Being the Captain of the Ship

A Simple Model for Understanding Susan’s Captain of the Ship Analogy

One of the key elements in my work with parents is helping them be that Captain of the ship in their child’s life.

One of the images I use 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.

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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.”

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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.


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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:

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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.”

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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.

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While it may seem as though our children want to be in charge, they actually want and need to know that we can be that calm, confident Captain who is able to help them manage the upsets and “storms” of their lives without leaping over the side of the ship when the going gets rough!

By learning new strategies for handling a child’s frustration and disappointment, we can safely navigate the rough waters, ensuring a safe passage toward acceptance, resolution and resilience.