Q & A with Mary Sheedy Kurcinka
Author says building healthy relationships is key to defusing parent/child power struggles
By Judie Jacobson
WEST HARTFORD – Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of “Kids, Parents and Power Struggles” will unravel the mysteries of family dynamics at the Mandell Jewish Community Center’s Family Room Parenting Center’s 2nd Annual Parenting Conference on Sunday, May 23. The conference is open to the public, parents, educators and caregivers.
Using humor and concrete examples, Kurcinka will outline parenting challenges and provide a road map to avoid and diffuse parent/child power struggles from toddlers through teenagers. Kurcinka is also the author of “Raising Your Spirited Child” and “Sleepless in America.” An internationally recognized speaker and parent educator, Kurcinka’s work has been featured in the New York Times, National Public Radio, Good Morning Canada, Parenting Magazine, Working Mother, First for Women, among others.
At the conference, Kurcinka will lead interactive, customized workshops. Participants will work in small groups with parents of similarly aged children and learn how to develop an individualized “plan of action.”
Kurcinka recently spoke to the Jewish Ledger about the power struggles between parents and children.
Q: What will you be speaking about at the JCC on May 23?
A: Our topic is “Kids, Parents and Parent Struggles” and that ultimately your real power, your real influence is in the relationship. So we are going to be talking about how do you build that relationship.
Q: What do you mean by the real power is in the relationship?
A: The bottom line, especially as your kids grow older, is that punishments or the threat of punishment is not going to stop them. What keeps your kids working with you is a relationship that is strong enough that they don’t want to disappoint you. They don’t want you to be upset with them and that is where your real influence is, that they care.
Q: Is this true of children of all ages from toddlers on through, say, college kids?
A: Absolutely, and the other piece of that is your developing that relationship with every interaction with your kids.
Q: Can you give me an example of that?
A: Yes. Say siblings are fighting. Maybe the older child just took something away from a younger one. And obviously that is not okay. But how do you come in to that situation? Do you say, ‘Give that back to him, why are you always doing that?’ Obviously that child gets more angry and may run away from you or say, ‘No, I am not giving it back.’ And it goes from there and just kind of escalates.
Versus if you come in and you say to him, ‘What did you want to tell your brother’ or ‘Did you want a turn? I will help you,’ then you come in as the helper, not the threat. You are still going to stop this behavior, but what you are recognizing is, okay, he wanted a toy or video game or whatever it might be, but he doesn’t know how to get it in a respectful and appropriate way. So we come in with, ‘Okay, did you want that game? I will help you get it. Grabbing it from your brother is not how you get it. Do it this way.
When you do that, when someone is coming in to help instead of as a threat, it is calming. It calms the system, they are more open to listening to you, they don’t run away, they don’t shut down on you.
Then you can say, ‘Ask him when he will be finished.’ And when the sibling says “I won’t be finished for 30 minutes” then you show them to say, ‘Okay, what do you want to do while you are waiting’ and you plan with them.
And then you turn back to the first one and say, ‘Okay, your brother really wants this. When you are finished please give it to him.’ And what you will find is, of course, it is not 30 minutes, it is a matter of probably two minutes and they are done and they will give it to them.
Q: So in that way you build a relationship and that gives you influence or power?
A: It gives you influence and power. The other thing is that when you are coming into them that your approach is calming. If you think about it, whom do we take advice from? Whom do we learn from? We learn from people that we know like us, who come in a calm manner. Then we are open to their guidance. Then your power and influence is in that relationship.
Q: Are there stages during the life of a child that are especially confrontational or are power struggles an ongoing issue until the kids themselves are old and grey?
A: The reality is we don’t have to be in power struggles everyday. And [at the conference] we will be talking about strategies that prevent that, everything from protecting sleep – because obviously, power struggles start with a lousy night sleep – to homework. People will say to me, ‘How do I get my kid to do homework?’ And my first question is ‘When do you do homework?’ And if the answer is ‘It depends,” then you are setting yourself up for a power struggle, because it is always a surprise. So we also will be talking about the importance of predictability and routines. People will say, ‘How do I get them off the video games or the TV?’ And my question is, “Well, when does he get to watch TV or play video games?’ Again if [the answer is] ‘it depends on how busy I am or what mood I am in’ then what you do is teach kids to keep pestering instead of ‘okay, we don’t have TV in the morning. Don’t even bring up the question. We don’t have to fight about it because it just doesn’t happen in our house.
It is an interesting thing when you establish those predictable routines, kids are actually much more accepting of them than parents expect them to be. Kids like routine. They like predictability, they thrive on it. And the fact is that life today provides plenty of surprises and changes to give us opportunity to practice managing those things, so where they can have some predictability and routine, it is really important.
Q: Your are probably going to be speaking mostly to parents of younger children, but is there a point beyond which it is too late to establish these patterns for those with older children?
A: Absolutely not. This is a process that is ongoing. One of the things we know is that teens want connections with their parents, they may not admit it openly, but again – in terms of predictability – your kids need to know that you are around for breakfast every morning or you are around at bedtime snacks, or you are there when they come home from school – that there is some predictability to the routine. That when they are getting ready for bed that you are going to come in with a glass of water and sit on the edge of the bed and talk to them about their day. We know that teens who have parents who continue to monitor bedtime – to say goodnight to their kids – those kids get more sleep. And teens who get more sleep get better grades and have fewer health issues.
Q: You touched a little bit before on the issue of sleep – which is the subject of your latest book, “Sleepless in America.” Is sleep an issue for parent as well as child?
A: Absolutely. It is for all of us. The bottom line is, inside of each of us is an arousal system. And that system tells our brain to either be on alert – something is going on here, we need to be in a state of alert, so you have an elevated heart rate, elevated pulse rate – or the brain is saying everything is okay. We are emotionally and physically safe, so you get a regular heart rate, a regular pulse rate. They look at you, they engage with you, they work with you.
Within that arousal system, on the opposite end of that arousal system is sleep. So if are really upset, do you sleep well? No. If you haven’t slept well, how well do you manage your emotions? You don’t. They are linked.
When I am contacted in my private practice by parents with kids who are constantly arguing – when you tell them ‘no’ they just flip out, they can’t deal with change in plans, they are very uncooperative in the morning, they are not eating dinner, they are fighting with siblings, especially in the afternoons – all of those behaviors are actually common symptoms of sleep-deprivation. And 95 percent of the kids I work with who have behavior issues are short on sleep. We have to fix that first, and then we can teach them how to assert themselves respectfully, how to be a problem-solver, how to manage their intensity and pick up their cues and understand when they are starting to get upset, and to teach them the vocabulary to be able to name emotions rather than just blowing up.
But those lessons can’t be taught or learned if you are exhausted.
Q: And this is the same for parents as well?
A: Yes because, again, if you are exhausted and the kids are off somewhere in the house and were playing okay but now the voices are louder, now you can hear the tension…the bottom line is you are so tired that you ignore it until they blow up. Where as if you have the energy you pick it up, you recognize there was just a switch there – they were having fun, now they are not. And you are much more likely to move in and respond before they are in a meltdown.