“If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.” — A.A. Milne, “Winnie the Pooh”

Power struggles between parents and children are more about power imbalance than “fluff”! If we want to move from power struggles to cooperation and problem solving, we must be willing to remove the “fluff” from our ears, to truly listen to the emotions beneath the behavior. All inappropriate behavior has emotional roots. If those roots are not attended, the behavior may disappear for fear of getting in trouble, but the emotional state remains the same. Thus, the behavior will reappear. If there is sufficient fear, the behavior may be suppressed, however internal stress will create problems for our child. “Misbehavior” means our child is having a problem, not being the problem.

Our tendency to strike out at what we see and hear on the surface — words, attitude, actions, etc. — blocks us from connecting to what’s fueling the problem, which can positively influence the behavior. For example, two brothers chronically enmeshed in heated sibling conflict, competing for their parents’ attention, receive a similar reaction from their parents. While upstairs, away from their parents’ view, they engage in the same sibling dance. The younger boy taunts his older brother, deliberately flattening his carefully constructed battlefield, violating his brother’s privacy while inflicting damage to his space. The older brother, trying to peacefully remove his younger sibling from his room, ultimately chases him out with physical force (hitting, pushing, dragging him). Screaming and crying, the younger boy runs downstairs to summon his parents’ protection, ensuring his brother receives his due punishment. Although the older boy tries to be heard, his parents assume the role of judge and jury, determining he’s at fault by not protecting, rather than hurting, his little brother. They refuse to listen to what precipitated the sibling altercation, punishing the older boy.

The same scenario repeats over and over, with these parents frustrated with their older son not behaving the way they want. The younger boy orchestrates what he wants: having his brother sent to his room while he enjoys his parents full, undivided attention. So what’s wrong with this picture? Not only is it ineffective intervention in sibling conflict, it reveals what transpires when parents react to the behavior, rather than listen, to the emotions driving it.

Ideally, this scenario could provide an opportunity for these parents to hear each boy’s account, without judgment, criticism, favoritism. If they assume a neutral position, listening to each boy’s perspective, they might avoid repeating this dysfunctional pattern. They would hear that at the emotional root of this sibling conflict are some unmet needs: the younger brother hoping to engage his older sibling and competing for his parents’ attention by evoking their protection of him; the older brother feeling that he’s neither heard nor protected by his parents, his privacy violated, his carefully constructed play obliterated, without any provocation from him. Once their parents remove the “fluff” from their ears, listening to the feelings behind each boy’s behavior, there’s a shift that looks something like this:

Younger son (Ben), running downstairs crying: “Mom! Dad! Will pushed me hard and hit me on the head (more dramatic sobbing). I didn’t even do anything. He’s so mean!”

Will, following Ben downstairs: “That’s not what happened!”

Mom: “It sounds like you’re both pretty upset. We’d like to hear what happened. What is it you want, Will?”

Will: “For Ben to stay out of my room. I’m building a battlefield. It’s my stuff and he ruins it.”

Mom: “I hear how important that is to you. I understand you don’t want to share that with Ben.”

Will: “No! He can’t come in my room. He just destroys my private space.”

Dad: “I get that’s infuriating. What can each of you do to get what you want?”

Will: “Whack him good!”

Dad: “That’s one way that might work for you, Will. If you don’t want Ben in your room, what’s another way you could make that work?”

Will: “You tell him he can’t come in.”

Mom: “If you don’t want Ben to play with you, let him know how you feel and work it out with him. What do you think you could tell him so he doesn’t keep invading your space?”

Will (calmer now that his parents hear and respect his feelings): “Ben, what is it you really want by doing this?”

Ben: “I want to play with you. I also want time with Mom and Dad.”

Will: “So what if you have some time with Mom and Dad while I play in my room?”

Dad: “That’s a great idea. We’d love to play a game with you, Ben. Maybe we’ve been too busy and not paying enough attention to either of you.”

Will: “I guess Ben is feeling left out. You guys are usually doing other things, and I’m not letting him come in my room. Ben, would you like to help build the battlefield with me?”

Ben: “Yeah! Awesome!”

Mom: “By hearing how you’re each feeling, you’ve helped us understand better. You’ve also done a great job of working things out between you.”

This represents successful problem solving: establishing connection to the root of the problem with each boy, engaging them, and brainstorming solutions. Although the above example is abbreviated and looks pretty seamless, it won’t always go this smoothly. What’s most important, relating to children or adults in power struggles, or trying to understand the “clues of behavior,” is removing the fluff from our ears, listening without judgment or criticism, using the above example as a guide.