Power struggles between parents and children happen. Most often power struggles happen when the parents expectations and abilities of the child in that moment are just not in sync. So often, your job as the parent is to keep a certain amount of order so that everyone is safe and well. That also means that sometimes your child will dislike or challenge your decisions. The problem with power struggles is not the fact that children challenge parental decisions, in fact, that is a sign that your child is thinking, growing and developing well. The problem is when as parents, we engage with the refusals in a negative manner and give fire to the struggle and let it unravel.
Yes, children can learn to be respectful, mindful, helpful and kind, and certainly it is not alright to simply accept rude remarks from children as they argue and challenge every decision and request parents make. However, encouraging respect and having influence with children is much less likely to happen if parents continuously engage in nagging, criticizing, and other power struggle inducing behaviors.
In the post on Following Through When Setting Limits we visited a few examples on how to follow through in a kind, clear and respectful manner. Many parents chimed in with questions and comments about power struggles and following through, this post will hopefully help answer many of those questions on how to stop power struggles. (If you asked about the sleep example, this will be answered in another post soon!)
How to Stop A Power Struggle Idea#1 – No Biggies
Amanda asks: What happens when the child refuses to do something all together, even after giving your child the options?
Let’s say a child is refusing to do something on a particular day but this hasn’t been an ongoing problem. In other words, you are pretty confident that in general, your child is cooperative, helpful and willing to work together. This is a moment you could label under a “no biggie.” Basically, try to have a bit of understanding that children, no matter how much you connect, care and guide will, much like any adult, also have tough days and bad moods. Validate, empathize, accept and make an exception.
It might work to say something like “You really aren’t up for this right now, I get that, some days I also don’t want to do the work for this house.”
You can take this a step further at offer a trade: “Here is an idea, I’ll do you a favor today, you can save a favor for me for another day, like a trade. ”
Extending this kind of validation, kindness, respect and one-off exceptions can work, as long as it doesn’t turn into a daily habit. To avoid a permissive dynamic, make sure to stress you are making an exception or a trade.
So, before you engage in a power struggle over a small request from an otherwise quite cooperative and helpful child, ask yourself “Is this really a big deal? Can I make an exception here given the circumstances?”
How to Stop A Power Struggle Idea#2 – Step Back & Re-Think it
Jenna asks: What if this kind of struggle is going on every single day and there is no helping going on at all? I have tried every possible motivator I know, from paying a buck to taking the xbox away, my 11 year old is not phased by any of it.
This sounds like a good time to pause and not engage in another power struggle. It’s not about letting go and being permissive either. It’s just a sign that whatever approach you have used up until now, for motivating and involving your child in chores is just not working. Sometimes, while well meaning, the approach parents are taking is just not the right one for their child, temperament and the family dynamic. Instead of engaging in a power struggle, use this as a clue that you may want to re-think your approach.
Some of the common approaches that fuel power struggles and just don’t work long term for encouraging children to listen, cooperate and participate are:
Bribes, rewards and threats all take away internal motivation and don’t build trust, belonging or a sense of capability. Positive discipline is based on the notion that rewards/punishments are not necessary and are in fact detrimental to the development of self-discipline.
Nagging, criticism and micro managing chip away at capability as well. Children start to put the breaks on helping if they feel constantly corrected. Try to change over to more encouraging and teaching words. For example, instead of “That’s not finished yet, get back here and finish this right.” Try something like “I notice there is still soap on those dishes, how about a second rinse?”
To really encourage participation, consistency and appropriate expectations are also really important here. Some questions you can ask yourself if you are engaging in continuous power struggles:
Does my child know what I expect?
Is their “job” really clear and do they have the right tools and knowledge to do the job well?
Have I taken the time to teach my child how to do what I expect?
Has my child had a chance to choose a job they are able and interested in doing?
What if anything can I change about how I am approaching this situation?
Have I enlisted my child’s help to solve this problem?
If you can run through these questions and re-evaluate your approach, you are less likely to encounter continuous power struggles.
How to Stop A Power Struggle Idea#3 – Calm Confident Leadership
Your calm, confident guidance is really needed to stop power struggles. One of my favorite phrases about power struggles is
“You don’t have to show up to every power struggle you are invited too”
So with that in mind, end it before it escalates.
Here are some power struggle STOP phrases for inspiration:
“It’s clear to me that we are getting no-where here. I’m taking care of this tonight, and I will talk to you tomorrow.” (Make sure to follow through the next day when everyone is calm and make a new plan!)
“I care about you, I’m not going to yell about this. I’ll be in the kitchen if you change your mind.”
“I don’t want to fight about this. What I expect is clear. I will be in the kitchen, I hope you will come and join me.”
“You know this is your job, I trust you to do the right thing.”
“I’ve asked already and I know you can do this.”
How to Stop A Power Struggle Idea#4 – Connect before making a request
Sometimes children are just so engrossed in what they are doing, it’s easier for them to refuse to do something then it is to explain just how awesome their lego adventure is going, what genius idea they are drawing up in their sketch book or what a fantastic chat they are having with a friend. Slow down a bit, meet your child in their world, even if for just two minutes before you ask them to do something. This connection will give you a glimpse into their world and what they are thinking, feeling and deciding. With that information in hands, it’s much easier to make a request that is truly motivating. “I see you are on page 210 of your book already, you must be really loving this story. Tell you what, I am needing a hand with this laundry, could we agree on a stopping place, say page 215 for a break so you can get your job done?”
Yes, power struggles happen, but they can also be avoided. Strive to be calm, guide with confidence and trust that you and your child will be able to work this out. Because really you can work this out, maybe that same moment, maybe only later or the next day when everyone is calm, rested and connected. If you are committed to working with your child, in a respectful, loving, kind relationship, then set backs don’t have to mean constant fighting. Use them instead as a signal that you need to re-center, plan and re-connect.
Power struggles don’t need to define your relationship with your child. Remember, when your child is challenging you, they are growing and looking for guidance. You get to provide that guidance! If you want less power struggles, refuse to engage and trust that your child will, and can accept your calm, confident, encouraging guidance.
Still have questions about power struggles? Add them in comments, I’d love to answer and help in another post!
Peace & Be Well,