Your son makes ninja weapons from the peace symbols lying around your house and gleefully “destroys” his playdate with them.  Your daughter points out the least attractive things about her friends, who threaten to not invite her to their birthday parties.  Your 4 year-old proclaims, “If you don’t get me pizza, right now, I’m going to scream all the way home!”

There are times when children seem just plain mean or deliberately frightening or hurtful to others.  You know they “know better,” and you haven’t treated them that way, so how on Earth did they come up with the idea to try THAT??
Children explore with power.  It is an essential part of the human dynamic, and children will try the things that they see at work around them.  They will use and experiment with strong words, tones of voice, actions, and behaviours that they have seen create strong reactions or get results in various situations.  The question is, how can we respond in ways that SUPPORT the exploration and the important realizations that come with them, and also support the development of a HEALTHY relationship with power?
This blog post will cover a couple of ways that you can support your child’s explorations with power.
Children spend a good portion of their lives in our modern world feeling like they aren’t in charge.  Think through your daily routine, and count the number of times that your child is expected to do something that he or she didn’t choose, and you begin to see how much of a child’s activity is chosen by others.  The story below illustrates one important way that you can support your child’s exploration of power.
Picture this: A while ago I was on a daytrip to Lake Louise with my daughter, grandma and grandpa.  I can tell that my daughter is feeling dragged around.  She has spent the week being dragged around on my errands, and now we are on a daytrip that she had been looking forward to, and she is feeling dragged around again.  She is becoming slightly defiant, and isn’t cooperating.  As we sit down to a picnic lunch in the hallway of the Chateau Lake Louise, grandma notes that my daughter’s hair is a mess, and suggests that I fix it.
Before I even have a chance to say anything, my daughter turns into a ferocious beast.  There is no way that she is getting her hair fixed, and the whole hotel knows it.  I say to her over the uproar, “No problem, honey.  It’s YOUR hair.  You get to decide.”  Instantly her energy shifts, and she turns to me, excited, happier than she’s been in a couple of hours.  “I have an idea!  Let’s play that you try to grab my hair and I’ll run by, BUT DON’T CATCH ME!!”  For the next 20 minutes, my daughter laughs hysterically, running by just out of my grasp.  Everyone passing by smiles and joins in, laughing along with her joyful giggles.  The rest of the day is fine, even though my daughter continues to get rushed and dragged around.
What happened?  My daughter knew that she needed to feel powerful to shift the energy of our day.  She created a game that gave her a feeling of power and that expressed the dynamic in a healthy way.  If healthy ways to express feelings and experiences are not provided, a child will look for other opportunities to explore with and assert power over others.
When you recognize that your child is exploring with power, you can support the exploration spontaneously and in a fun way, when it’s safe to do so.  For example, your child barks out a command, and you obey instantly!  Enthusiastically!  And you bow deeply and add, “Yes, your excellency!  What else?”  When possible, follow commands until your child tires of the game.  If you haven’t played this way before, and at times when your child is feeling particularly disempowered, the game may go for a long time.
Sometimes opportunities for power games will arise from your child’s spontaneous actions, and other times, they may accept a power game that you suggest.
Many of your child’s explorations with power may push your buttons – you probably don’t like having your power taken away, or being bossed around.  (If you haven’t been locked out of your house, or car, yet, then your child probably hasn’t turned 18.)  When you are playing with power, you can also take the opportunity to open discussions about how power works, how people share power, and how people can use their greatest power to help others.
When you see your child exploring with power with another child, orient your child, and the other to any unhealthy dynamic that you see.  “I see that Jill keeps saying your name in that funny voice, even though you don’t like it, Brianna.  Jill, you are playing with power.  You are choosing to do something that your friend doesn’t like, to see if you can control her reaction.  People don’t like it when you play with power that way.  Brianna, your reaction is giving Jill’s words more energy.  When you give her words your emotional energy, you also give her your power.  You can say, “Jill, I don’t like that.  Let’s find something else to do,” in a calm voice, then you can go and do something else.”
I also highly recommend physical games that play with power.  One example would be to start sitting up and have your child knock you down onto the bed or soft play area.  Pop back up, and have your child continue to knock you down.  Switch roles and you knock your child over.  If you like, you can add in commentary about how this child just keeps popping back up, no matter what you do.
Boys, especially, explore power in the social/physical realm, and girls, especially, explore power in the social/emotional realm.  Your particular child’s exploration will depend on age, gender, personality, and life experiences.  Be open to noticing where your child is exploring with power and how you might support it.
For more detail about how children explore with power, and how you can work with the various forms that that exploration takes, join us for “From the Inside Out: Understanding Your Child’s Inner Life for Long-Term Connection”.
Please comment below with your feedback, questions, and thoughts!