Parenting Lessons from Aikido: Managing Power Struggles with Skill
“Thank you for what I am about to learn,” or “Arigato gozaimasu” (ah-ree-gah-toe go-zah-ee-mass) my son along with ten of his teammates respectfully utter with a bow and prayer hands as they begin a lesson in Aikido. As a Star Wars’ fan and appreciator of “the force,” Aikido seemed to align well with my eleven-year-old’s desire to learn how to use his body, mind, and spirit powerfully and peacefully. When he came home and asked me if he could try out his new move called “Heaven and Earth” on me and I was taken down shockingly, swiftly but safely to the ground, I thought it wise for me to learn more myself about this discipline.
Now a year into learning this martial art, I’ve discovered some invaluable philosophical lessons from this peaceful form of body, mind, and spirit training that prepares individuals for retaining their power while being attacked.
Power is an essential human need for both parents and kids alike. And how we think about, use, plan for, and structure our power and also, how we share it with family members can determine whether we feel a sense of ongoing safety, respect, and trust. If children feel powerless in a situation, they’ll search out ways to regain it. And at times, because of their lack of experience, they will lash out at us.
As parents, we will be attacked whether its by a tiny toddler’s fists or by tween-age words infused with angst, anger, and confusion. And it can put a caring adult to the test. Often when an attack catches us off-guard, our feelings may guide us into actions and reactions that will escalate the problem like yelling, dominating with words or body language, or grabbing. Fearing an attack will only lessen our power. Greeting an attack with anger and loss of control will not model emotional intelligence for our child. So then, how can we teach our children and teenagers to seek power in positive ways? And in the case of the teachings of Aikido, how can we regain balanced power when it’s been challenged or thrown off balance?
Check out these guiding Aikido principles and how we can learn to apply them as parents.
- Begin with a desire to harmonize.
When an attacker approaches, the Aikido-trained individual says: “I don’t want to fight.” So too, when our child picks up the rope and attempts to bait us with a full-on tug of war, we can simply articulate: “I don’t want to fight,” and there’s a chance our child might stop there. But if not…
- Master the “hanmi” position. Unbalance the attacker.
In order to maintain power on both sides – both child and parent – we need to assume a stance that gives us power. Not running from house to car to grocery store, but if our child has started a fight, how can we assume a solid whole body position that helps us focus?
Aikido teaches that our hips are the key to grounding our body without tension. How can you lower your center of gravity comfortably and widen your foot position? Aikido trainees stand with their body turned on an angle slightly with feet as wide as their hips to maximize comfort and stability. Try it and it may just help you focus on a constructive response.
Aikido emphasizes practice so that you train your body to that position and it becomes effortless when you are attacked. How can you try it multiple times in low-risk situations so that you are ready when you are truly tense or fearful?
3. Use “Kokyu,” alertness but not tense while fully breathing.
In order to bring your best self to a tense situation, how can your body and mind become fully ready and alert without tension? Breathing can help you achieve that stance by focusing on deliberate, calm yet powerful breaths. Your breathing through this moment when your child is attacking is critical in allowing you to respond in healthy ways.
If you have tried meditation, this is a similar state.
3. Move in “awase,” or in synchronization.
Use the same timing and the same eye contact as your child. In Aikido, your taught to balance energy not match energy. The difference is really important. If your child comes at you with aggressive words and body language, though you may reposition your body into a stronger, more grounded stance, you’ll want to relax more to balance out that aggression. In Aikido, “the more firmly you are held, the more relaxed you need to be.”
If your child engages in unsafe movements or choices, guide them to move away. Don’t talk or pull, just guide them and keeping moving. For example, toddlers like to run away from Mom or Dad thinking it’s funny. That running increases if Mom runs after toddler saying “No, No!” But if Mom turns away and moves calmly with the same amount of energy in the opposite direction, toddler with follow. (Yes, this has been tested. It works!!!) The same can be said for the aggressive energy of a first grader, a third grader, or a high schooler. How can we redirect that energy?
“I’m going to that party!” yells your teenager after you’ve shared the rule of no unsupervised parties.
“I hear your upset. We agree – it’s important that you have a happy social life.” (De-escalates intensity by naming or showing understanding for feeling and articulating common ground.)
4. Use circular or spiral movements.
Maybe you recall the movie, “Karate Kid” in which the main character was taught to “wax on, wax off,” his hand motions always moving in a circle to wax the car. To allow energy to circulate, movements need to be circular. Well, how might this apply in a parent-child situation, you ask? Good question!
If there’s a verbal attack, how can you respond with a verbal circle? Here are a few examples.
Focus on the feeling…
“I hate you. Get away from me.”
“I love you and your words hurt.”
Redirect by asking for help…
“I won’t get in the car.”
“Help me pick up Dad. He needs us.”
Offer a limited, authentic choice (to help child regain some power):
“I can’t face my teacher. I won’t go to school.”
“I hear you. And you’re not alone. You can have a choice: I can write your teacher a note. Or I can come visit your teacher with you.”
5. Exploit leverage.
In Aikido, you’re taught to maximum effect for minimum effort. In order to exploit your own leverage in a moment of a child attack, use “strange calm.” Sit down, close your eyes, and just breath until you feel calm. Or use only a few words. “I need to calm down.” Again breathe. Then, address feelings not choices in a heated moment.
“You feel angry and misunderstood, is that right?”
After you have shown you understand what your child is feeling, articulate the realistic, real-world, natural consequences of a poor choice (in other words, not parent-imposed). We may be tempted to say: “You will have to go to your room and stay there if you don’t pick up your toys.” which is punitive, doesn’t result directly from the choice, and takes away power from the child. Instead, leverage real-world consequences. A parent might say:
“We just will not have time to go to your favorite store today if you are unable to pick up your toys. I can help if you could use some help.”
To learn more about using logical consequences, check out the following tool on the parentingMontana.org site.
6. Place yourself in “atemi,” or at a correct distance.
This is about being the correct distance from your child. If you leave the room, a child might get scared and feel like you are giving him or her the silent treatment (which is a form of aggression). Or if you are too close or even grabbing an arm to get him to go with you, you’ll also be emitting aggression. Because adults are physically bigger, we may be less sensitive to this issue and our child will be more sensitive to this issue. So how can you position yourself near your child but not in harm’s way or in a dominating way but at a safe distance?
7. Think “kiai,” or multiple attackers are the same as one attacker.
Think of multiples attacking – or requiring your attention – as you might treat one. Calm and ground your whole body so that you can use your mind and spirit to fully focus on bringing your best self.
8. Use “budo” spirit or in France, “to practice with the heart.”
Put your whole self into dealing with a child who is attempting to bait you into a power struggle. Stay alert, calm, and focused because the feeling or intent of the attacks may change and you have to be ready.
10. Use appreciative dialogue to close the disagreement.
When it’s over, voice your appreciation. “Thank you for working that out with me.” Or “I am grateful for you in my life.”
This is key. And how often do we miss this step in the busy-ness of life?
Because Aikido training focuses on the body, mind, and spirit, the lessons of how to redirect an attack into shared power offer wise counsel for parents. Figuring out how to appropriately and in healthy ways share power with our children can become highly complex as they learn and develop. Using mindfulness to support our own sense of focused attention and calm during tense moments can provide the unique fortifying we require. But then, shifting that energy to regain balance and harmony requires some thoughtfulness. The strategies articulated above are derived from research-based strategies used with parents and teachers who want to raise confident kids and deal with power struggles in healthy ways.
These strategies have the added bonus of serving as positive models for our children. So as we try out these constructive responses to conflicts, we’ll also be converting those tough times into teachable moments. Try out some of these in your own family life and see if you can end the day after a child has attempted to bait you feeling more caring, connected, and powerful.
The Ten Key Principles in Aikido by Eric Savalli
Aikido West Handbook, Helpful Phrases by Ursula Doran
Unique parallel. Interesting. Helpful. L,M
As a parent to 3 “tweens”, a sometimes quasi-step-parent to younger children, and a teacher of both aikido and of conflict management skills, this article was something I had to share. Although the way I would draw parallels to aikido differs in a couple of places, it is always exciting and encouraging to find someone else who shares this perspective and passion.
Michael, Wonderful! Thank you for your comment and feedback! Glad you shared the article. Thanks to you, this week I met with Sensei Paul Linden who lives a mere couple streets away (but I would have never met him if it weren’t for you!). As we ate breakfast together, he shared so much wisdom from Aikido that can relate to our relationships in family life. I so appreciate your connecting us. I plan to read his books and articles so that I might collaborate with him and write more on the topic! If you are ever interested in writing about Aikido, conflict management, and raising three tweens, please let me know. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. All the best!
That is fantastic! I am sorry I didn’t see this right away, but I am very happy to hear you have connected with Paul sensei.
Yes, I am certainly interested in writing on conflict management, aikido & raising kids. I have the beginnings of some thoughts but I would be curious to know if you have any thoughts of things to be covered and/or ideas for collaboration.