How to Stop Power Struggles

How to Stop Power Struggles

Power struggles between parents and children happen most often when the parents’ expectations and abilities of the child in that moment are out of sync.

So often, your job as a parent is to keep a certain amount of order in your home. This helps the whole family feel 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 allow a power struggle to unravel.

power struggles

Raising Respectful Kids With Positive Parenting

Children can learn to be respectful, mindful, helpful and kind.  Especially when you are committed to taking a positive approach to discipline.

Encouraging respect and having influence with children is more likely to happen when you focus on building trust and positive relationships with your child.  In fact, engaging in nagging, criticizing, and punishing rude remarks are actually 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 when children act out or push boundaries.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. 

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,

Ariadne

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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, one cuddly dog and "bluey" the fish.

31 Responses to How to Stop Power Struggles

  1. How Do You Suggest Approaching This With A Three Year Old? He Is Very Stubborn And Rarely Cooperates Without An Incentive Or Threat. He Doesn’t Seem To Care About Whether Or Not He Is Helpful Or Praised For Complying With Everyday Requests, Like Getting Dressed Or Brushing Teeth.

    • Hi Kim,
      Three year olds certainly do like to pick a power struggle! Mostly this can be avoided when they are given some control over their lives, simply because at that age, that is what they are trying to do, figure out what they can and can’t be responsible for. Also, working together or keeping a child company at this age is often more helpful than expecting the child to do things on their own. For getting dressed for example, playing a fun game of tops or bottoms where mom will help with either the top or the bottom, (they choose what they do ALL alone)…that kind of playful, together dynamic gives the child a sense of capability, trust but also shows care “i;m here, I’ll help you first and then you show me what you can do” and so on… hope that helps!

  2. What should I do if a power struggle has already escalated? Example: today my 3yo son wanted to see a sign on a median in a busy parking lot we were crossing and since he was already whining and had been short on sleep the night before, I knew we needed to head home for nap. In spite of my calm and empathizing words while driving, he screamed angrily the whole drive home, and once inside he threw toys at me, screamed, wouldn’t lie down, hit and bit me. It kept getting worse and I was losing my patience and kept thinking how do I de-escalate this?? When he threw toys, I put them out of his reach, when he hit me I moved away or held his hands for a moment and said “do not hit me, I don’t like that, that hurts,” and those things made him more hysterical. He doesn’t get to the point of simply crying and wanting a hug, he just stays angry and it’s difficult to know what to do. I thought about avoiding the over tiredness and about maybe I should have talked out the looking at the sign thing before we got in the car, but basically once we were home and in the midst of the meltdown I didn’t know how to calm things down. Finally we got in bed and I kept putting him back when he tried to get off the bed and he laid down next to me and fell asleep. I just wish the intensity could have been less because my finger is still sore from the bite and I still feel exhausted and heart-hurt, hours later…

    • I’m not sure I have any words of advice because my 4 year old daughter and I have plenty of these moments too. And its the heart hurt for hours later that is the most frustrating to me. I just keep repeating to her that “I love you too much to let you treat me this way.” and I usually have to leave the room. I’ll stay out in the hallway but to me, giving her this space is better than my blood boiling and me doing something I’ll regret. We also talk at the end of the day about both of us doing better and we try to make a plan for what to do next time. I completely empathize with you. It sounds like you did great given the moment.

    • Hi Meg,
      As you noticed, sometimes we need a whole load of patience to get through some difficult moments. In a nutshell, it sounds like you did the right things here, and it sounds like this was more of an emotional overload (tantrum) then a power struggle. Sometimes, just being there, keeping our little ones safe as they move through really big big feelings is all we can do. At age 3, being over tired, that meltdown sounds quite age typical and I don’t think your son wanted to give you a hard time, or hurt you. My guess, he was really just so tired and disappointed he did not get to see that sign, the bite was frustration. It is possible to be pro-active at times to prevent these moments (but it will sometimes not work, and that is not your fault or your son’s it’s just how we are, perfectly imperfect and meltdowns happen.) Going through the motions and empathize and accept much like it sounds you did until the storm passes is all you can do. You can teach your little one deep breathing and keep a routine too, in the end sometimes bracing and listening to a child as they are upset is all we can do. If you continue to honor your son’s feelings at age 3 and help him contain his upset in a appropriate ways, (limiting behaviors but not the feelings)he will grown and learn to express himself appropriately and will not longer throw and bite! hope that helps.

  3. I love these ideas but I would love if you could expand and give next steps. I could see myself sitting in the kitchen waiting until next year! So examples of how to follow up if they still choose not to help or do the right thing would be nice.

    “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.”

    • This sounds almost exactly like the tantrum my almost 4 year old daughter had yesterday. I spoke calmly and tried to connect with her but she was in an intense state that I could not de-escalate. I cried a little bit because I didn’t know what to do and she noticed that. Once she snapped out of it she was super sweet. It’s very challenging.

  4. Yes, a 3 year old again. Mine has a habit of throwing stuff and then wanting me to get it and having an absolute fit if I don’t. I calmly tell him “You can reach it yourself.” Or “You threw it over there. We can go get it together.” Should I just fetch everything he throws even though I know he’s doing it on purpose? It’s gotten to the point where he’ll run to the couch and toss a toy behind it and then wail because he can’t reach it. Really??? I’m at my wits end. I’ve tried hugging, compromising, distracting – nothing works. And if I finally give in and fetch th item he will sometimes throw it again. What am I doing wrong??? 🙁

  5. Hi there! I loved your power struggle post! Have a quick scenario though: my daughter is 22 months old and she recently started refusing to wear clothes! Makes for a struggle to leave the house. This started a when she started her part-time “play school”/daycare. Needless to say, it’s not going well in play school. I’m a part-time elementary school counselor and I feel like I’ve tried every tool in my toolbox for motivation. I refuse to resort to bribes etc. I feel so guilty for creating these emotions by putting her in daycare and I know her refusal is her acting out these emotions. Any help would be greatly appreciated!!

    • Jordan, You mention you feel guilty about this situation with daycare and your daughters emotions but I wonder if you can find a way to simply validate those feelings while still setting limits on the clothing issue? Can you listen to her upset but also let her know you are calm and confident about a) your decision that daycare is a safe and ok place and b) you have faith in her ability to feel and eventually overcome her feelings about it? The emotional side of this is allowing some of those tears to come out and really talk about missing each other, it might help to create a bridge situation where you can tell your daughter what you will do when you pick her up so she can trust and look forward to that? Scheduling some one- on -one time that includes games with laughter and really focused play to get those upset feelings out.. Some questions to reflect on the practical side of this: Are you planning in enough time in the morning to get ready or are things rushed? Can you let her go in pajamas or whatever she is already in and take a bag of clothes with you that she can then change into at school when ready? What about letting her choose her own outfit the night before? Even just sportscasting as you dress “i know you don’t really want to get dressed, I will help you with this arm, this pant leg, yes, you wish I would be with you, I love you, I care so much about you, I understand you wish it was different, next leg, we are almost done.” might be helpful. Hang in there!

  6. Hi Ariandne

    Wow I feel like i come across gold mine – by having come across your website. I have a 7 yr old daughter – she is a really sweet girl – but has suffered the blow of her dad and I seperating from the age of 1 and him and I have conducted a very unhealthy back and fourth relationship over the last few years. She has now being diagnosed with having severe anxiety – I have for the last 4 months being taking her for play therapy to work through her anger and anxiety. However I have come to learn that i dont event know when I am engaging in a power struggle. I just know things come up that infuriate me – but I seldomly respond with anger – however there are also enough moments when I loose it, and the more I loose it – the more she looses it. She is a tough girl and strong willed, so I am aware of that character – which i love and dont want to break it – but I never know when we in a power struggle. I did not even know we go into power struggles until 3 weeks ago when the therapist suggested we play together with her dad during a session and she brought it to my attention afterwards. I have since being aware but cannot identify it. How do I indentify it.

    • Carmine,
      Thank you so much for your kind feedback, I’m glad to hear the website is helpful to you. Learning to notice when we are headed for a power struggle is certainly very helpful because that way you can pause and not actually create more of a struggle. Many parents find it helpful to reflect on the situation they are in, in that moment, to see if they are asserting power or just trying to offer guidance. “Having to be right” or “Will not let my child win this battle” kind of thinking often means a power struggle is about to happen. Other clues is that you may feel stressed and really wanting your child to do as you say and not consider what they want at all. In that moment, try to see things from your child’s point of view before making a final decision. Children should not set the rules or make all the decisions, but just being willing to notice life from their perspective ( it can be helpful to ask yourself “If I were a child, what would I want right now?”) sometimes helps the parent slow down enough to find a solution that works for both parent and child. You clearly care a great deal about your daughter, play therapy is often so very helpful to support children with a variety of challenges I hope the play therapist continues to support you both on your journey.

  7. With my headstrong children, I try to give choices but always try to have an exit plan if the choices don’t work. For example, I will say, “do you want to wear the red shorts or blue shorts? If you do not choose, I will choose for you.” Telling them that I will choose if they don’t gives me my “out.” It works in many situations. “Do you want to vacuum the carpet or swifter the wood floor?” Then, if they don’t do what they are told, or don’t choose, I will decide, and put them in time out until they follow through.

    • Laura, I think it’s a great idea to have an exit plan (love the way you call it that) so often we give option a or b and our child will choose none of the above!! I too find it helpful to clarify when needed “if you can’t choose, I will choose for you and you can try again another day” – thank you for adding that idea!

  8. I have a 5 yr old boy who’s a big challenge I’ve done everything possible and nothing seems to work. I’m at a loss! I think us emailing would be good because I have a lot of questions n scenios on his behaviours he has everyday. He doesn’t care about pleasing me really rarely does. When he does good things i sure let him know how proud and happy I am! He just disregards everything I say…he doesn’t listen the first time or the fourth vBulletin n so on. I’m tired of saying the same thing over and over and over! I start to mad and I have a lot of patience than compared to my husband. Misbehaving is constant and any punishment or consequences he gets he doesn’t care! Like no watching a movie or no game time on the tablet or no toys! He has a own little room for his big toybox and if he is naughty n can’t clean up his mess the room gets locked up. He doesn’t listen when ask nicely to do something I try to work with him and he doesn’t care. He will throw anything he can find at me and hit me n talk back and say mean things. He has cursed at me. He can be put in time outs in the corner. Sent to his room n sit and think about what he did wrong. Even throwing toys away he can’t clean up. Even when it escalates I give breathing room and settle n go to bed and work at it tomorrow. Still doesn’t care. I try n sit down with him at his level n try to be clear and direct but simple so he understands. Being adhd he doesn’t sit still n listen he’s all over the place laying on the floor falling off the chair on purpose just not paying attention. He will have meltdowns where he just loses it and gets so angry he shakes he will try and hurt you destroy things or hit himself. Which makes me vBulletin upset and have anxiety attack and cry too because I don’t see him do this often and can’t help takes over a half hour to calm down. I have to hold him down so he can’t hurt me or himself. For talking back n smartmouthing he gets a spank though I really don’t like that discipline and don’t like to use it even then it doesn’t work. Nothing does. Bribes threats etc nothing. Someone mentioned not locking his toys but tell them its yours now and will have to earn it back. He doesn’t even try to or care. His behaviour is out of control. I have yell sometimes n I know that’s something you shouldn’t do but he SOMETIMES listens then. I know I sound negative buy I’ve tried everything I can think of and can’t seem to get him to listen. Advice? E-mail is pwipf87@gmail.com. thx

    • Priscilla, I can tell you really care so much about your son. Children with lots of energy often do well to have clear boundaries and be given the chance to participate a lot in their family with jobs and such. From your note here, I see you have tried many things, most children as you have seen really don’t do so well with time out, taking toys away because just like you notice, it builds up a lot of anger and frustration in them which eventually leads to meltdowns. This is a cycle that can be broken, I believe that learning some positive discipline tools might be something you and your son would really benefit from if you are interested in making a change. I have emailed you some information as you requested. Thank you for sharing your story here.

  9. My daughter is 4 and has just started school. We have a lot of power struggles but what do I do when I know she’s tired but she needs a bath and argues with me about getting in the bath, then argues with me about getting out of the bath! I give her a 5 minute warning, I say time to get out so we can read a book.. I took her television out of her room in the end as she screamed at me! Thanks

    • Hi Jennie, bath struggles can be extra tough because its the end of the day and eveyone is running almost on empty. Transitioning in and out of the tub can seem impossible to a child in that moment.

      For many children being playful is helpful. For example, lets plays simon says until simons says bath is all done…simon says splash tiny splashes, simon says show me your knees, simon says stand up, simon says clap your hands, simon says give me your hands, simon says get out of the tub and hug me! Now, if you feel too tired or if play is not your style, its also ok to just walk your daughter through the process, with calm confidence and all the while validating her resistance. “I understand you dont want to get out of the tub, getting out is upsetting you. I love you, its time to get out.” Accept the feelings, validate and just remeber its the tiredness affecting it and your daughter over time will get the hang of this routine. The calmer you stay and the less focust there is on punishing her when she is overwhelmed, the more she will learn that feeling tired is safe and that she eventually finishes the routine and gets to sleep. I hope that is helpful to you.

  10. Thank you everyone for sharing your stories. I too have a stubborn 4yr old girl. I truly thought I was the only one and that I have done something wrong. I am working with her in a very calm manner to get her to stay calm, but it doesn’t always work. Great tips and ideas. Thanks again. Shannon

  11. I wonder if you can help me with my newly 5 yr old. We don’t require her to wear clothes (beyond her underwear) in the house unless people come over. We have gotten into power struggles lately surrounding her getting dressed to leave the house. She fights me and refuses to get dressed even if our leaving is for something she loves (such as going to her favorite playground). It’s become a massive power struggle, and I’ve taken to counting to 10 and if she doesn’t have her clothes on we don’t go (I stop counting while she’s actively getting dressed and start again if she stops). Obviously this isn’t the best way, but I need some way to get her dressed and out the door. Please help.

  12. I really appreciate your post and wonder if you can help me with a long term power struggle we’ve had with our four year old. This may sound crazy, but the power struggle is about hugs. When he’s upset or hurt, he fluctuates wildly between wanting comfort versus space, and he can get quite angry and aggressive if approached when he wants space. Asking him what he wants in these moments can also make him really angry. Also, he sometimes demands hugs in an angry way (e.g. screaming at us that we have to come over and hug him) and then he often becomes very controlling about it (e.g. the hug wasn’t good enough). All this has led us to try some “rules” about hugs (e.g. he has to come to us, or ask nicely if he wants us to come to him). But these haven’t worked that well (e.g. he’ll walk to within two feet of us and then continue screaming). Plus we feel kind of yucky about hug rules… We feel trapped in a power struggle and it feels horrible for it to get in the way of comfort when he really needs it! Any suggestions?

    • Hi Mandy,
      Lots of four and five year olds struggle with expressing frustration, anger and annoyance. Instead of a full on tantrum like you might expect from a two or three year old with tears, you might observe a more grumpy, demanding tone and like you described, this searching for control “hug me…leave me alone…don’t touch me…come closer…not that close!!!!!!! OH I SAID TO HUG ME….and you did it ALL WRONG!!” Sound familiar? A good thing to do here, is to stay calm and listen. Acknowldging in a few words “you seem very upset. I’m here for you.” can help. Help in the sense that they might continue to vent out all those feelings. Another idea is to talk about feelings during a time when you are all calm. Reading a story book can help, a favorite is Marvin Gets Mad (marvin has a tantrum, hides, calms, apologizes and eventually feels better). Using the book, you can talk about what it’s like to get mad, what it feels like and what your child thinks might help. Creating a calm down wheel of choice or coming up with a calm down plan can eliminate the power struggle, because you will have a clearer picture of what your child needs and you can keep your boudaries clear as well. I bet it feels yucky to have hug rules….after all, hugs are so nice! I walk parents through creating a calm down plan in my book Twelve Alternatives to Time Out: Connected Discipline Tools for Raising Cooperative Children Sounds like the hug / no hug is really a way of saying he is needing some loving guidance and that big feelings are taking over. What do you think?

      • Thank you so much for all of these ideas! I love the idea of getting books about anger, which I think he would really like. Calm down plans haven’t worked that well for us in the past, but he’s older now so I think it would be valuable to try again. And I actually have had some success over the past few days with offering more hugs and/or asking if I can hug him when he gets upset. I’m thinking maybe it lets him feel like he’s in control, without him having to be “bossy” about it. Thanks again and will definitely try your suggestions!

  13. I have read a few of your articles. I am here asking for help. I have a nearly 9-year-old who has very high IQ and low EQ. He is a great child but gets aggressive. Sleep time every single night is a problem for us. He will not get into bed till midnight. This happens when his father is around, which is 99.99% of the time, Days when it is just us – me, himself and my nearly 7-year-old daughter things are way better. I just do not know how to handle this. I tried making him listen to positive affirmations. It all went well for a month and now he doesn’t he want to listen to it anymore. My younger daughter now is picking up on his cues and doesn’t want to listen to me either. She just has to fight me because she knows I cannot handle his aggressiveness. Between the two I feel like a failed mom!

    • Hi Shy, thank you for sharing your concerns here. Sleep difficulties and aggression can be quite wearing on the whole family. As you have shared your child has high IQ I am taking a guess that sitting down to set up a clear agreement and routine (in this process you invite the child’s help and input) might be a very good way to get you all out of this negative routine at bed time. It sounds like your child need some options and positive choices as to what he CAN do before going to sleep. If the aggression is really escalating please do reach out to your pediatrician or a local family counseling center for help – it’s never ok for aggression / fear to take over each night as it creates such stress for all of you and will affect your well-being. Set clear limits, take breaks, establish a good – realistic evening routine – another thought is to see how much outdoor and physical excercise the children are getting – many children that have trouble with sleep notice significant improvement when spending more time in nature – outdoors, climbing, using their full bodies and reducing screen/passive time as well as following a healthy diet. As for low EQ – a feelings chart in the house is a great place to start talking about emotions – also expressing how you feel each day helps too. Personalized parent coaching can help with many of these issues as well, please do let me know if you would like me to share some resources for that too. Best wishes.

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