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"If there was ever someone who could truly change the course of a family's life, it's Susan Stiffelman. Her effective methods are spelled out clearly in her wonderful book, making it easy to create a parent-child harmony at home." —Susan Avery, More magazine
“Conversational and practical… Stiffelman’s engaging work gives parents tools to navigate confidently in both calm and stormy family seas.” —Publishers Weekly
It probably comes as no surprise that my work with children and parents reflects the truth that we teach what we most need to learn. Like many of us growing up in the fifties and sixties (not to mention the thirties and forties, and seventies and eighties), my parents were caring, well intentioned, and fairly clueless about how to raise kids. They did the best they could, shooting from the hip, consulting Dr. Spock, and more or less following whatever conventional parenting wisdom was available in their day and age. The result was a bit iffy.
I love my parents and thank them deeply for all they did to raise me well—which was a lot. (I mean that, Mom!) I’m also aware that if they had been provided with some basic, yet immensely useful information about child rearing, things might have been a whole lot easier for us all. In spite of the fact that I believe one can always make lemonade from lemons, I for one wouldn’t have minded growing up with slightly less dysfunction and a stronger connection to my authentic self.
I knew I wanted to work with children from the time I was a child myself, first babysitting, and then working after high school each day at a day care center. I suspect my love for kids evolved not only for the obvious reasons—they’re cool, fun, and extremely interesting—but also because, as psychologists recognize, by healing others we can heal ourselves. As I helped children develop confidence, stand up for themselves, or learn to embrace their quirkiness, something in me was also waking up and getting stronger.
While working on getting my teaching credential, I focused on developing ways of teaching children that kept them engaged and reawakened the excitement for learning they were born with; a characteristic that had often been beaten down by the time they’d hit the ripe old age of seven. In my midtwenties I was hired as a private teacher for a family who regularly traveled around the world. With freedom to customize the curriculum for each child, I understood firsthand how passionate children are to learn, when the process is creative and alive.
Eventually, I became a licensed psychotherapist, largely to add credibility to my individual work with children and teens, many with overlapping emotional and academic issues. I seemed to attract a hefty dose of highly creative kids who were quite bright but who often did poorly in school. I also found it interesting that although the majority of the children I worked with had literally everything they could possibly need from a practical and material standpoint, many suffered enormously from depression, anxiety, and a muted sense of aliveness.
One child in particular stands out in my memory to this day. James was the four-year-old younger brother of Aaron, one of the children with whom I was working. Whenever James and his mom arrived to pick up his big brother, I found myself nearly blinded by the light pouring out of him. Talk about joy! James was lit up like a Christmas tree, exuding happiness, curiosity, and exuberance for whatever life had to offer. I saw James again when he was about twelve years old, and my heart sank. He was stooped, sullen, and almost unrecognizable.
I think it was at that moment that I realized I wanted to take all that I’d come to learn as an educator, a therapist, and now a mother, and share it with others. The original title of this book was Please Don’t Let the Light in Your Child’s Eyes Grow Dim, and although I eventually modified it to reflect more of what I wanted to say, that title speaks to the origins of what you are about to read. I believe parents need to act as guardians for their children’s innate light, honoring them as the emissaries of joy that they are. Instead, we often find ourselves battling over everything from homework to chores, watching as that light begins to fade.
When I took my fifteen-year-old son on a trip around the world—including a month in Africa—I was staggered by the brightness in the eyes of nearly every child I saw. The impact of that was all the more powerful given the abject poverty and the hardship with which they lived. Although I already knew in my bones that raising children to be joyful had little to do with their parents’ bank accounts, the experiences I had in Africa fueled my desire to address what I believe to be the universal truths that allow parents to propel their children forward into adulthood equipped to make their lives fulfilling, joyful, and free of depression, regardless of external circumstances.
In Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected, I’ve taken all the elements I’ve gathered along my own teaching, counseling, and parenting journey and assembled them into a body of information that has the power to dramatically improve your parenting life. I start with the concept of how our kids need us to be the Captain of the ship in their lives. This isn’t about parents’ being in control; it’s about being in charge. You’ll learn how to avoid the power struggles that once seemed inevitable when you and your child don’t see eye to eye. You’ll find out how to find your cool when you’ve temporarily lost it, regardless of whether your children are cooperating and behaving as you think they should. And you’ll discover how to maintain your confidence even in the midst of those parenting storms that trigger the threats and bribes we deliver when we’re feeling anything but powerful.
To lay the groundwork for being the Captain of the ship in our children’s lives, we’ll talk about connection and attachment. When children are deeply and securely attached to us, instincts are awakened that allow them to see us as their North Star and be receptive to our direction. We’ll move on to talk about how to help kids when they’re feeling frustrated, angry, and aggressive by exploring how to diffuse those intense emotions at their source. By learning how to come alongside your kids rather than at them, you’ll discover you can avoid the power struggles that sometimes make interactions with your children and teens feel like dramatic courtroom battles in which each of you is arguing your case like a high-powered lawyer.
Reading on, you’ll learn how to identify and nurture your children’s unique gifts and talents, which for some parents may also mean coming to terms with who your children are—and are not—so you can truly accept and celebrate them as they are. Most parents have what I call their “snapshot child”—the ones who say, “Sure, Mom!” the first time they’re asked to take out the trash or start doing their homework. Disappointment inevitably arises when the flesh-and-blood child in front of you is radically different from that imaginary one. By coming to see and accept the child you have, you free up emotional energy to offer the guidance and parenting he or she uniquely needs and deserves.
Later in the book you’ll learn how to help fortify your children and teens with tools to handle the problems, stressors, and challenges of life as they move toward adulthood. And finally, you’re going to discover approaches that will help you empower your children to create and manifest their hopes and dreams.
Keep in mind there might be instances where I share an anecdote about one of my clients featuring a child younger or older than yours. These stories will allow you to reflect on previous stages in your parenting life when you started using approaches that may have contributed to challenges you’re currently facing. And they’ll help you avoid mistakes down the road, as you parent that grade-schooler, tween, or teen—usually much sooner than you expect!
There are many elements in Parenting Without Power Struggles that began to take shape decades ago, early in my teaching career. Some ideas developed later as my work with more children in a wider variety of situations helped to further shape my sensibilities. But it wasn’t until I became a mother myself that this material was forged in the fires of real life. Everything you read in Parenting Without Power Struggles has been used as I’ve raised my son, who is now eighteen years old. No one has helped inspire me to grow up and be the best version of myself as my son, Ari, has. He is one cool kid. As grateful as I am for my formal education, it’s raising this boy that has made everything in this book come to life.
I’ve made plenty of mistakes. I don’t always get it right. Like you, I continue to learn and evolve on this parenthood journey. I’ve weathered my fair share of storms and have been knocked down more than a few times. But I have a kid who’s happy, kind, and incredibly sane, and I think that has at least a little to do with the things you’re going to discover as you read this book.
One day, Ari gathered up a book and a blanket and took himself out into the backyard for a good read. As he settled himself, he looked up at me, smiled, and said simply, “I love my life.” That about sums up the goal of this book and of my life as a parent: to have a child who can spontaneously express something so pure and so perfect.
I once read that when we have a child, it’s as though our heart steps out of our body and starts walking around on legs of its own forevermore. The pain, the beauty, the helplessness, and the magnificence of bringing up a child are impossible and overwhelming. Sometimes, we look at our children and can hardly catch our breath. The love we feel for them brings us to our knees as we pray that they will be okay, and that their lives—today, as little ones, and onward toward what we hope will be a very long adulthood—will be blessed.
One of my greatest passions is helping children and parents grow into the best versions of themselves they can possibly be. Join me on this journey, and prepare yourself to make today the day that your parenting life gets a lot easier and a whole lot more fun.
How to Be the Captain of the Ship Through Calm and Stormy Seas
A frightened Captain makes a frightened crew.
If you’re a passenger on a cruise ship, it’s kind of cool if the Captain joins you for dinner. But his true value isn’t as a social companion; you want and need him to be the guy who oversees the smooth sailing you signed up for, steering the ship through storms or around icebergs while you blithely sing your heart out at the karaoke bar. You want to be able to depend on the Captain, whether or not you like him or understand everything he’s doing. It’s a hierarchical relationship, with the Captain assuming his rightful role as the one in charge, and the passengers relaxing in the sense of safety that comes from knowing they can rely on someone to competently steer the ship through calm and rough waters.
Many parents believe it’s important that their children see them as their friends. But in truth, children need us to be the Captains of their ships. I’m not suggesting parents should be in control of their kids; I’m suggesting they need to be in charge. There’s a difference. Control—as I’m using the word—is an attempt to compensate for feeling powerless or afraid. Being in charge means that we’re capable of keeping our cool even when the seas are rough—or our kids are pushing our buttons, defying our requests, or melting down.
When our children perceive us as steady and calm—regardless of their moods or behavior—they can relax, knowing they can count on us to get them through the challenging moments of their lives.
Imagine our reaction as passengers if we saw the Captain completely lose his cool upon discovering that his vessel had a leak. Wouldn’t our confidence in him take a nosedive if he ran around the deck screaming, “It can’t have a leak! This is a state-of-the-art ship! We spent fifty thousand dollars getting it checked before leaving port!”
If our Captain were incapable of dealing with reality, it would significantly undermine our sense of security. If he responded to rough waters by running through the ship, shouting out in panic, “Oh, no! I can’t handle this!” we’d be very worried. In the same way, when we refuse to deal with reality as it is—our child’s anger toward his sister or our teenager’s use of alcohol—we leave him without the sense of comfort that comes from knowing he has someone capable of getting him safely through whatever crisis he might be experiencing.
WHEN OUR CHILDREN PERCEIVE US AS STEADY AND CALM—REGARDLESS OF THEIR MOODS OR BEHAVIOR—THEY CAN RELAX, KNOWING THEY CAN RELY ON US TO GET THEM THROUGH THE CHALLENGING MOMENTS OF THEIR LIVES.
We want a Captain who anticipates where the rough waters might be, who adjusts his course to avoid bad weather when possible, and who stays cool when things go wrong. If there is a storm, we are far more comforted by a Captain who takes charge, calling out directions to his crew with authority and issuing instructions to the passengers about where to go to stay safe, than we would with one who cowered in a corner or jumped ship. Similarly, when we fully inhabit the role of Captain of the ship of our home and family, we set the stage for providing the quiet and comforting authority that our children so profoundly need.
A Simple Model For Understanding Who—if Anyone—Is in Charge
One of the images I use in my work is that of two hands, with the right one representing you as the parent and the left one representing the child. I’ll be referring to this image throughout the book.
In this first image, the right hand is positioned above the left. In this position we get a visual of the natural hierarchy when the parent is in charge. PARENT IS IN CHARGE
This image represents you as Captain of the ship. You exude the quiet authority that comes from being certain that you can navigate the ship through calm and stormy seas.
When the hands are side by side, no one is in charge. I call this “The Two Lawyers.” This is where power struggles take place, with each side debating the merits of its position, and the one most committed—or least exhausted—prevailing. NO ONE IS IN CHARGE: “THE TWO LAWYERS”
When the left hand, representing the child, is above the right hand, the child is essentially in charge. The parent feels desperate and powerless, and resorts to bribes and threats in an attempt to exert control. CHILD IS IN CHARGE
I’ll be expanding on this idea throughout the book, but here’s a simple scenario that will lay the groundwork for understanding it:
Your daughter asks if she can have a sleepover, and you kindly but confidently say, “I’m afraid tonight’s not a good night for that.” This image would apply: PARENT IS IN CHARGE
Let’s say your daughter asks, “Why not?” and you reply, “Because you’re too tired. You’ve been crabby since you got home from soccer.” Your daughter says, “No, I’m not; I just had a bad game,” and you respond with, “I don’t think it’s because you had a bad game, honey. You were cranky before you left the house.” And your daughter says, “I was only cranky because you were trying to make me eat cereal I hate.” And you say, “You usually love that cereal!” And she says . . . you get the picture. You’re now in the land of “The Two Lawyers.” NO ONE IS IN CHARGE: “THE TWO LAWYERS”
If the situation deteriorates further still, you’ll hear your daughter say something like, “If you don’t let me have a sleepover, I’m not going to set the table.” You respond, “Oh, yes, you most certainly are, young lady, if you want to watch any TV for the rest of the weekend!” (Note the desperate tone creeping into your voice as you attempt to assert your authority.) For all practical purposes, the child is now running the show, and you’re issuing either threats or bribes to try to get back in charge. CHILD IS IN CHARGE
I’ll be elaborating on this further, but I hope this gives you a sense of the difference between a) being genuinely in charge, b) jockeying for the role of ship Captain with your child, and c) trying to overpower her when things have deteriorated. The following is a real-life example that illustrates how easily this can happen between parent and child.
The Challenge of Getting a Sleepy, Unmotivated Eleven-Year-Old Up for School in the Morning
Stella came to me in utter frustration. Her eleven-year-old son, Sam, refused to get up for school and every morning was so filled with drama that both mother and son were emotionally drained before they had even begun their day. Stella reported that every morning she went into Sam’s room and woke him up sweetly with a kind voice and a little foot rub.
No response. Stella then said she would speak a little more loudly and grab those feet just a bit more firmly. Sam would emit groans and moans. At this point Stella would begin to get impatient, feeling pressured by the clock ticking and the many tasks that still lay ahead to get her kids to school.
“Honey, remember we talked about this last night, and you agreed to get up on time today?” Silence. “Okay, Sam, I’m warning you. I’m going to go get your brother ready and put breakfast on the table. If you don’t get up in one minute, you’re gonna be late!”
It’s important to understand that Sam doesn’t actually have a problem. Either he doesn’t care if he’s late, or he is too sleepy to have access to the part of his brain that believes getting to school on time is important. Promises made the night before are filed in some distant part of his memory. So far, the only one with a dilemma is Mom, and she’s starting to panic because she’s having trouble making Sam solve her problem.
So now what happens? Mom ends up going into Sam’s room five more times, yelling, threatening to leave without him, and lecturing him about why “this simply cannot and will not happen again” (something she says every morning, suggesting she has very little credibility in her son’s eyes). Stella has totally lost her cool, despite vowing to keep it together, and she’s angry with herself—and Sam—for being unable to avoid this train wreck yet again.
Sam, scrambling to get dressed, matches his mother’s drama with his own, screaming about how Mom should’ve woken him a different way, or blaming his brother, whose coughing in the night woke him up and made him especially tired. Sam has little awareness—despite Mom’s valiant efforts to enlighten him—that every morning he has a list of excuses. NO ONE IS IN CHARGE: “THE TWO LAWYERS”
The family rushes out the door, tense, stressed, and either yelling at one another or hardly speaking. Stella tells her son that it’s his fault that she got angry. She comes home from the school drop-off feeling remorseful, angry, and powerless to see a way out of this daily morning chaos. CHILD IS IN CHARGE
When your child doesn’t do what you ask and you become emotional or begin delivering ever-escalating threats, he senses your panic. Your dramatic responses literally shift the hierarchy; for all practical purposes, you’ve handed responsibility for the outcome over to the child. This is not being the Captain of your ship!
Pushing Creates Power Struggles and Resistance
In my workshops, I illustrate an important idea by having participants stand up with their palms against mine. Without giving any instructions, I lean forward, pushing forcibly against their hands. Invariably, they push back with equal or greater force. After this demonstration I ask, “Did I ask you to push against me?” Their answer is always, “No, actually, you didn’t!”
What we discover is that when one person in a relationship starts pushing, the other instinctively pushes back. But you can’t have two people pushing against each other if one of them doesn’t participate! You can’t have a power struggle with only one person engaged.
Although the actual words and actions you take with a child who won’t get up in the morning will depend on all kinds of variables—his investment in getting to school on time, his age, the consequences he might face from teachers if he’s late—what’s important is the energetic place you inhabit as you parent. When you’re firmly rooted in your authority as the Captain of the ship, these dramatic, escalating interactions with your children cannot happen. The Captain doesn’t negotiate with his crew or passengers to be in charge; he simply is in charge.
What is the first requirement for staying grounded in your authority? Remain calm, at all costs. It becomes much easier to stay centered when you let go of giving your children the power to make or break your serenity depending on how they behave.
Back to Stella
I asked Stella this question: “What importance have you assigned to your child getting to school on time? Do you worry about receiving a call from a disagreeable office lady announcing that your son will be staying after school because he has too many tardies? Have you decided that it’s the mark of a ‘good mother’ to instill a sense of responsibility in your child? Have you interpreted his nonchalant attitude about being late to school as meaning that you have failed to teach him the importance of punctuality? What are you making your son’s behavior mean? “
When we give our children the power to make us feel that we are or are not good parents—or good people—we’ve relegated the job of steering the ship to them, all the while hoping, threatening, and begging them to guide it in the particular way we want it to go so we get the outcome we think we need.
I helped Stella use a process called The Work by Byron Katie. Katie’s approach is based on the understanding that it’s not the events around us that trigger our upset, but our thoughts about those events. In the context of parenting, it’s our beliefs and stories about how our kids should behave that cause us to lose our cool. Some of us know we’re stuck in a story of our own creation if our heart starts pounding and our mind obsessively replays what they did. Others find ourselves tempted to tell our friends about our child’s misbehavior to get validation for our anger. And many parents deliver unproductive or even irrational threats to get their kids to listen and obey. The Work is about looking at these beliefs and reactions so we can be free of their negative influence on how we respond to the challenges of parenting.
The Work consists of asking four questions about the belief or thought that precipitates our upset.
Posted March 13, 2012
This is the book I have been looking for. I bought the first edition now will buy the second. Basically how to bring the passion and love back into my parenting life and not to feel like I am always at odds with my child. Practical yet spritual it fills a void.
Please read this!
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Posted January 3, 2014
I have read dozens of parenting books and this is the first one that really has made smart, empathetic suggestions that are easy for me to remember and for my kids to accept. It's about taking leadership, making your kids feel secure, and getting them to buy into a happier, cooperative family life. First, I listened to the audiobook, which is read wonderfully by the author herself. Then, I felt like I wanted to have access to the info all the time so I bought it as an Ebook which I continue to read, a little bit each week, as a refresher.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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