Attention or Power?

About 30 years ago, I was sitting in a class one evening listening to the professor drone on and on and on when suddenly something he said pierced my consciousness like a laser. I had been halfway listening to him and halfway thinking of what lay ahead of me at home.

I had a precious toddler who was fiercely opposed to going to sleep at night. My friends all had children who, according to them, went peacefully to sleep with a good night kiss and a short story. Not Carrie. We had a ritual to end all rituals, and it was growing longer by the night. I read stories, sang songs, took her to the bathroom, read another story, sang another song, kissed her good night, and left the room. It was tough to do walk out because her little arms were always outstretched for me to come back. By the time I made it to the kitchen where there were still dishes to be washed or clothes to be folded, I’d hear her crying. Her dad would say something like, “Let her cry. She’s fine,” and I knew he was right. Still. I couldn’t stand to hear her wails (yes, it got progressively worse), and I’d eventually go back to her room for yet another story or song.

Here’s a parphrase of what this esteemed professor said, words that changed my life:  “Most people, including children, misbehave for a couple of reasons, attention or power. You know it’s an attention issue if it makes you feel a little annoyed or irritated. Attention issues are easy to take care of. Just give the person a little attention. Read her a book, give him a hug, or watch a program with him. On the other hand, power or control issues are different. They make you feel angry and sometimes a little powerless. The other person wants to be the boss, and you want to be the boss too. That can’t happen. What you need to do is withdraw from the conflict. I don’t mean give in because that’d be a lose/win situation. What you say is something like, ‘I’m not going to fight about this (bedtime, home rules, work policies, etc.). This is the way it’s going to be, and that’s it.”

I realize this short discussion is just that: short. It by no means covers all of the complexities of human behavior (or misbehavior). Nor does it address all of the situations in which people can be involved. At the same time, it has helped me in situations too many to recall. 30 years ago this precious toddler was in control, and I was too blind to see it! When she became a beautiful teenager, we’d be embroiled in a shouting match about curfews or grades when it would hit me: She still wants to be the boss. Withdraw from the conflict. Don’t fight about this. Who’s the parent anyway????

Why is this on my mind this morning? Because someone near and dear to me has been involved in an ongoing “power struggle,” and as we talked last night, my lesson from the past came to mind, and I shared it with Elizabeth. Then this morning I came across this passage from The Language of Letting Go by Melody Beattie that is perfect: “Are we somehow trying to control or influence the other person? We cannot change the other person, but we can stop playing our part of the game. One good way to do this is by detaching and letting go of any need to control.”

What about you? Are there scenarios in your life that involve any difficult people? Can you tell whether they are attention or control motives at play? If so, does the above make sense to you and seem like something you could apply in your life? Do you think that giving attention when needed and withdrawing from the conflict when necessary are workable suggestions?

Author: jayne bowers

*married with children, stepchildren, grandchildren, in-laws, ex-laws, and a host of other family members and fabulous friends *semi-retired psychology instructor at two community colleges *writer

7 thoughts on “Attention or Power?”

  1. This may be the most important thing I’ve ever read about parenting.

    It’s SO interesting because now that I think about it, the stuff that used to ‘trigger’ my father were often issues of control. Sure, there were plenty of times where he was just angry in general, but even when he was taking that anger at another person out on us, that anger was ‘loss of control’ based.

  2. I had this experience when I was toilet training my youngest. I had done this five times before and I knew what I was doing. In talking to the peditrician she told me that I was trying to win a battle that I would never win. She told me to back off and not control him. She said what was happeninng was that it was becoming about the battle and not about the issue (going potty) anymore. That thought piecred my heart too. I thought about times something starts out as one thing and then it becomes about the battle but we have to just back off. To make a long story short I did back off and let him be in control and he is going potty. He is a stubborn child and this way of thinking will help me even when he is older. It is funny because I thought I had all the answers because he has five older siblings but you still learn things from each child.
    Great tboughts Jayne.

  3. LOL It took me many years to realize that with my youngest daughter I should just take a time out b/c it always became a power issue between us. I couldn’t see it at the time. After I started taking a time out in my room, we were always able to resolve issues. Her favorite thing was to say
    I’m just sayin…no matter what you said she wanted the last word.

  4. Wow. I love this Jayne. I think some people want to be the center of attention all the time and they remain the center by exerting this control. They can do this by demeaning others, starting rumors, etc.. Maybe if we didn’t succumb to the power, then they wouldn’t be in control. Thanks for this post. It’s made me put my thinking cap on!

  5. Great post Jayne. This is especially important to recognize when a child is still very young. You need to establish balance and nurture the need.

    I’ve noticed that roles sort of reverse as a child is maturing. The parents often want the attention and more power and control over a young adults life than is necessarily good. This causes divisions that aren’t necessary and don’t happen where wise parents know when to let go.

  6. i think sometimes the reason i personally blog is to get attention and or power with the word that i didn’t get when i was young, it is now so much easier to get your attention than my wife’s attention, or my kid’s attention, you seem to stick with me longer than my loved ones, probably because you haven’t known me as long, and so i can understand the child that hangs on and on and on

  7. These are all such great posts!
    Hayden, Isn’t it amazing how we can suddenly gain insight into something that’s been on our minds for a long time?
    Laresa, I’m glad your potty issues are resolved. He’s the last one, right? Yay! Now it’s on to other control issues….
    Connie, You’re singing my song, so to speak. You and Heather sound like Carrie and Jayne.
    Christy, I see what you mean. There’s a person I know who has a great personality. Unfortunately, one of the ways he gets people to laugh and pay attention to him is by telling amusing stories about others. It began to bother my children so we decided that whenever this person began to tell a funny tale, we’d change the subject…thus taking away his power.
    Janet, that’s so true. Sometimes I think this happens because the parent might not consciously think of the child as maturing. He or she still thinks of the child as just that: a child!
    Barl, I love your honesty.

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