How To Stop Power Struggles with a Very Assertive Child

How To Stop Power Struggles with a Very Assertive Child

If you have a child that is getting into power struggles with you, you also have a child that is ready and able to stand up for themselves.

This is a good thing. A really good thing.

Children that are assertive, critical thinkers are more successful in life.

While it might be great down the line, in these early years, power struggles are usually no fun at all. So here is the good news:

There is a way to support your child’s assertiveness without getting into power struggles.

Children can learn to be respectful, mindful, helpful and kind while still being assertive.

They can also learn to respect limits and boundaries without feeling powerless.

You don’t have to be permissive with your expectations either.

It’s all about balancing the power in your home.

A tricky balance made possible by focusing on having influence with your child, instead of using power over them.

how to stop power struggles

Reducing power struggles and encouraging mutual respect can happen when you focus on building trust and a positive relationship with your child.

According to Jane Nelsen of the Positive Discipline series, placing more value on problem solving, engaging children in making agreements and truly listening to your child can end power struggles. This has been my experience as well.

Stopping Power Struggles With Problem Solving

Do you have repetitive power struggles over the same issues? Have you tried many ways to motivate or engage cooperation like offering rewards, bribes or resorted to making threats?

Feeling hopeless that not matter what your child argues about the same things again and again?

If this is the case for you, it sounds like it’s time to put the brakes on power struggles and start solving problems.

Bribes, rewards and threats don’t build any kind of internal motivation in your child.

Threats and bribes also doesn’t build a sense of trust, belonging or capability.

Positive discipline is based on the notion that rewards and punishments are not helpful because they don’t promote self-discipline or cooperation.

You may have noticed that any power struggle relief from rewards and threats are usually short lived as well.

Here are some problem solving questions for ending continuous power struggles:

  • Does my child know what is expected?
  • Does my child have a potential solution to our problem?
  • Have my child and I discussed the ongoing problem and brainstormed solutions?

In my family, we ended meal time clean up struggles by asking the kids to come up with solutions and make a plan.

Together the three kids came up with a turn taking schedule for setting the table, being a kitchen helper and cleaning up.

Because they took ownership of the problem, and we expressed what we expected our power struggles came to an end.

Stop Power Struggles With Connection & Agreements

Children don’t always find the right words to explain how lost and totally engaged they are in what they are doing.  A simple request from you may feel like an untimely demand. The end of something great.

What happens next…. your child just refuses to do something. Then you insist and a power struggle begins.

Connecting and then making agreements with your child can open the door to meeting both of your needs and finding a win, win solution.

Before making a request, slow down a bit. Connect with your child, even if for just two minutes. Try to understand what your child is engaging in. What will motivate them to say yes to your request?

It’s much easier to create an agreement with your child when you are both on the same page.

A connected request might sound like:

“I see you are getting close to a mission checkpoint, are you having fun playing? So, I am looking for you to get the recycling taken out. Can we agree on a stopping place, say 10 minutes from now or at the next checkpoint for your to take a break and can get your job done?”

If your child is still refusing to help at all – ask yourself if this is a problem that keeps happening (see above) or if you need to set some time aside to listen to your child.

Stop Power Struggles With Listening

No matter how much effort you put into ending power struggles with using problem solving, agreements and other solutions, it’s possible that some days your child will just be struggling to do their very best.

So often, children are punished for being human. Children are not allowed to have grumpy moods, bad days, disrespectful tones, or bad attitudes, yet we adults have them all the time! We think if we don’t nip it in the bud, it will escalate and we will lose control. Let go of that unfounded fear and give your child permission to be human. We all have days like that. None of us are perfect, and we must stop holding our children to a higher standard of perfection than we can attain ourselves. — Rebecca Eanes 

End Power Struggles Before They Escalate By Being The Grown-Up in The Room

End power struggles before they escalate. End them by listening, by extending your child some empathy and kindness.

Allow your child time to calm down and start over. Don’t look for a bad, sassy child. See a child that needs your help and love. See a child that can learn how to communicate with respect.

Appreciate your child’s determination and meet it with guidance.

When children are reaching for power and control, connection is the path towards cooperation.

Next time you are headed towards a power struggle, pause. Then strive to listen to your child’s struggle and offer some calm, connected guidance.

Peace & Be Well,

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Ariadne is a happy and busy mama to three children. She practices peaceful, playful, responsive parenting and is passionate about all things parenting and chocolate. Ariadne has a Masters in Psychology and is a certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator. She lives on top of a beautiful mountain with her family, and one cuddly dog.

11 Responses to How To Stop Power Struggles with a Very Assertive Child

  1. I absolutely love this piece. I love how you cover if the child’s basic needs are being met before going into strategies to increase cooperation. Recently, I wrote something like this too. I’ll have to link to this post for additional reading.

  2. my power struggle lately has been over things like chewing gum which I do not allow my 4 year old to have but someone at some point did and now its a constant battle of “but I want it”. She has even gone so far as to get her stepping stool to get it out of the high cupboard after I have said that it isn’t one of her options. What do I do? How do I handle this. She directly disobeyed but I don’t want to punish her for it and I don’t have an appropriate consequence for it either. Suggestions?

  3. Hi Michelle,

    It sounds like the struggle is happening because you have decided something is off limits (understandable) and your daughter has discovered something that is very tasty, and now forbidden (making it even more attractive) Each of you is grasping for power on this. One idea is to use the Listening option for stopping this struggle. Really validate your child’s wishes, allow her to express how much she desires the chewing gum and acknowledge her struggle. To a child, these struggles are real – we have more life experience and we know that gum is not the best thing in the world – to a child, the wish is very real and powerful. Acknowledging this struggle and allowing the child to have full feelings, (cry, protest and tell you how much she wants the gum) even while keeping the limit can help the child find some peace with the fact that this is not an option. After you listen, you can invite your child to choose something else that is healthier and approved by you as a snack. Do you think that might help?

  4. My 4 yo gets into a mood where she will disagree with anything and everything , i have tried to reason, I have tried being kind, I have tried talking it through, time out, a smack, compromising with a treat and or just leaving her be NOTHING worked/s. She will continue to scream and tare my house apart from slamming doors to kicking walls to re -arranging furniture taking off clothes. I’m seriously at whits end, some days I just want to quit. It really wears you down. It doesn’t help she is a shocking eater and I always find the excuse, she might be hungry… help me!

  5. Hi Ariadne,

    I’m just reading your comment above regarding the question from Michelle about the chewing gum. Having a 4 year old myself (who loves warheads and lollies) I also struggle here. I honestly don’t see how listening is truly going to help my daughter from wanting to have a power struggle over wanting the lollies in this instance..I’m sorry to be rude.. if I listened (and even explained why the lollies aren’t the best option) and then offered fruit or something healthier she’d still want the lollies.

    Do u have any other suggestions? Maybe my daughter is just used to me giving in…


  6. Hi Sarah,
    No worries, I don’t find your question rude at all! What stands out to me is the possibility that you may be listening to your daughter with the expectation that she will then listen to you and accept your explanation. The thing is, for four year olds, the explanation in this case really isn’t what is going to help her move on.

    The “listening” part means really just hearing the request, insistence or complaint and allowing the child to fully feel and express their desire. It might sound like “I hear you, you really want a lolly, mummy said no and that bugs you.” It does not mean giving them an explanation of how things are “better” or bargaining for them to side with you. It’s the child that needs us to see THEIR point of view. SEE IT or HEAR IT, but not give in if the right thing to do is not give in. Surely there will be times when your child’s request may lead to a change of heart, but if you are setting a needed and reasonable limit – it’s important to keep it.

    It’s only when children feel truly acknowledged that they are able to move on. And this isn’t something you can do once, instead you help your child learn to accept your limits, time after time, after time. It takes practice and being kind while firm at the same time.

    What is the possibility that your child keeps arguing with you and insisting because she knows eventually it will work? As you mentioned you are used to giving in and what message does that send to your little girl?

    1) “Ok, you can insist on anything you want, argue, ask over and over because eventually I give in”
    2) “Mommy will listen to me even when I am upset… she has made up her mind and I know I can respect that and still be ok, because she will help me deal with my frustrations and she is keeping me safe.”

    (Your child will never actually say these words, it’s in your relationship and actions that you will see which message is getting across)

    Which do you think will help your daughter grow up feeling capable?

  7. Hi Ariadne, myself and my 9 year old son seem to constantly go from one power struggle to the next. His father passed away 5 years ago but in truth his strong personality and behaviour issues were evident even before that happened. Not having a strong make role model in his life is also an issue. On a day to day basis myself and my 10 year old are often left fearful and on edge as to where his insistence to have things his own way and his need to be winning every arguement is going to end up. He hits and hurts ( inc verbally) his sister and has been physical with me in the past (he is now verbally aggressive and hurtful towards me). Despite the issues love him very dearly and try to use all options and approaches (active listening, barganing, positive choice making, scream pillows, punching pillows, diary yo express his feelings and many more) to diffuse the situations. I have sought much advice over the years and yet I still cannot help him make that connection to make the right choices for his reactive behaviour. I fear for my daughters self confidence and self esteem as she has been physically hurt quite a lot by him and is told by him that she deserves it and that he is never sorry for how he acts.
    We have also tried anger management and family grief counselling.
    Any advice would be appreciated as I want the three of us to be a strong family unit.

  8. Caroline,
    It sounds like your son had to deal with strong emotions at a very young age. I don’t mention that as an excuse for his behaviors and instead as an indicator that he may need someone with trauma informed care training to help him learn to understand his own reactivity. He may be stuck in unhelpful beliefs about to respond to situations in which he feels out of control. Power struggles (regardless of trauma) are always a sign that the child is searching for control. While the aggressive behaviors may show up along side the power struggles – this is a step beyond the struggle and moves into reactivity to the conflict. Aggression is a secondary expression and typically a sign of fear and loss of control. It would be possibly helpful to create a calm down plan with your son where you practice together ways to calm down and what to do when he reaches a point of lashing out. This means helping him learn to identify the anger BEFORE it escalates as well as what he will choose to do if he does in fact escalate – this takes practice and patience on our part to walk them through their feelings. Prevention is the biggest key to success in situations like the one you are describing. I hope this is helpful to you and feel free to follow up with additional questions.

  9. Thank you for your prompt response. I appreciate your time. As I digest your advice I will certainly be thinking of the calm down plan you sign posted. I know it’s hard for him to put strategies into place just before he looses his self control. ( i know this as he tells me its hard to stop and is is immediately sorry afterwards for his behaviour). He just can’t get a handle on his quick reactiveness to me limiting his technology time so therefore it’s hard for him to avoid the power struggle before it happens.
    We will certainly keep working on it and with added grief counselling which he starts next week I hope he can find some peace and feel less anger.
    Thanks again.

  10. This morning, I was absolutely at my wits end from yet another morning power struggle with my 10-year-old. In fact, I dropped her off at school, went back home, and had a bit of a melt-down. She is my youngest and (by far) the most stubborn and strong-willed. She insists – daily – that “that’s just how I am. I cannot change that”…no matter what I’m trying to help her with. Every morning is a fight, and I’m drained. So this morning, I searched the web for help and I came across your article. It’s very informative and gives me some good ideas to try. I am hoping your suggestions (along with others I have come across) will help me. She doesn’t like it when I offer ideas (such as “if we get you up 15 minutes earlier tomorrow, then you will have a bit of extra time to wake up and take your time in the shower”) because they make her feel like I am accusing her of being bad (I never say that to her) and she “can’t help being tired and slow in the morning”.

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