A Simple Model for Understanding Susan’s Captain of the Ship Analogy
One of the images I use in my work to help parents think about the interactions they have with their children is that of two hands, with the right hand representing the parent and the left hand representing the child. In this first image, the right hand is positioned above the left. In this position we get a visual of the natural hierarchy when the parent is in charge.
This image represents you as captain of the ship. You’re calm and confident, and you exude the quiet authority that comes from being certain that you can navigate the ship through calm and stormy seas.
When the hands are side by side, no one is in charge. This is where power struggles, negotiations, arguments and pushing/ pushing back take place. I call this “The Two Lawyers.”
And when the left hand, representing the child, is above the right hand, the child is essentially in charge. The parent feels powerless, desperate and out of control and resorts to bribes and threats to try to feel less out of control.
Here’s a simple scenario that will lay the groundwork for understanding this idea:
Your daughter asks if she can have a sleepover, and you kindly but confidently say, “I’m afraid tonight’s not a good night for that.” This image would apply:
Let’s say your daughter asks, “Why can’t I?” and you reply, “Because you’re obviously too tired. You’ve been crabby since you got home from soccer.” Your daughter says, “No, I’m not; I just had a bad game,” and you respond with, “I don’t think it’s because you had a bad game, honey. You were cranky before you left the house.” And your daughter says, “I was only cranky because you were trying to make me eat cereal I hate.” And you say, “You usually love that cereal!” And she says . . . —you get the picture. You’re now in the land of “The Two Lawyers.”
If the situation deteriorates further still, you’ll hear your daughter say something like, “If you don’t let me have a sleepover, I’m not going to take out the trash.” You respond, “Oh yes, you most certainly are, young lady, if you want to watch any TV for the rest of the weekend!” (Note the desperate tone creeping into your voice as you attempt to assert your authority.) For all practical purposes, the child is now running the show, and you’re issuing either threats or bribes to try to get back in charge.
One of the key elements in my work with parents is helping them be that Captain of the ship in their child’s life. Please read on for more.
Five Ways Parents Can Regain Their Role as the Captain of the Ship in Their Child’s Life
Children need parents they can lean on through the ups and downs of their lives. Just like the ship Captain who is able to handle rough and stormy seas, parents are meant to function as their child’s best source of support, comfort and direction by confidently steering the ship. When a child senses that their parent’s ability to be calm and confident is inconsistent or unsteady, they begin looking to their friends for connection and direction. Read on to discover some of the ways you may unintentionally be giving up your position as the Captain of the ship your child’s life, and how to reclaim it, giving your child the greatest gift: a parent they can truly lean on through thick and thin.
• When you are the Captain, you behave with the understanding that your ability to be in charge is not dependent upon how your child is acting. If we tell ourselves that we need our children to behave in a particular way so that we can feel we’re in charge, we’re in trouble. The truth is, the only way we can genuinely be in charge is when our sense of authority is independent of how our kids happen to be behaving. By shifting our focus from what we can’t control -our children – onto what we can – the stories and beliefs that trigger our upset – we become able to manage our reactions effectively. “He’s only kicking my car seat because he knows how much I don’t like it” or “She’s not turning off the TV because she doesn’t respect me” are the kinds of stories we create that fuel the feeling that we’re not in charge. Ultimately,our ability to be the Captain of the ship has very little to do with what our kids are doing, and everything to do with what goes on between our ears.
• When your kids tell you something unpleasant– that they flunked a test, or they hate your lasagna– you manage your reactions. If you send your kids the message that you’re able to handle their bad news, you encourage them to believe you’re the right one to reveal their difficulties to. If you find yourself falling apart when your child reveals something challenging, take a look at what you’re making their news mean. “You hate my lasagna? You’re impossible to please!” “You flunked the test? You don’t care enough about your studies!” Again, by focusing on what you can actually control–the beliefs you create from the events that unfold as you parent–you can challenge the knee-jerk reactions that many parents suffer from when their kids tell them the unpleasant things going on in their lives. By maintaining your cool, you can hold on to the all-important role in your child’s life as the best one to offload their worries and problems to, and continue to offer them the loving and sane guidance they so desperately need as they negotiate the ups and downs of their lives
• You resist the temptation to use phrases like, “I’m only shouting at you because I don’t know any other way to get you to behave properly!” Children are greatly comforted when they have the sense that their parents are rock solid. In the same way that we would be pretty unsettled if the Captain of our ship began running around in a panic as a storm was approaching, it rattles our children when we tell them that our hysteria is a direct result of their behavior. As natural as it is to lose our cool, and as I’ve said, no one knows how to push our buttons better than our kids, we do our children a huge service when we let them know that we can manage our reactions regardless of how they are acting. Sure we prefer it when our kids cooperate and do what they’re asked, but if we fall apart when they don’t, it’s our responsibility, not theirs. If we slip up and say things like “You’re making me shout at you!” we need to apologize and show them what it’s like to be fully accountable for one’s own mistakes.
• If your kids seem to prefer spending time with their friends and confiding in them, you work on your connection so they continue to like your company and look to you for important guidance. In today’s society we’ve come to believe that as children approach adolescence, it’s inevitable that they will lose interest in spending time with their parents. While it’s true that children and teens are meant to socialize with friends, they never stop needing their parents to be the ones they look to for true support and direction. Kids who withdraw from their folks and spend all their time with their peers are at risk of making poor life choices. They need parents who will come after them and rekindle a genuine sense of connection. By learning how to fortify the relationship with their child or teen,parents reestablish themselves as the North Star in the child or adolescent’s life, and resume the essential role as the one who truly sees, celebrates and guides them towards becoming an independent,autonomous adult.
• When your kids want something they can’t have, you refrain from negotiating, explaining or lecturing in the hopes that they’ll stop badgering you.When parents are calmly and confidently in charge, they don’t engage in power struggles with their children. While it’s wonderful to give your kids the chance to be heard when they want something,there’s a difference between hearing them out and participating in a tug of war. Childhood is full of opportunities for kids to experience frustration. By discovering that they can feel their feelings of disappointment or sadness while being supported by loving parents, our kids develop the ability to be resilient and adaptable. Instead of negotiating, explaining or lecturing when your kids want to do or have something you don’t feel good about, relax and let them express their feelings. It’s not only unnecessary to give in and move the universe to where they’d prefer it to be, it’s actually not in their best interest. While there will naturally be times when we give them what they want, those times will be the result of a choice we made freely rather than an outcome of being worn down by persistent kids who cannot imagine not having what they want.
Whether it’s ignoring you when you call them to dinner, refusing to turn off the TV when you ask, or kicking the back of your seat as you drive them to soccer practice, our children and teens can get us stirred up faster than almost anyone else. The problem, however, isn’t that our kids do annoying things that set us off. It’s the meaning we assign to their behavior that cause us to lose our cool. When we learn to manage our own reactions, we give our kids what they most need from us: Parents who reliably hold the position as the Captain of the ship in their lives.
Please take a look at my online webinar, Signature Series and audio downloads if you would like more about being the Captain of the Ship in your child’s life. You may also want to join our Facebook page and make sure you’re signed up for Susan’s free newsletter.