Letting go of a sunscreen power struggle

Question of the Day: Power Struggle over Sunscreen

“My kids put up a huge stink when it comes to wearing sunscreen. I can get them to wear hats and sun shirts occasionally, but every time they step into the sun, I get so anxious. We live in a sunny place, near the beaches, so this is a frequent problem. I think my oldest is genuinely sensitive to the texture of sunscreen. He used to freak out when we tried to wipe his face or if his clothes got wet. My second child just copies his brother and has turned sunscreen into a huge power struggle.

I just want to relax and enjoy a day at the beach but I get so anxious that doing so is really difficult. I need to let it go but I can’t help but think they are going to get skin cancer and die and it’s going to be my fault.” Louise 

power struggle over sunscreen

Parent Education Answer:

The parenting rule of thumb with power struggles is to avoid them at all costs. As a parent, you CANNOT WIN a power struggle. They will play out in one of two ways:

  1. The parents use coercion to manipulate children into doing what they want. They might use guilt, fear, threats, sarcasm, yelling, or any attempt to control or force the child to do something against their will. Sometimes this works and they get the kids to wear their sunscreen, but the cost is that kids learn to ignore their own wisdom and depend on an outside authority to make decisions. Children who surrender their will to their parents learn to blame others for their mistakes, feel helpless to change on their own, and make other people responsible for their happiness. 
  2. If your child “wins” the power struggle they feel victorious. They get the benefit of depending on themselves for wisdom and happiness, but they can’t ever wear sunscreen or they feel like a loser! In order to prove that they are independent-minded kids, they cannot do what you want them to do. Wearing sunscreen would feel like giving you a victory rather than it being a choice they make from their own thoughtfulness. 

Both of these scenarios create separation and disconnect between parent and kid. Power struggles are lose-lose situations. 

Think of a power struggle like a game of tug of war. The harder you pull in one direction, the harder your kid needs to pull in the opposite direction. Tug of war creates a winner and a loser. Getting into this power struggle is like teaching him how to dig his heels in and not budge. 

Avoiding the Power Struggle

The way to avoid a power struggle is to stand in your authentic power. You do have wisdom beyond your kids. Present the pros and cons, but let their action be their choice. 

In your calmest, most confident voice, offer them some options:

  • You can either wear a hat and shirt, or you can wear sunscreen. 
  • You can either wear sunscreen and play in the sun, or not and stay in the shade.
  • If you want to play soccer on the beach, you’ll need to have sun protection.
  • Would you prefer stick, cream, or spray? You can apply it yourself or I can do it for you. 

Giving your children options will help them trust their own inner guidance to make decisions that are right for them. 

 

Life Coaching Answer:

What gets in the way for moms is our biology. Our brains are wired to look for potential hazards. Especially once we become moms, we scan our environment looking for things that can harm our precious ones: My child’s fair skin is exposed to the sun. Sun causes cancer. Wearing sunscreen prevents harmful skin damage. It seems so easy and obvious to our brains, doesn’t it? 

Every mom I know have an invisible instruction book called How to be a good mom. In this book, it says things like, “A good mom makes sure her children wear sunscreen at the beach.” “A good mom is always available to her kids.” “A good mom doesn’t allow her children to suffer negative emotions.”

There are rules about everything: What kind of grades our kids should get, how they should treat their siblings, when it’s ok to quit a sport you signed up for. You name it, we’ve got rules about it in our invisible instruction book. 

This invisible instruction book can cause us a lot of frustration. We get really annoyed when our children won’t let us be the mom we want to be! Our ego gets involved and we put our ability to feel like a responsible, caring mother into the hands of our strong willed children.

We cling really tightly to being right and accomplishing whatever goal we think will make us feel like a good mom. This makes us parent from fear, instead of love. 

Throw a little anxiety into the mix with the thought, “My children are going to get cancer and die!” and you’ve got the recipe for a power struggle.

When we get caught up in “catastrophizing” and “futurizing”, like we seem to be with this thought, our brains react as though there is an immediate problem to solve.

Blood rushes to our extremities, our hearts start pounding, our eyes focus on that beautiful pale skin and we leap for the sunscreen like it’s a life raft. We are in fear. Our kids sense it and want nothing to do with it. 

We think, “If they would just put sunscreen on, then I could relax.” But chances are, this anxious brain will just find something else to focus on, worry about, and catastrophize. 

Parenting from Love, not Fear

In order to relax and parent from love instead of fear, we need to question the anxious brain. We start by recognizing that there is no IMMEDIATE threat. Even though your brain perceives one, your kid won’t allow you to take the one productive action step you want. So instead, take a deep breath and realize that in this moment you and your children are safe. 

Once you have calmed your brain down, you can take a logical look at the belief that is triggering this fight or flight response. “My children will get skin cancer and die.” Is that true? Maybe. If they are fair-skinned. If it runs in the family and your kid spends lots of time outdoors without protection. But, they probably won’t get skin cancer this year, or in the next 20 years.

Maybe they’ll just get the minor little squamous cells and use cream to remove them. Maybe they’ll get a melanoma and have it scooped out. Will they die of skin cancer? Possibly, but not likely. They can visit doctors and have screenings. They can also change their minds and start wearing sunscreen at any point in the future. Maybe they’ll start tomorrow or next year? In the grand scheme of their life, will a sunburn or two cause tremendous harm? Probably not. 

 

You want to walk through all the other scenarios with your logical brain. Find someone you know who has been through treatment and ask yourself, “Does his skin cancer diagnosis mean he had a terrible mother?” 

 

Then ask yourself, “How can I still be a good mom, even if my child doesn’t wear sunscreen?” 

By offering my kids choices?

Letting him experience natural consequences and the pain that comes with a sun burn?

By letting go so that sunscreen can be his idea and not mine?

 

When we have love for ourselves, it makes it easier to have it for our kids. But it all starts with letting go of fear. 

 

Supermom Kryptonite: Right-Fighting

Are you always trying to “win” an argument? Do you get overly emotional when people don’t agree with you? Do you insist on having the last word? 

Everyone likes to be right, especially when you know you ARE! 

Is wearing sunscreen at the beach the right thing to do? Of course! You have the wisdom to share and taking care of one’s health is the right thing to do. 

But when raising kids, sometimes we need to enjoy our own validation, inside our own heads. Our kids want to be right sometimes, too. And they may fight you for it. But fighting to be right puts you at odds with your child. Instead of feeling connected, you feel adversarial. 

Let go of the rope, whenever you feel your child tugging on the other end of it. Ask yourself, “Would I rather be right or be happy?” or “Would I rather be right or have peace in my home?” 

 

Supermom Powerboost – Humor vs Power Struggle

When you catch yourself in anxiety brain, fighting to be right, or parenting out of fear, try to add a little humor.

Did you catch yourself chasing your son around with a sunscreen bottle? Turn yourself into a zombie and start repeating, “I want to eat pale skin.” Does your child take off her hat as soon as you put it on? Try putting it on her foot, or her stuffed animal, or the dog instead.

Slipping in the humor disarms a building power struggle. You may be surprised at how willing your child is to comply when you are acting as a Disney Princess or Darth Vader instead of mom. 

Quote of the Day:

“Once we release our fears as a parent, we can walk WITH our children as fellow students and travelers. That is the ultimate purpose of parenting.” Dr. Shefali Tsabary