Relationship Power as a Strategy for Influencing Children

For the past several weeks I’ve been posting about different strategies parents can use to exert a positive influence on their children. Today’s focus is on the grandaddy or grandmommy of all forms of parental influence–we refer to this as RELATIONSHIP POWER!

Relationship power is the foundation of all parental power. Having a high-quality, respectful parent–child relationship is the fuel that naturally drives children to want to please their parents.  However, there is a serious problem associated with creating and sustaining relationship power.

In the 21st century, perhaps more than previously, parents have tended to overemphasize the “friendship” dimension between parents and children (Grosshans & Burton, 2008). The worst consequence of this friendship-oriented parent–child relationship is that sometimes parents hesitate to set limits on their children’s behavior, fearing they’ll not be “liked” by their children. Although wanting our children to like us is a perfectly natural impulse, it can become problematic if parents become frozen and unable or unwilling to set limits due to fears of rejection. When this happens, a very destructive pattern can emerge. This pattern is characterized by an imbalance of parent–child power. Unfortunately, often the consequence of this pattern is a child who is too free and too much in charge and a parent who feels impotent and disrespected. In extreme situations, the parent–child power relationship and the roles associated with that relationship are so twisted that the parent may begin inappropriately involving his or her child or children in adult matters, adult relationships, and even adult partying, including exposure to many adult issues and problems (e.g., sexual information or relationships and/or substance use).

The parent–child relationship that works best is characterized by respect, interest, caring, love, and kindness. It is not an egalitarian relationship between peers, but it is a central and all-encompassing relationship that entails love, sacrifice, and the willingness to be there, no matter what. Call us idealists, but we believe this is the foundation upon which parental authority and influence should be built.

Stephen Covey articulated the foundational quality of relationship when he discussed the relationship bank account, both in his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Covey, 1990), and online. In the following excerpt from his homepage, he discussed the concept of the emotional bank account as a means of rebuilding trust—and rebuilding trust can be especially relevant for parents of teenagers. The concept is equally important with regard to building and maintaining trust and respect. Here’s what Covey says on his website:

Examine your Emotional Bank Account with this person; it’s most likely strained because of withdrawals. Make a commitment to start making deposits that matter most to that person, and do it. Little by little, even with small deposits, you will find that the account will grow. It may take time. But over time you will find the cumulative effect of the deposits. Slowly, depending on the severity of the broken trust, you can find trust being rebuilt and restored, and a new relationship will be born. Of course, this also depends on the other person, but you can choose to do your part regardless of the other person—to focus on your circle of influence. And you will find some peace, knowing that you’ve done your part. (; accessed February 18, 2009)

Like modeling, relationship power is part of the 24/7 parenting role. Consequently, relationship power activities can and should be integrated into the parent–child relationship on a daily basis. Tomorrow or on Tuesday I’ll be posting a story or example of relationship power. In the meantime, you can always check out the “How to Listen so Parents will Talk” book at:

Here’s what a recent spontaneous reviewer just posted about the book on Amazon “This book is an informative, easy-to-read guide to the specific intricacies involved in counseling parents. It is useful for both trainees and seasoned clinicians.” Cool.


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