Ep 288: The Balance of Power in Parent-Teen Relationships

Andy Earle: You're listening to Talking to Teens, where we speak with leading experts from a variety of disciplines about the art and science of parenting teenagers. I'm your host, Andy Earle.

We're here today with Tiziana Casciaro talking about power.

One of the hardest things about the teenage years for many parents is the shifting power dynamic between parents and kids.

Teens might be less inclined to listen to their parents, more likely to decide they're just gonna do it anyways even if you don't like it, and more likely to talk back to you or ignore you completely.

The secret though isn't clinging more tightly to our power, but to understand how to share power effectively.

Tiziana is a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto. Her research has been covered in the New York times, the Washington post, the Economist, on CNN, and more, and she is the co author of Power For All.

Excited to speak with Tiziana today about parenting with power. Tiziana, thank you so much for being here.

Tiziana Casciaro: Thank you for having me, Andy.

Andy Earle: I'm pretty excited about this. Power is a topic that I think all parents of teenagers think about a lot people tell me having power struggles with their kids.

A lot of times the power dynamics are shifting in the family as kids are entering into the teenage years and we have to re navigate how we relate to our kids and what the balance of power is in our household. So really excited to see that you have a book all about power called Power For All.

What, wow, and you you talk a lot in the book about your own research. So this is not just something you wrote a book about. This is something you are deeply involved in studying.

Tiziana Casciaro: Indeed, and not only my research or the research of my fabulous co author, Julie Battilana, but we have gone out of our way to explore and go deep into the research of many others across many disciplines.

So what we have in this book is hopefully a nice distillation for people, all the key ideas that they need to make their lives more influential.

Andy Earle: I like that. There's frameworks and ways of thinking about different aspects of power throughout the book.

What, at a fundamental level, what is power?

Tiziana Casciaro: Power is very simply the ability to influence the behavior of others. And by this definition, you realize very quickly that it applies to everybody. It applies to the teenager who wants to influence her parents to let her go on a big trip around the world alone. And the parents are a little bit scared to let her do that.

And it applies to the parents when they want to influence their kids to maybe choose a certain career, pursue certain aspirations, behave in certain ways, avoid certain dangers. They're all instances of influence. And power is this ability to lead others into behaviors that they wouldn't necessarily adopt if they were left to their own devices.

Andy Earle: So tell me a little about what led you to be studying that or what got you onto this path of teaching and talking about power.

Tiziana Casciaro: There are really two determinants actually of our interest, both mine and my friend Julie. We, through our teaching, we see all the time people at different stages of their lives and careers who are trying to accomplish certain things and encounter obstacles, encounter resistance, encounter problems. And over many years of interacting with these people, we have realized that oftentimes the reason for all of those difficulties is that they don't understand how power works very well.

And partly because they shy away from it, or even they abhor it, thinking that power is really a dirty business. And they're pure of heart, they don't want to engage at that level. And so they misunderstand power only in this kind of manipulative, coercive terms, when in fact power is just energy.

That's all it is. It's energy that you can direct toward changing the world around you. And sometimes you want you change it in completely benign and constructive ways, and sometimes you can deploy it to be destructive and nasty. Of course, both things can happen, but if you disengage completely and say, I don't want to deal with that, you're not going to be able to get stuff done.

So we try to provide to all these people that are either reluctant to engage with it or think that it's just not even the point for them engaging because they don't have it. Other people have power, they don't, and therefore, you give up on it. And we don't want them to give up because oftentimes what they have at heart are perfectly wonderful, beautiful goals.

And we want to give him a leg up in trying to accomplish them. And then on the other side of the spectrum, we also wrote this book because we do see power abused and misused in the world all the time.

And the other audience for us are people that have power and have forgotten how to use it or never learned and they allow the kind of poisonous toxic effects of power to take a hold of them and great destruction follows. So we want to do both sides of this equation, the constructive side where we help people do better.

And move along. And the curbing of the nefarious effects of power.

Andy Earle: So power is the ability to influence the behavior of others. Then you also talk about how the way that we often do that is through controlling resources that other people value. And the level of power that you have in a relationship with someone else has to do with how many resources you control that they want and how many resources they control that you want.

And where does that balance lie? And it really got me thinking that maybe this is shifting during the teenage years where as a parent of a young kid, you control all the resources they could possibly want. And they really have very little resources that you could want, but that arithmetic starts to change a little bit as they get older.

Tiziana Casciaro: Absolutely. You got it absolutely right, Andy. It's a matter of giving people access to something they need and want. And being one of the few sources where you can get that stuff. If they can get it easily all over the place, then they don't depend on you for it. And therefore you don't have sway over them because they have no dependence.

They don't rely on you for that. And you're right that as children grow, the types of exchanges that occur with parents shift. And we know the stereotype of the small child who's very dependent on the parent's love and approval. And so they wait for the mom and the dad to give them a sense that they like them and they love them.

And so you have those documentaries of mothers and small, toddler or crawling little babies that show that when the mother is instructed by the experimenter to divert her gaze from the baby and not look the baby in the eyes for a while.

And over time how distressed the baby is when, the baby's playing and looks up to mom and tries to get her attention and she doesn't give it to them. And that is incredibly difficult for a small child to bear. So clearly there's a resource there, which is the parent's love and approval that will allow a parent to direct the behavior of the child under many circumstances.

But not all of them. Because even as a small child, they can provide the parent with resources. They can throw a tantrum that leads the parent to cave and give the baby or the child or the toddler what they want. Because the parent wants also to get approval. Of their child. And approval comes in the form of the child being smiley and happy and giggly as opposed to screaming, crying and tantruming.

So there are still exchanges happening, but you're absolutely right that when the child is so small, there's only so much they can do to control their world. The parents are in control. As they grow, the kids become teenagers. And the dynamic changes. Because one of the big determinants of power is whether the other party has alternatives to you.

So if what you want is approval, you develop as a teenager, another source of valued approval, which are peers. And all of a sudden, the approval of the parent is not as essential. In fact, it may be even less important than the approval of the peers. So the parent loses in many ways some of the sway they have on the kid because the kid can go out there and satisfy that fundamental need easily, or at least they think it's easy because it's never easy to get peer approval, but they can certainly find another source of it.

And then the dynamic changes that way. In addition, what troubles a lot of the parents is that when the teenager is able to roam the world freely, they expose themselves to both potentially wonderful things, but also potentially dangerous things. And the parent then craves control over the dangers that lurk around their child. And to be able to exercise that control, they value tremendously some things that the kid can do for them.

Call them, let them know where they are, listen to their advice, value their advice. These are all resources of affiliation, support, approval, that become very important in the dynamic.

Andy Earle: Also, in the same way that power tends to change, power also tends to change us, or change people as they gain more power. And I wonder about that also, as teens start to get older and realize that they have more power, or realize that the dynamics of the relationship are shifting a little bit.

How does that affect maybe how they feel about themselves? You talk about pride and self confidence and how these things tend to follow power, or we tend to feel more hubris as our level of power increases.

Tiziana Casciaro: Certainly power has a tendency to affect us in the ways you're describing.

It makes us a little less attentive to others and eager to learn from them because we believe that we don't need anybody anymore. We don't need them to give us guidance and input because we know what we're doing. And we don't need to pay attention to them because we have all the resources we need.

So why pay attention to somebody who is not able to give me anything I want. So we become a little egocentric and a little overconfident. So that certainly can affect anybody who experiences any kind of boost in power, including young people who maybe go from feeling quite dependent on their parents to feeling that they have a margin of action, more degrees of freedom to make choices, to go out there, explore the world and do their thing without their parents support.

This being said, though, both teenagers and actually parents, too, remain in some place in their soul also insecure and needy. So we all still need that link to the people who love you best and love you most. The people who are there for you in the moments of difficulty. It's really a balancing act, especially for teenagers, to both embrace this newfound power, but also remain comfortable with the fact that you don't need to sever that relationship. You don't need to distance yourself from it, even though at some level that distance gives you the reassurance that you can make it on your own.

And that's very important for the adolescent. They need to know that if left to their own devices, they can cope. That's a major contributor to their sense of safety and their sense of self worth, which are the two very fundamental things that we all want to satisfy. We need to feel protected from harm, and we need to feel that we're worth something. And the teenager is struggling every day to find their footing into the space of safety and also feeling that they know something that they have capabilities that can go in the world and take action and accomplish something.

So they're distancing themselves from the parents to prove those two things to themselves. To prove that they can be safe and they can do stuff and feel good about their capabilities. So they're still striving to accomplish those things.

But the battle, in a sense, that balance of power you were describing earlier, is in recognizing that it is completely possible to accomplish those things or to feel that you can protect yourself from bad things and at the same time accomplish good things. You can do all of that, even while you maintain a very productive and good and peaceful relationship with your parents.

And the parents have to do the same thing. They have to not let this need to control the environment. They have to let it go, because unavoidably the adolescent needs to find their way forward without the constant assistance of the parents. And if the parent is also stuck in this world where you want to make everything safe for everybody, and you want to feel like you're a great parent, that you're fabulous at it.

And if those are your preeminent preoccupations, you're not going to be focused enough on the needs of your kid for them to be able to do their development, right? Yeah. Alongside your intervention and your watchful eye, but they also have some room for their own growth independent of you. So it's really a mastering of a mutually dependent, a mutually beneficial relationship that both parents and kids have to work on.

Andy Earle: The more that you care about, or the more that you are really invested in your role as a parent and wanting to really do well and be the best parent ever, then actually the more you're giving power to your child because you're letting them have influence over this resource that you really value, which is feeling like you're a good parent and like you're doing the right thing. And it's almost counterintuitive or paradoxical that the more you care about it also, the more you're giving your power away in a sense.

Tiziana Casciaro: In many ways it is, it's really a, the capacity to get out of yourself and focus on the other person. That makes a power dependence relationship beautiful and constructive for everybody involved. When we become very self concerned, it's very difficult to find that common ground where everybody can get the resources that are essential to them without becoming antagonistic or disconnected from the party who's providing those resources.

Andy Earle: You also talk in the book about power sharing and also sharing accountability. How does that work and how is it that somehow that can actually improve the effectiveness of the group?

Tiziana Casciaro: Even beyond parental and children relationships, we come together in all kinds of social context, whether it's the family or the workplace or government or public administration, you name it, we come together because we need the contributions of many people to accomplish something collective that we cannot do on our own.

This is true in a family context as much as it is true at the more macro level. So what happens when you don't power share is that you tend to concentrate influence in your hands, which makes the people around you quite dependent and therefore often reluctant to voice their point of view, to contribute what they've got.

Because they fear your response, they fear that if they present a different version of what we should be doing, that you're not going to like it. And because you concentrate power in your hands, your response could be in fact quite unpleasant. You might punish them for having gone in a direction that you don't like, for criticizing you, for pointing out something you should be doing differently.

When instead you are empowering them, you give them an opportunity to contribute fully to whatever joint endeavor we have. It could be having a very happy family where everybody supports each other and we help when somebody has to make a big decision. Everybody chimes in and tries to provide different perspectives and the quality of those decisions tends to improve when you have multiple voices harmoniously coming together.

You can have some conflict, but the conflict has to be on the ideas, has to be on the task at hand and not on the person. To say, oh, you are irresponsible, you are not applying yourself, you're lazy or whatever those attributions are that kind of shut down the conversation altogether. Power sharing enables everybody to contribute to their fullest ability.

And that's why it tends to be so beneficial across all kinds of contexts. Now it's hard to do when you're used to having decision making authority. So as a parent, yes, you have to deal with the tantrum and you have to deal with whatever the small child can do to influence you back, but lo and behold, you're still largely in control because they're so small and they're so helpless in many ways.

When you're used to having that kind of decision making authority, it's hard for some people to recognize that now they're dealing with a more peer like relationship. You're not really peers because your roles are still very different. A parent is not a friend, necessarily. A parent has a very different job to do that is not replacing friendships and other types of relationships that the kid has.

But learning that through power sharing, you get to make the most of what your children can contribute to the family, to their own lives, and your own, and vice versa. You are able to contribute to their development and their learning about the world and how to conduct themselves in it, in a way that when you have very asymmetric power, becomes quite difficult.

And we see that in business. We see that when a company has much, much higher power in their favor compared to their suppliers, for instance, or people that use their product and service, that the temptation to hold onto that power and abuse it rises. And then in the long run, everybody kind of suffers because you're not building on each other's strengths.

You are just trying to squeeze everything you got from these people instead of building something together. And the same logic applies within the family. The more egalitarian and the more shared the influences in that relationship, the better off everybody tends to be.

Andy Earle: Your book's really got me thinking a lot about that, the interconnectedness. It's easy to think, okay power in families, how do I make sure I have more power as a parent and that they listen to me and that they don't talk back to me and that they respect me.

But as you mentioned earlier, the more we're focused on ourselves and our own power, the more it's going to actually create problems. And I think really the title of your book says it all. It's not really just about how do I have more power and how do I hold on to my power.

It's about how do we navigate this together and how do I share power in the right way? And so I highly encourage people to check out a copy of Power For All: How it Really Works and Why it's Everyone's Business. Tiziana, thank you so much for coming on the show today and speaking with us about your research and about your book.

It's been really enlightening and really fascinating. I hope people find it helpful.

Tiziana Casciaro: Thank you so much, Andy. Excellent questions. And I enjoyed the conversation very much.

Andy Earle: Where can we send people to find out more about your work, more about the book, or just more about other things you're up to?

Tiziana Casciaro: We have a little website called Power For All Book, where you can go and find all kinds of additional Information and interviews and different twists and turns about how to apply these ideas to whatever corner of life you inhabit, whether you are a nurse trying to make a dent in the hospital where you work, or you are a businessman trying to get your people to work hard. All the different applications of these ideas, including the family.

And then you can always Google us and our name will lead you places. And you can feel free to reach out and ask any questions or provide any comments. Sometimes stories that are just absolutely wonderful come our way of people who have used the principles of the book to solve a really sticky situation where they couldn't influence the situation around them.

And then they apply the model and found something that the other party really wanted. And through that insight finally got them to collaborate in the way that they were hoping for. We always love to hear. And sometimes we steal them from people with their permission.

And we use them to explain how these ideas work in different environments. So please, your audience is free to get in touch with us and have a conversation about the things that they care about.

Andy Earle: We're here today with Tiziana Casciaro talking about parenting with power, and we're not done yet. Here's a look at what's coming up in the second half of the show.

Tiziana Casciaro: And at some point the exchange falls apart because people refuse to engage at that level because they feel abused. They feel exploited. They feel misunderstood.

And they find whatever alternatives available to them. And for a kid, it could be a girlfriend or a boyfriend. It could be a group of friends.

Sometimes we let the opportunities. go and we lose them because we are rushed. We are preoccupied by a million and a half things and the kid is trying to give us a little signal and we just, we can't take it in that moment.

Distributing power a little more evenly, so that more people are able to lead an independent life where they contribute to collective goals while they satisfy their own needs. It's the better way to live. And if we can impart those principles on our kids, over time, we will all be better off.

Andy Earle: Want to hear the full interview? Sign up for a subscription today. It's completely affordable and your membership supports the work we do here at Talking to Teens. You can now sign up directly through Apple Podcasts. Thanks for listening and we'll see you next time.

Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Tiziana Casciaro
Tiziana Casciaro
Tiziana Casciaro is a Professor of Organizational Behavior and the Marcel Desautels in Integrative Thinking at the Rotman School of Management of the University of Toronto. Her research on organizational networks, professional networking, power dynamics, and change leadership has appeared in top academic journals in management, psychology, and sociology, and has received scientific achievement awards from the Academy of Management. Thinkers50 has recognized Tiziana as one of the thirty thinkers most likely to shape the future of how organizations are managed and led, and her research has been featured in the Economist, the Financial Times, the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN, CBC, Fortune and TIME magazine. Most recently, she has co-authored the book Power, for All: How it Really Works and Why It Is Everyone’s Business (Simon & Schuster, 2021). Originally from Italy, Tiziana received her B.A. in Business Administration from Bocconi University in Milan, and her M.S. and Ph.D. in Organization Science and Sociology from Carnegie Mellon University. Before joining the University of Toronto, she served on the faculty of the Harvard Business School.
Ep 288: The Balance of Power in Parent-Teen Relationships
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