Summary: In a research article published in the journal, Child Development, the authors explored how children learn how to respond when parents are powerless. In this article, I will explain the specific implications of these findings for parenting. These findings serve to highlight the observation that I have observed for years with parents:

When parents feel they have lost control, they compensate with controlling, power-driven strategies that only serve to make the situation worse.

Powerless Parents Use Exaggerated Tactics

A powerless parent is a term used to describe parents who feel that they have lost control and influence over their children. They readily express feeling powerless. More importantly, they exhibit specific behaviors that communicate their sense of powerlessness to their children.

How do children know that their children feel powerless? It’s quite simple. Researchers report that these parents hesitate, pause, stumble through responses to their children, offer ambiguous assertions, and then… attempt to respond with power tactics. This can take the form of “bully-like” responses that are extreme and demanding.

An example of this was wonderfully conveyed in the HBO drama “Sopranos” several years ago. This is a drama where the Soprano family lives in an affluent neighborhood, and the father of the household is a mafia kingpin. The two children are beginning to stretch the boundaries, with the teenage daughter showing more and more oppositional behavior.

In this particular episode, the daughter directly disobeyed parental instruction. The parents were in the kitchen talking with the daughter about the situation. They made statements such as “Your behavior is unacceptable Miss. We have told you that a hundred times. You are not allowed to do that in this home…Not as long as you live under this roof.” [Notice how these parents are talking to their daughter as if they control her actions with words. Of course, they don’t, but it doesn’t stop them from talking as if they do!]

While angry, both parents exude a sense of frustration combined with uncertainty about where to go next. They hesitate and stumble with what to say next.

Seizing the moment, the daughter then responds by saying that she had been thinking about this, and she felt she deserved a consequence. The parents look surprised, and mumble a bit…and then asked her what she deserved. She stated, “I think you should take my Discover card for three weeks.”

Both parents hesitate, look at one another, and sheepishly stutter through… “Well, that would seem okay.”

The daughter then states, “The only problem is that I will need gas for the car.” Dad looks at Mom, and reaches in his pocket, and pulls out a ten-dollar bill. The daughter then says that she also needs a CD. Mom and dad again look at each other, and hesitatingly ask, “What do you need it for?” After a brief explanation, dad then gives the daughter another ten-dollar bill.

I offer this example as a way to illustrate how these dynamics unfold within the family. From early on, we tend to try to control our children’s behavior with threats and words. We don’t have that kind of control. The more we attempt to try to exert control, the more we begin to lose control.

By getting our attention hooked on this “illusion” of control, we talk, threaten, yell, and demand.

We fail to see our source of influence and power. We feel helpless, and then begin to use exaggerated approaches.

Again, this is in no way meant to suggest that you do not have influence or that your actions fail to shape your child’s behavior. Just the opposite…THEY DO!

It is meant to clarify that there is a huge and dramatic difference between attempts to control children’s behavior, and efforts to exert influence through masterful use of your attention, your parental relationship, and control over consequences and the environment.

How Children Respond To Exaggerated Tactics

So what happens to children when parents begin to feel powerless? The research suggests a fascinating response by children.

As parents begin to attempt to exert more influence and make more exaggerated statements attempting to force control, children begin to “tune out” their parents. That’s right…TUNE OUT!

While “tune out” is not a clinical term, we all know what it means. It appears as if our kids aren’t listening to us, or are choosing not to respond. Are they just ignoring us?

No. This is not a bold, blatant act of non-compliance and disregard for parental input. Instead, the research would suggest that children simply stop paying attention to us if we begin to make strong “power statements” that we cannot back up. Such statements sound like:

  • “You stop that now.”
  • “You must do this right away.”
  • “I will not allow that.”
  • “If you don’t listen to me right now, you will be sorry.”

So what happens to parents in the midst of this?

As parents attempt to exert more influence, and their children begin to “tune out” these efforts, parents become anxious and frustrated. The more anxious we become, the more we attempt to assert our power to regain attention and influence. This creates more “tuning out” by children, and the cycle of increasing difficulties can escalate out of control as years go by.

So what do you do if you feel powerless? As with many of the questions that are addressed in this newsletter, there is both a simple and a complex answer. The simple answer is this: Reduce the signs and symptoms of powerlessness in your communications. You can do this by thinking out consequences in advance, speaking clearly without hesitation, and at normal volume. Do not overstate your influence, and focus on consequences to actions…not on efforts to demand compliance or control. Be calm…and be clear about what will happen when kids keep moving down an unwanted path.

The complex answer to that question is that you will be more effective as you congruently feel in control of yourself and your home. To do this, you must learn to believe in your tools and skills as a parent, and gain trust in those skills as you observe your impact. If you are following the Terrific Parenting principles, you can watch the effects change and influence your children’s behavior over time. This is a great boost to parental confidence.

Many of the strategies that we will discuss in the Terrific Parenting Newsletters will dramatically enhance your influence as a parent. If you haven’t signed up, please do so!

These amazing tools must be executed consistently and repeatedly over time. With each experience, you create an opportunity for your son or daughter to learn the rules of reality. One of the major principles I teach is the essential importance that your children experience choices that come with consequences that mimic reality.

Such choices, and consequences, create ongoing learning opportunities for your child. The more opportunities you create for them to learn, and offer clear and distinct consequences to those experiences, the more your children will learn. If you want to learn how to combine these ideas into a comprehensive program, I recommend that you consider the Essential Parenting Home Study Program. For less than the cost of a single session of direct consultation, you can get a comprehensive program that will provide a solid foundation for profound change in your kids. Learn more about this program by clicking below:

Learn About the Essential Parenting Home Study Program

Closing Comments: The findings of this research support the critical need for parents to have parenting tools that allow them to feel effective and influential. It becomes essential to learn these skills and avoid falling into the rut of powerlessness where your children “tune out” your input.

The more you have tools in your parenting toolbox, the more you will avoid such feelings of powerlessness. Perhaps more importantly, the more parenting tools you have, the more your parenting actions will teach the critical life lessons that will support your child’s success.