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How do you catch a duck?

The 15-year-old girl glowers at her mother across the room. “You are so stupid. The more you try to control me the more I’m just going to do what I want.” “Well, I guess I’m just going to have to take away your phone again,” the mom replies. “Fine! Take it now!” the girl shoots back, but she’s also starting to cry. 

They are both wanting me to weigh in - to side with one of them, but this would be a mistake. After 30 years of working with families, I’ve seen a lot of these power struggles and I know that the three predictable responses are all likely to fail (i.e., side with the mom, side with the girl, or urge them both to be nice to each other and try to get along). Instead, I turn to the girl and say: “Do you know how to catch a duck?”

Have I lost my mind? Am I trying to be cute? No. It actually makes sense. Just bear with me a moment. You see ducks are very predictable animals and follow the same path to water every morning. Once you determine the path, you can set a noose made of fishing line four inches off the ground and tie the other end to a stick. The duck comes along, places its head in the noose, and as it continues walking the noose tightens. And what do ducks do when they feel threatened? They head for water. So, the duck basically strangles itself. When I first read about this in “Tom Brown’s Guide to Wilderness Survival” what fascinated me was that, unlike snares or dead fall traps, the duck trap doesn’t rely on physical restraint. It relies on an understanding of duck psychology. At any point, if the duck paused, backed up three steps and moved to the side, it would be free.

The conflict between the girl and her mother is not so different. The girl wants to assert her independence and take control over certain areas of her life, but her method of achieving these goals (i.e., defiance) is almost certain to fail. This is because the mother sees her daughter’s defiance as a sign of disrespect and immaturity, which calls for a show of parental force and more restrictions. They have become locked in a power struggle that neither of them feels they can afford to lose.

Once one recognizes the pattern, however, the solutions start to appear. Perhaps the daughter could negotiate with her mother about how to earn more privileges; or the mother could disengage from verbal conflict while becoming behaviorally tougher (a reversal of the usual pattern where parents get mad and demand compliance but then fail to follow through with most of their threats). Maybe the mother could tell her daughter that she understands that creating a separate identity is an important developmental task and therefore she is required to make at least three rude remarks per day, thus placing the girl in a psychological bind: “If I'm being instructed to be rude, does that still count as defiance?”

There are dozens of ways to divert destructive patterns, but first you need to recognize that you are stuck and identify what the pattern is. You need to pause, take three steps back, and move to the side.

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