Power Struggles: Avoiding Power Struggles with Your Children

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Jody Pierce, LCSW

All parents face resistance and struggles for power with their children. It all starts generally with the two-year-old and the frequent “no” and “mine” that we hear. Passive resistance in the form of ignoring our requests can also trigger power struggles. As frustrating as these situations can be, power struggles are not necessarily a sign of a troubled or defiant child or adolescent, as children often vie for power as a part of the developmental process. These struggles can intensify however, depending on the child’s temperament, activity level and the level of stress in the family. It is up to us as parents to learn to stay calm and creatively disengage from the struggle. If you have children, you know that there are many opportunities for power struggles. Fortunately, there are things you can do to prevent some of these from occurring.

Set a light, kind and respectful tone: Maintaining a positive, respectful attitude as a parent reduces the tendency for children to resist or become defiant. My mother-in-law was a pro at maintaining a calm demeanor in the midst of raising five active children in a tiny house in rural Pennsylvania.  She was able to set a tone of lightness and kindness that helped her gain cooperation from her children. She did not need to resort to yelling or threatening and because of this; she developed positive relationships with her children. If we treat children with respect, we will gain respect from them.

Establish predictable routines: Having routines so children know what to expect often prevents power struggles. Parents can rely on routines to gain cooperation from their children. When a child resists having to brush their teeth at night, letting them know that this is always a part of the bedtime routine helps diffuse the struggle.

Positively reinforce cooperation: Everyone responds to positive reinforce. Letting your children know that you appreciate their behavior and expecting cooperation leads to more good behavior.

Diffusing power struggles: When power struggles occur the challenge for parents is not getting hooked into fighting. The most effective response is a non-emotional, neutral response. If necessary, giving choices can be an effective way to stop the fight without resorting to threats. For example, “Either stop yelling right now or go to your room until you calm down.” Or “When you’re done picking up you can go out and play.” Effective use of time outs or reward systems are sometimes needed for extra motivation to cooperate.

Calm parenting: To be able to maintain a calm, patient approach and not get hooked into arguing; parents need to get what they need in their daily schedule to reduce stress and re-charge. Effective parenting and diffusing of power struggles requires patience, a positive outlook and at times creativity. Using humor and playfulness also can keep parents from getting hooked in a battle.

The rewards of parenting are great, especially if we can reduce power struggles that lead to frustration and bad feelings. So next time your child says “NO” remember the benefits of a calm, creative approach using choices and other effective ways to manage behavior. Less power struggles leads to more opportunities for fun, connection and closeness.