One of the best parts of raising children is their love of exploration. And as children enter middle school, one of their favorite things to explore is power: who's got it, how much do they have and how can I get some? Though this may be a difficult exploratory process for you and others in your household, it's also a very important factor in your preteen's social development.
Licensed clinical psychologist Erik Fisher has co-authored a book called The Art of Empowered Parenting which encourages parents to understand the power play going on between them and their children.
"When your child becomes an adolescent, they want to be able to express their own power, more so than they have in previous stages of development. They often feel frustrated with those in power around them, and their hormonal activity can decrease their abililty to manage and regulate their behaviors,” Fisher says.
Fisher says most of those power issues are based on perception, not just of your teen, but of the others around them.
Here are three of the most common ways children wish to be perceived by others:
Good: These children want to be accepted by people in charge.
Pros: They're well-behaved.
Cons: They're more likely to be coerced into dangerous situations, or to bury their emotions in order to please everyone.
Tip: Create an environment where your child knows it's okay to think differently, and be themselves.
Right: These children believe that in almost any situation somebody has to be right and the other wrong.
Pros: They're likely to challenge faulty systems.
Cons: They can appear arrogant, which is used to hide feelings of inadequacy behind their shield of righteousness.
Tip: Encourage your child to see failure as the ticket to learning and improvement.
Strong: Some kids, more likely boys, are born and/or socialized to look strong. Often, however, “good” kids who have lost faith and trust in those in authority will also switch over to wanting to appear strong more than good. This can come out of nowhere for some parents.
Pros: They may be more likely to assume a position of leadership and can be independent thinkers.
Cons: They start to directly challenge their parents and others in authority.
Tip: Don't get hooked into a power struggle. Guide your child to use their power wisely, and use yours wisely too.
Fisher says parents should try to help their children stop looking at themselves in these black and white terms and instead encourage them to evaluate the spectrum of their power and emotions. Here's how to do it:
- Encourage children to talk about their feelings. Statements like “I feel sad, frustrated and mad" are much better for your child's social development than “I'm mad at you.”
- Be aware of your own baggage. Parents with unhealthy attachments can raise kids with unhealthy attachments.
- Enlist Grandma (or Grandpa or Aunt Kathy) if they are emotionally grounded. Help your child to know that she has someone she can depend on to be objective.
Even though your preteen is gradually breaking away from your parental control, Fisher says, you're continuing to build the relationship you'll have for the rest of your life. And that's priceless.