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Perspectives & Insights from a Local Music Therapist

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“It’s the most _________ time of the year!”

Many of us think of the song containing the above phrase and insert the word “wonderful” in the blanks.  But the holidays are so much more than that – and not always in a good way!  This time of year can be busy, tiring, and downright stressful for some, if not all of us, and with stress for many of the clients I work with, comes misbehavior.  Refusing to follow directions and all out tantrums abound.  Some of these misbehaviors are within my clients’ control, some of them are due to overstimulation and may be beyond the clients’ ability to self regulate.  No matter what the situation, how I react is key.  Any one misbehavior has the potential to turn into an all out battle of wills depending on how I choose to respond to it.

During my internship I was encouraged to take a course on something called “Conscious Discipline,” a self-regulation program for parents and educators created by early childhood specialist Dr. Becky Bailey.  When I describe Conscious Discipline to others, I call it “part common sense, mixed with a lot of patience, a great deal of listening, and a little intuition.”  Educators and parents can take classes from Dr. Bailey herself (in persion or via video) or from instructors that have been certified under her.  I’ve applied strategies found in Conscious Discipline to everything from my preK clients to colleagues and parents – the tools Dr. Bailey provides are worth checking out! What I love most about Conscious Discipline is that it’s evidence based, but easy for the average layperson to understand.  There are all kinds of books and materials put out there by Dr. Bailey (check out her resources page here for tidbit tips to use on the go), but one of my favorites is an audio recording I have of a presentation she did on power struggles.  In it she makes 3 main suggestions I keep with me at all times, and find particularly useful to remember during the holidays:

1. Recognize the signs of a power struggle early, and pick your battles.  Is the behavior harmfully disruptive to the client or others around them or is it just irritating?  If it’s just irritating, let it go by practicing “extinction:” just ignore it, no matter how the student might push you to respond to it.

2. If you can’t avoid a powerstruggle, remember to keep breathing and monitor your own feelings – accept them for what they are and then choose your actions carefully, keeping in mind that your counterpoint in the power struggle may not be able to do the same.  It may even be necessary for you to say “I think we both may need to take a break right now, let’s talk about this later” and then do just that.  Walk away or ask some nearby staff (or another parent) to escort your client/child to another location while you both cool down.

3. Another positive tool to use in power struggles is to offer choices.  When you tell someone “You can do this or that, you choose,” they are more likely to cooperate with you than if you just tell them “you can’t do that” without making any suggestions as to what they can do instead.  Power struggles gain their strength from the polarization of the two partieis involved.  If you take that polarization away, then you weaken the struggle.  Note that I said you weaken the struggle, and not the other party.  Offer them real suggestions, not just those designed to get you what you want.  For example, if a client is refusing to give up an instrument they’re supposed to be passing to their neighbor, you can offer them the choice of who it goes to (“you can hand it to that person or this person”), rather than stating that they just “hand it over.”

At the heart of every power struggle is the need for validation.  Clients and therapists, parents and children, colleagues, friends, and children, all need to feel like their feelings have value and are taken seriously.  When you can present choices, a general respect for space, and recognize when the battle is not worth fighting, what you’r really saying to your client or child is “I hear you, and while I may not understand now, I respect your right to feel what you feel and ask only that you do so in a way that respects my right as well.”  Note that you ask them to act in a way that respects your right to your feelings, you don’t ask them to respect your feelings themselves.  That’s not within your control.  We all come to the table with unique experiences that shape who we are and how we react to certain things.  I, for instance in the last month have attended 2 funerals and narrowly avoided having to attend a third, so there are topics that are touchy for me that coworkers of mine may have noticed, and I may never tell them why.  I have clients for whom I avoided asking about the recent Thanksgiving holiday because I knew that spending time with their family may not have been a positive experience for them.  We all come to the table with things we may never share but that influence how we react to and interact with the world around us.  All that any of us can ever do in such emotionally charged times is be patient and respectful of each others’ space and need to feel valued in this world.

So, go forth and be patient! How’s that for a holiday message? Wishing you and yours a very patient holiday season :-)


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3 Responses to “Surviving Power Struggles”

  1. Stephanie says:

    Hey, Natasha! I really enjoyed this post – lots of good reminders, especially about being sensitive to holiday preferences and about defusing power struggles. Have a great weekend!

    • Thanks so much Stephanie! I appreciate very much your kind comments, and you sharing my post on your website! I am downloading your movement song as I type :-) Happy Holidays!

  2. […] music therapist’s comments on the holidays thus far. Looking for some good reading? Check out this post from Natasha at Music Moves about challenging behavior during the holiday season, as well as Music […]