About 30 years ago, I was sitting in a class one evening listening to the professor drone on and on and on when suddenly something he said pierced my consciousness like a laser. I had been halfway listening to him and halfway thinking of what lay ahead of me at home.

I had a precious toddler who was fiercely opposed to going to sleep at night. My friends all had children who, according to them, went peacefully to sleep with a good night kiss and a short story. Not Carrie. We had a ritual to end all rituals, and it was growing longer by the night. I read stories, sang songs, took her to the bathroom, read another story, sang another song, kissed her good night, and left the room. It was tough to do walk out because her little arms were always outstretched for me to come back. By the time I made it to the kitchen where there were still dishes to be washed or clothes to be folded, I’d hear her crying. Her dad would say something like, “Let her cry. She’s fine,” and I knew he was right. Still. I couldn’t stand to hear her wails (yes, it got progressively worse), and I’d eventually go back to her room for yet another story or song.

Here’s a parphrase of what this esteemed professor said, words that changed my life:  “Most people, including children, misbehave for a couple of reasons, attention or power. You know it’s an attention issue if it makes you feel a little annoyed or irritated. Attention issues are easy to take care of. Just give the person a little attention. Read her a book, give him a hug, or watch a program with him. On the other hand, power or control issues are different. They make you feel angry and sometimes a little powerless. The other person wants to be the boss, and you want to be the boss too. That can’t happen. What you need to do is withdraw from the conflict. I don’t mean give in because that’d be a lose/win situation. What you say is something like, ‘I’m not going to fight about this (bedtime, home rules, work policies, etc.). This is the way it’s going to be, and that’s it.”

I realize this short discussion is just that: short. It by no means covers all of the complexities of human behavior (or misbehavior). Nor does it address all of the situations in which people can be involved. At the same time, it has helped me in situations too many to recall. 30 years ago this precious toddler was in control, and I was too blind to see it! When she became a beautiful teenager, we’d be embroiled in a shouting match about curfews or grades when it would hit me: She still wants to be the boss. Withdraw from the conflict. Don’t fight about this. Who’s the parent anyway????

Why is this on my mind this morning? Because someone near and dear to me has been involved in an ongoing “power struggle,” and as we talked last night, my lesson from the past came to mind, and I shared it with Elizabeth. Then this morning I came across this passage from The Language of Letting Go by Melody Beattie that is perfect: “Are we somehow trying to control or influence the other person? We cannot change the other person, but we can stop playing our part of the game. One good way to do this is by detaching and letting go of any need to control.”

What about you? Are there scenarios in your life that involve any difficult people? Can you tell whether they are attention or control motives at play? If so, does the above make sense to you and seem like something you could apply in your life? Do you think that giving attention when needed and withdrawing from the conflict when necessary are workable suggestions?