain was the first section to develop during our evolution. It’s located deep in the center of your brain, known as the brain stem. This is the part of the brain that deals with simple fight-or-flight survival responses. When you’re in the middle of a power struggle with your child, the Old Brain is the part of their brain that you are communicating with. Oren refers to this as the “Croc Brain.” The next brain area to develop was the Mid Brain. This is where social information is processed. Finally the Neocortex is the most recent area of the brain to evolve. That’s what allows us to think logically and weigh pros and cons. It’s also the part of the brain that goes off-line during a power struggle.
When you try to communicate something to your child, Oren Says, your message is first processed by the Croc Brain. And that part of the brain is busy working on basic survival. So the Croc Brain just looks at the message very quickly and asks three basic questions: is this something I should eat, is this something I should fight with, or is this something I should mate with. That’s it. So, all the carefully-planned information you start with, like, “we need to talk about your school report,” or “we gotta talk about these friends you’re hanging out,” or “we gotta talk about your drivers license,” is just getting truncated. All the Croc Brain cares about is whether you are presenting something to eat, mate with, or kill. That’s it. Power struggles are caused when your message feels threatening and triggers your teen’s Croc Brain into attack mode.
If you can get your message past your child’s Croc Brain, you still haven’t avoided a power struggle yet. Next your message goes up into the child’s Mid Brain, the social processing center. The Mid Brain is interested in whether the person giving you the information has any control over you socially. Is this somebody you have to pay attention to? Are they high on the social pecking order for this issue? If the answer is yes, the Mid Brain will pass the information along to the Neocortex. If not, however, the message will get significantly truncated or even completely deleted by the Mid Brain. This can lead to serious power struggles. The Mid Brain has to believe that the person giving you the information has the ability to sanction you and create consequences in your life based on that information.
Finally, Oren Says, once your message makes it past the child’s Croc Brain and their Mid Brain, that your information finally makes it to the Neocortex. Once you can engage the Neocortex and provide it with a good argument, you’re well on your way to stopping the power struggle in it’s tracks. How can you make sure your message will successfully move all the way through your child’s brain and make it to the Neocortex without getting truncated? Oren has developed a system for accomplishing this and overriding power struggles. It’s called Frame Control.
The Science of Frame Control
A frame is a window through which you view a human experience. Any time two or more people are interacting, they both have a unique perspective on the situation. You see that encounter through a certain lens, or frame. But that child or adult who you are speaking with sees the encounter through their own frame. And if the two frames are different, if the two people have different perspectives on what is going on, then they won’t be able to reach an agreement. Until both people can see the encounter through the same lens, they can’t come together. If two people have different frames on a situation, the frames will collide and create power struggles. And one frame will always take over the other. There will always be one dominant frame at the end of a power struggle. The stronger frame will always win.
There are three main kinds of frames that are used by children during power struggles. And they are very easy to recognize. They have names: the Prize Frame, the Power Frame, and the Time Frame. Maybe the easiest one to understand is the Power Frame. That is someone who thinks they have all the power in a situation. They want to be the one making all the decisions. There’s nothing you can do to change their mind and they control the situation. That can easily lead to a power struggle. Another common frame is the Prize Frame. This is about who sees themselves as the most valuable person in that interaction. Finally, there is the Time Frame. “I don’t have time do that.” “I have to get my homework done.” These are time constraints (and, mostly, they’re false time constraints).
Often with parents, because we care more and we’re more invested, we start to act like the child is the prize. We make them more important than ourselves. We feel like we’re trying to win the child’s attention. “I need some time to talk to you.” I’m needy. Neediness is not attractive to the human brain. So when you let your child Prize Frame you it actually makes you less influential. Parents are also often very willing to work around the child’s schedule. But, as Oren points out, this allows your children to Time Frame you, giving them control over you during a power struggle. You need to value your own time at least equally to the child’s time, if not of higher importance. Sometimes parents will try to combat their teen’s Prize Frames and Time Frames with a Power Frame, leading to intense power struggles.
How to Stop a Power Struggle
There are two big skills that will help parents stop power struggles. These tools will raise your status and give you the integrity not to walk on eggshells around your child because you’re worried they are going to blow up or you think they’re going to walk away. In order to stand your ground during a power struggle you need to know how to recognize Beta Traps and how to use the Moral Authority Frame.
Recognizing Beta Traps
Beta Traps are subtle moves your child uses during a power struggle to lower your status and trap you in the Beta role. Because these are subtle, many parents don’t notice them or address them properly. But every single one lowers your status a little bit more. If you don’t put a stop to these, you might be rushing into power struggles with your child from a very disadvantaged position. Some common Beta Traps teens can use during a power struggle include using excuses to put off your requests, only talking to you when they are in their room, keeping you waiting at a pick-up spot, or checking their phone during a conversation. If you allow any of these things to happen in your household, this might explain why you’re getting into power struggles with your children. These Beta Traps must be stopped.
What can you do to put a stop to the Beta Traps and start to regain control of the power struggles? Oren says you need to address the problem immediately whenever it happens. He borrows and expression from the Navy SEALs: “Close the distance and shut it down.” Instead of having a conversation with your child and talking around the issue carefully, walking on eggshells trying to avoid a power struggle, it’s okay to just come in close, address the behavior head-on, and shut it down. For instance, if your child leaves you waiting at a pick-up spot, you could stop the car and lean in and say, “This doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t work for anybody. It’s not a social norm. What if I didn’t buy food for a week? That makes just as much sense as not coming to a pick-up for 20 minutes, without a message.” So, when these little power struggles come up, you need to close distance on them, don’t walk on eggshells, shut it down, and move on. That helps you avoid stepping into a bigger power struggle later on.
Use ‘Moral Authority’ to Shut it Down
If you let your kids get away with some inappropriate behavior or with playing some Beta Traps on you, they will quickly learn they can get away with it. This causes power struggles as they challenge you on bigger and bigger things, searching for your boundaries. You can stop a power struggle from ever occurring if you say “no” properly as soon as a problem starts, rather than letting it get out of hand. Oren thinks the ability to say, “No, I’m not going to do that, that makes no sense,” when it’s uncomfortable to say no, is one the high-order skills in having good relationships and avoiding power struggles.
When you see a bad behavior, or a Beta Trap, from your child, how do you shut it down and prevent a power struggle? Oren recommends using the Moral Authority Frame. Try framing your child’s behavior as outside of the norm and inappropriate. That’s psychology. People want to belong. So if you can frame the ways you’re family does things in this household as normal, as social norms, as what other families do, as the “good environment,” and what everybody expects, then you can start to frame the child’s behavior as outside the norm. And nobody really wants to be perceived as outside the norm.
For a word-for-word example of how to do this with your own child, take Oren’s Parenting Master Class on How to Win Power Struggles. You’ll have an opportunity to generate your own Moral Authority script by answering some questions about your child.