Communication between parents and children can often be a power and control dynamic. Parents especially get caught in this kind of situation where the child or adolescent is saying things to which any response by the parent is not effective. For example, the parent might tell the child to clean up her room and she might respond with “no, I don’t have to, you can’t make me.” Any response, even a firm threat of punishment, would only escalate the conflict; the child might respond “go ahead, I don’t care.” And even if the parent does enforce the punishment, it has been a no win situation. The room was not cleaned up, the child forced the hand of the parent into the punishment and nothing was really accomplished.
There is another approach to these verbal sparring matches which can yield a more positive result. I call it the Ping Pong Analogy or the Ping Pong Strategy. It works like this: first you need to understand how the game of ping pong is played, which you probably do. I hit a ball to you, you hit the ball back to me, I then hit it back to you, then you back to me and we try to keep this back and forth volley going.
In the analogy, the ping pong ball represents the spoken word – and the spoken word is the power. So, when a parent says to a child or a teenager “clean your room” or even it it’s stated nicely like “please clean your room” – that is the ping pong ball being served. It represents the parent’s power. When the child responds “no, I don’t have to, you can’t make me” – that is the ping pong ball being hit back and it represents the child’s power. The child fully expects the parent to hit the ping pong ball back to them with a statement like “if you don’t you’ll be punished” or “you’d better or else” or “did you hear what I said!” It doesn’t really matter what is being said as long as something is being said because by saying something the ping pong ball, which represents power, has been sent back to the child who is now in a position to say something else, to hit the ball back again, which feels good because it is using power.
So, what would happen if the parent rather than hitting the ping pong ball back yet again held it? For example, after the child or adolescent says “no, I don’t have to, you can’t make me” the parent says nothing, does nothing. This is not as easy as it sounds because there is tremendous momentum and pressure to respond. But, if the parent does remain silent and shows no visual signs of response, that is, no smiling, frowning, smirking, but just looks at the child without saying anything, the game is all of a sudden changed. The parent is now holding a ping-pong ball that should be sent back. Remember, the ping-pong ball represents words which represent power. So, the parent is now holding the power. And the child wants it back!
As the parent remains silent simply looking at the child, the child will likely say something. The child (or adolescent – or anybody in this position) will send another ping-pong ball over to the parent by saying something like “well!?” or “WHAT!” or “What’s wrong with you” or “Cat got your tongue?” It doesn’t really matter what is said but, again, the parent again says nothing, does not send a ping-pong ball back. Now the parent is holding two ping pong balls! More power. And the child is even more frustrated because they are not getting the response they want, which is for the parent to send back some words, some power, so they can then exert their power by sending another few words back to the parent.
As the parent remains silent and simply observing, the child may say more, sending more words and more of their power over to the parent who again simply remains silent. Soon the child realizes that nothing is going to happen and there is an extended silence. During that period the entire exchange hangs in the air like a mist and it is not uncommon for the child to acquiesce to the original request and say something like “ok! I’ll go clean the room!” and storm off.
Even if the child does not acquiesce, the parent has not only avoided a power struggle but has maintained the upper hand by doing nothing. Following is a transcript segment for a real life scenario:
Parent: John, It’s time to turn off the TV and go finish your homework.
John: I’ll do it later
Parent: No, John, you’ll do it now. Turn off the TV.
John: Ah, come on…
John: You’re such an SOB!
John: (after a moment turns away from the TV and looks at the parent)
Parent: (remains silent but watchful of John)
Parent: (remains silent and looking at John)
John: I’ll do it later, I will
Parent: (remains silent and looking at John)
John: (an extended moment of silence – John looks back to the TV and watches for a few moments. He then turns the TV off and goes to his room)
Parent: (remains silent and observing until John is in his room and then returns to the kitchen to finish cleaning up from dinner.)
The issue of name calling is secondary in this scenario. If the parent addressed that issue, the conflict would have escalated and the homework would have been forgotten. Sometimes parents need to choose their battles.
This approach may appear simple but it is often quite difficult for the parent to simply remain silent and watchful without responding to what is being said to them. However, it is a very powerful method of holding the power and certainly worth some practice. Good luck.
Ken Fields is a nationally certified, licensed mental health counselor. During the past 25 years, he has helped individuals, couples, families and groups address a variety of issues ranging from spiritual malaise to children with autism. He has been a crisis intervention counselor and an administrator at a human service agency. Currently, Mr. Fields provides communication coaching and online counseling at http://www.openmindcounseling.com