Opinion & Essays - July, 2001 Issue #83
POWER IN FAMILIES “
Power is the ability to make things happen, and
control events” (dictionary)
By Lon Woodbury, C.E.P.
People want to be in control of their lives so they can have power
over what experiences they encounter. That is so obvious it hardly needs to be mentioned. Control, in fact, is one of the ways we
define power in the English language. Unfortunately, none of us can ever have as much power as we would like. We can’t always be in
control of what happens to us because life is never predictable enough to maintain a reasonable level of comfort. Uncertainty is a
great motivator, causing us to attempt to increase our security by making our lives more predictable. Thus we desire power to gain
control over the events in our life. Power is neutral, neither inherently positive nor negative. There are, however, healthy and unhealthy
ways of gaining power, or control, in our lives, depending on whether the tactics used are a result of maturity or immaturity.
In trying to increase control over their life, mature people will attempt to control themselves, enhancing their self-discipline,
increasing their work skills, and developing greater responsibility. This is what the founders of this country referred to as the
‘self- governing ability of the people that would maintain a free society’. When interacting with others, the mature response is to
exercise the power of persuasion. That is, he or she attempts to convince others to participate voluntarily, while respecting their
efforts to exert healthy control over their own lives. Essentially, mature people will attempt to increase their power by means of
self-control and persuasion in order to gain more control over what events are happening to them. This approach to gaining power through
self- control is accompanied by a sense of honest accomplishment and well- being. The immature person, however, sees it differently.
The immature person attempts to acquire power by trying to control others. Any attempt to exercise self-control in this case will
be manifested in the form of training oneself to become a master at putting others through guilt trips. Or it might take the form
of perfecting the role of victim, becoming adept at demonizing and blaming others, or learning the persuasive use of threats. It might
be effective in gaining short-term goals, but the recipients always have underlying resentments about somehow being taken advantage
of and the manipulator still retains a lurking sense of powerlessness. This sense of powerlessness remains largely because immaturity
is a dependency position, always shadowed by the fear that people might at any time figure out that they are being manipulated and
taken advantage of.
Some professionals have defined adolescence as an unformed personality. It is during these teen years that adolescents decide the
most effective way to control their lives. Many variables, of course, such as basic personality types, early childhood experiences,
culture and peers all play a role, but one of the strongest influences is the adolescent’s family. All children will try to manipulate
their parents in order to gain more control. Sometimes a child is successful in gaining control because the parents are enabling,
or the parents are unable to overcome the influence of the child’s peer group, for example. In such cases the child learns that manipulation
is the way to have more power, or control. If this strategy for obtaining power is allowed to continue, it will set up an unfortunate
pattern, since the world does not treat immature people very well. In addition, the manipulator usually has the feeling of being inadequate
and even powerless.
When there is conflict in the family, at least one person is overstepping boundaries, trying to control the rest of the family in
a manipulative manner. This vain attempt to gain personal security by controlling what the others do regardless of the cost, diminishes
others; it does not support them. Sometimes it’s a parent who is doing this, but usually it’s the child’s natural way of testing to
learn how to enhance their power, or control, over their life. When a child attempts unhealthy ways of exerting power or control,
then this unhealthy behavior needs to be met with consequences, for the benefit of the child. It is the responsibility of the parents
to maintain a healthy control over the family that is exerted in a mature way. When this is done properly, it empowers children. Sometimes
parents are unable to maintain, or regain control in an empowering way. Then it would be appropriate to enlist the help of a structured
program that contains a well thought out emotional growth component that teaches its students healthy ways of gaining more control
over their lives.