Blog: insights from Dr. Keren Sofer

Finding One’s Way When Lost in a Parenting Power Struggle

When working with parents who are feeling frustrated, bewildered, and sometimes ashamed in relation to their parenting struggles, I will ask them what they wished for in their child before they were born. We talk about the origins of those dreams and longings.

This question often opens up a whole landscape of pain points and areas of pride from their own childhood. This can include ways the parents felt let down or invisible to their own caregivers. It often also reflects a striving to undo and redo, so they can repair their own unresolved wounds from the past.

In my observations over the years, it is the activation of those unresolved wounds that become the cause of power struggles between parent and child. When we feel out of control, we seek to control ourselves and others. As parents, we seek to control our children at those times.

It is essential for us to be able to ask ourselves, ‘why am I getting so angry at my child about this particular infraction, yet these other difficult behaviors do not bother me nearly as much?’ It is almost always because that particular behavior activates an unresolved wound.

My own awareness of this phenomenon does not make me immune to it. As a parent, I have been blindsided by my own unresolved wounds. Recently, my grade school age child was pushing back fiercely against completing his homework. The result was day after day of rolling temper tantrums. I was irritated, tired, and eventually lost my patience. The thoughts running through my head ranged from “how can I incentivize him to just get this done?” to “what have I done wrong that my child has a terrible work ethic?” The word lazy, I am ashamed to say, came to my mind.

It took time, and long discussions with my husband, to recognize what was getting activated in me. One of my own unresolved wounds is related to being the type of child that did all of her schoolwork on her own, without any help or pushing. However, part of me wanted the extra support, and also to feel that I was worthy of being pushed further. As I saw my son resist support and further shut down, a part of me felt angry, since that type of support was what I longed for and did not get. My challenge as a child – working hard to get recognition and support – led to my wish for a child who would push through no matter what. If he would just ‘be a hard worker’ then I could be the parent I didn’t have who pushed him to the next level.

The activation of that wound prevented me from listening more deeply to what was going on for him. I was distracted from tuning into his actual dilemma.

As I slowed myself down and allowed my awareness of this unresolved wound to grow, I could attend more fully to what my child actually needed. Instead of engaging him in a power struggle over my past hurts and longings, I was able to stay curious about his feelings and fears, ask him about what was going on for him, and not simply demand that he get his work done.

Once I could own what was mine in the dynamic, I could see more clearly that my son was feeling deeply insecure about his abilities. It became obvious that his resistance was not due to a terrible work ethic or laziness. It was due to a fear of failure. My recognition of his struggle meant that I could respond more appropriately and provide him with the reassurance he needed.

Resolving these wounds does not eliminate them. In fact, these wounds may always exist for us. As we all know, we cannot change the past. However, when we are able to hold awareness of the wounds, and own that our challenging feelings are coming from within us and not being put upon us by our children, then we are less vulnerable to acting out on them.

Here are some steps to take if you are caught in a tangle with your child:

  • Ask yourself, what is it about my child’s behavior that is stirring me up?
  • Reflect on what hopes, expectations or fears are being activated in you, that echo your own unresolved wounds.
  • Remind yourself that your child’s struggle is their struggle, and work to take their perspective while working through your own unresolved wounds separately.

These steps are very difficult to do alone, without a trusted sounding board. Acknowledging your struggle to someone you trust, who is able to be a good listener and give you space to talk it through, can help.