Avoiding Power Struggles

Q: My 10-year-old son has an anger-management problem that we’ve been working on for the past year and a half with a therapist. We have seen major improvement, but recently we’ve noticed the return of some negative behaviors.

We’ve put a lot of energy into getting him to express his negative feelings in words, and, to some extent, it has helped at home. He has learned to be able to compromise and to see that he doesn’t have to get everything he wants in order to be happy.

However, the home environment is still difficult, because my husband and I are not role models of calm behavior. For example, yesterday my son refused to take a shower, and I shlepped him off his bed and to the shower. Since then, he’s been referring to how “Mommy also gets angry.” My husband can be very strict with the children, and they are often afraid of him.

In school, my son was recently in a big fight with a classmate. The other boy was suspended indefinitely, while my son was proven to be innocent in this case. However, soon after this incident, the limudei kodesh principal was quick to show us a report from the general studies principal describing how my son had returned to physical fighting with peers in recent weeks.

My son is also very argumentative with his younger brother and loses patience with him quite easily.

Everyone in the house is walking on eggshells, and I’m at my wits’ end. Days go by in which things are fine, but you never know who will explode next.

A: Power seems to be a prevalent theme in your home. This is reflected by you and your husband attempting to demonstrate your authority, and your older son’s need to show his superiority over his younger brother.

In order to change this family dynamic, there must be a general overhaul in how family members get their needs met.

Talk to your husband and children, and mention your observation that power and pressure are too frequently used by family members desiring to be heard. You want to change negative patterns of verbal communication (which often leads to negative physical touch) and replace them with more conciliatory requests and desires for compromise.

Suggest ways for family members to talk to one another when they desire something and feel they are not being listened to. Start with yourself, and ask your son, “How would you like me to remind you to take a shower?” If he just shrugs or says, “I don’t know,” you need to trouble-shoot with him and come up with ideas. Verbalize the idea that most problems have solutions, and this is surely one of them.

The “cushion” method is a good style of communication. Begin with a positive or empathetic statement, such as “I know it’s difficult to get up from your game to go shower,” and immediately add, “but it’s really important for you!” You can then end with humor or a comforting thought: “Before you know it, you’ll be out, nice and warm in that robe you like.”

The basic idea is to avoid unnecessary power struggles, whose message is: “Who’s going to win? You or me?”

A younger child might want to be reminded that he “really is a tzaddik” when he is asked to do something he doesn’t like to do.

Expect a considerable amount of trial and error as you work on implementation of various means of improved communication before a workable system is put into place.