Avoiding parent power struggles

Susan Stiffelman, in her book “Parenting Without Power Struggles,” talks about the six stages to effective attachment between parent and child, which she says is incumbent in successfully raising a child.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

What parent hasn’t faced a surly, rebellious teen and thought, “Why don’t they give you a manual for this?”

That manual might have arrived with the release this week of Susan Stiffelman’s book, “Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected.”

Stiffelman, a licensed marriage and family therapist who practices in Malibu, works with children, teens, adults, couples and families in facing emotional challenges stemming from divorce, anxiety, drug use and communication problems. She said the key concept for frustrated parents to remember is that you are not raising a child, you are raising an adult.

“I don’t believe that we do it either right or wrong necessarily,” Stiffelman said in an interview with The Malibu Times. “Parents try to do their best, but we are not prepared. So we parent like we were parented or we go in the opposite direction. Whatever way, it is incumbent that you stay connected.”


Stiffelman said there are six stages to effective attachment between parent and child, as devised by clinical psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld, with each stage representing, ideally, the first six years of a child’s life. All are essential to establishing a connection with children that leads to mutual respect and cooperation later in life.

Proximity is the first sense a child has of a parent through closeness and smell.

Sameness is a sense that develops in the second year, which sees the child mimicking his parent, establishing a likeness.

“But you can enjoy this feeling at any age,” Stiffelman said, pointing out that she listens to Bob Dylan CDs with her son.

The three-year-old will develop a sense of belonging or loyalty, when they become very possessive of parents.

By age four, the child should develop a sense of significance, wherein the child feels special in parents’ eyes because of who they are personally.

Age five sees the child developing a sense of love.

“This is when your child starts to draw you pictures with little hearts,” Stiffelman said. “It’s the warmth they hear in your voice when they say our name that says ‘I’m happy you’re here.’”

And age six sees a child developing a sense of being known as their own person. Stiffelman said that you want to retain the confidence a six-year-old shows you when they tell you secrets.

“This is the ideal development,” Stiffelman said. “But I see people at age 30 still trying to establish those connections with their parents.”

So why do parents seem so lost, leading to power struggles with their children?

“I think to a large extent, we’ve collectively bought into the idea that we must naturally push our children away at a certain point,” Stiffelman said. “But I think we need to be more clever in keeping that early childhood connection alive.”

Stiffelman said that power struggles happen when you come at your child, provoking resistance.

“As soon as you find yourself bribing or threatening your child, you are no longer in charge,” she said. “Parents must captain the ship, because in a power struggle, whoever is less exhausted will win and that’s usually the child.”

Stiffelman recommends coming “alongside” your child and exploring the problem, rather than just hurrying to “fix it.” Instead of denying or casting blame for a problem a child brings you, she suggests that you approach from a place of empathy.

“The thing about kids is that they are incredibly forgiving,” Stiffelman said. “So it’s not about the quantity of time you spend with your children, because we are all very busy. It’s about the quality.”

Having practiced in Malibu for 18 years, Stiffelman has seen a great deal pass through the community and said she believes that local youth are suffering from a great deal more depression and anxiety, particularly in younger children.

“The only good thing about the recent economic downturn is that I’m seeing parents look more inside the home for entertainment,” she said. “But I am greatly concerned with video game use. Its influence is promoting aggressive behavior and when you turn it off, it’s like removing a heroin drip. You have to look at what purpose this behavior is serving.”

Stiffelman has found fans locally with her work. City Councilwoman Pamela Conley Ulich had this to say about Stiffelman’s book: “Susan is this generation’s Dr. Spock. Children don’t come with operating instructions, but “Parenting Without Power Struggles” gives solid advice and strategies for raising happy, vibrant children. It is a must-read for parents who want to give their children the very best childhood in a very busy world.”

Stiffelman read from her book at Diesel, A Bookstore last weekend, where “Parenting Without Power Struggles” is already featured on the store’s best-sellers shelf. She said that if there was one message to take from her book it would be one of retaining that early childhood connectivity.

“Seek out that deep connection,” she said. “It’s a chance for your child to feel seen, heard and understood, instead of feeling judged.”

“Parenting Without Power Struggles,” 260 pages, Morgan James Publishing, can be found at Diesel, A Bookstore.

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