Power Struggles? 5 Positive DisciplineTools to Transform Your Interactions

Power Struggles? 5 Positive DisciplineTools to Transform Your Interactions

Parents and children alike walk away from power struggles feeling anything from frustrated, exasperated, inadequate to upset, defeated or confused. When it comes to power struggles, there are never true winners.

Many parents feel that  power struggles are inevitable, that nagging and parenting go hand in hand or find themselves thinking over and over again “Why will my child not LISTEN to me!!¨” Do you feel this way too? You are not alone!  Parents are reaching out for help and questions about power struggles so very often! How to overcome them, how to turn them into a positive moment or how to avoid power struggles all together.

Why do Power Struggles happen anyway?

I find the most common reasons for power struggles  is a lack of balance in connection and cooperation between parents and children. Often parents are focused on control, demands or threats and children are faced with unrealistic expectations.

Children often feel frustrated and powerless when faced with expectations they don’t feel they can live up to. -Dr. Jane Nelson

That very feeling of powerlessness leads to children trying to find, prove and use any power they may have. For instance, a child may refuse to eat,use the potty, get dressed for school, slam doors or give an answer because they feel the need to control something. Often the only “something” children get to control in their life is their response to a demand.

Scolding, shaming threatening or punishing during power struggles may make children change their mind and may seem to solve the immediate problem, but it does so without  addressing the core of the problem and without teaching the value of true cooperation. These negative interactions also erodes the parent-child relationship, diminishes self-esteem and let’s be honest, these power struggles are exhausting for everyone!

Power struggles can be avoided. Like most things parenting, what gets you there may be a bit different from another family and different tools will work better in different situations but here are just five of the many wonderful positive discipline tools aimed at dissolving away power struggles!


1. Create Solutions to Recurring Problems: If you are running into the same struggle over and over again, see what happens if instead of focusing on the “bad” behavior you take a moment to actually find a better solution at the core of the problem. Does something need to be changed? Schedules rearranged? Organized differently?  What changes need to be made so that the actual problem goes away?  Think solutions instead of struggles!

When my son and I were struggling over winter coats I realized I needed a more permanent solution that would respect his ability to choose what to wear while balancing my fear of us getting stuck  in icy cold winds. I dropped the arguing and instead gave him access to the daily weather report. Armed with new information, we agreed that any morning that showed the average temp to be under 12 C / 53 F he would agree to take the jacket. Checking the weather report became his responsibility and taking the coat was now within his control while respecting my desire to keep him safe.

2. Think about transitions: Especially young children can have difficulties with abrupt transitions. Struggles with young children happen often when they feel they have no control over their own time.  Try letting children know ahead of time when their time to finish one activity and start something else is approaching. Give plenty of advance notice, involve them in the plan and try to make the next step in the routine just as interesting as what you were doing before.

My three year old daughter does really well with specific notices such as “one last time down the slide” instead of “two more minutes” which is really abstract.  Even better when I remember to use simple questions like “Do you want to slide one time or show me how you climb these bars before we go?”

3. Save NO for when it matters: Having a lot of conflicts? Are you saying no to everything? That’s a quick way to make NO lose all meaning. Try using a few alternatives like:

  • “Yes, on a different day you can!”
  • “I hear it’s what you want but now is not the right time!”
  • “Right now it’s not possible, let’s talk about it when we can make a plan!”

This way when you  do issue a final “My answer is NO”  to something for example a safety issue, your child will understand and is much more likely to trust and respect that this particular item is not up for negotiations. 

4. Accept Responsibility: Have you been short tempered, trying to control everything, annoyed or fed up? Ok, that happens but it also contributes a lot to the power struggles. This isn’t about feeling guilty but rather to take some responsibility to what you are bringing to the table and decide to make a change the next time you find yourself locking heads.

I like to ask myself “Is this struggle really worth it? Why is it so important to me to be right about this? What can I do to change this situation?” Once you accept responsibility for your attitude or part in the struggle, it’s really likely  that you may be able to relax, focus on solutions and cooperation and your child will likely follow your lead!

5. Asked and Answered:  “Asked and Answered”  can feel a bit cold and off putting but once in a while, however if things are really getting heated up giving a kind and firm response of “we’ve discussed this, I heard your reasons and I already gave you my answer” or “I have made my final decision, I love you AND I know it’s not what you wanted.” is really alright.

Children need boundaries and limits, these can be set with kindness but while still making it understood that our decision has been made. Personally I like to save these for decisions that impact my child’s safety so that our general interactions are not about having power over the final say-so.

Parenting and setting limits does not need to come from a place of over powering our children or letting children take the power over us. In fact, I think that forgetting about words like power and battles helps a whole lot too. Instead of focusing on  “who” holds power, I like to think that there is a lot of positive power when my children and I can combine our  ideas and efforts to find great solutions.

What situations lead to power struggles in your home? Leave a comment below, I’d love to hear from you!

Peace & Be Well,



The following two tabs change content below.
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.

30 Responses to Power Struggles? 5 Positive DisciplineTools to Transform Your Interactions

  1. I am a single mum with a very independent 2 year old. While I try to be patient and calm and even tempered in all of our daily activities there are a few things that seem to cause constant conflict. 1. Getting ready when we have to be out of the house quickly for daycare and work, (which is only 2 days a week at the moment thank goodness). 2. Any time my daughter thinks that I have done something that she considers to be her job (e.g. closing the fridge door – such a reflex that one happens a bit, opening the door to the house from the garage, me helping her with her clothes even if she is asking for help it’s not allowed). 3. Tooth brushng. 4. Going to the toilet regularly. She wears nappies at night only but we have our good days and bad days with getting to the toilet on time. It does seem like a power struggle much of the time. I think it’s just the age and try to work through it all with understanding and patience, but I am human, sometimes it is just very frustrating.

  2. I use “asked and answered!” I think there’s an appropriate time and tone…but I think it is absolutely possible to use this response in a positive way. Thanks for this list of ideas for setting kind and firm limits…and for including “asked & answered.” Love it!

  3. Totally agree Kelly, to use Asked and Answer the tone and timing will matter a lot! Personally I prefer to say “I’ve heard you AND my answer is no” but I have seen many situations where using “asked and answered” helps make those limits firm, especially in the transition from previously punitive to positive discipline so I wanted to offer that option too. thanks for stopping by!!

  4. Mealtimes with my 4 year old are a constant struggle. He will play and not look at his food even if he’s hungry. Then will cry at night with hunger. We’ve tried instituting a new rule where he has to sit and concentrate in the food for ten minutes. We try to make it a fun game but he’s not interested. I just don’t know how to make him stick to this rule without being punitive. We have said he can have a toy after ten minutes and have drawing at the table to try and keep him there. Previously he has been allowed to have toys at the table, but this just distracted him. Letting the natural consequence of him being hungry means we end up with a miserable hungry boy who ends up not getting enough sleep. 🙁

  5. Perhaps you can set his plate for him and you can all sit to eat and let him know that he can come and join you when and if he is ready. I would assume as soon as the struggle is gone his appetite may return, it may take a few days or so though. Alternatively you can lay the table for everyone and if he doesn’t want to eat let him know that you will Keep his meal warm for him and when he is ready he can have it, it may be some hours later though. The most important thing is to refrain from calling him, enticing, or negotiating. don’t ignore him just ignore your desire for him to eat.
    Best of luck

  6. Roni, have you tried talking to your son and letting him know that being hungry is not a choice (this is a health limit, it’s ok as the parent to let him know, “it’s my job to keep you safe and healthy, AND not eating is not healthy) from there maybe consider a few different ideas and what suits your family for example menu planning once a week together, cooking together, grocery shopping together, letting him set the table and serve his own portions, having a basket of healthy snacks he can self-serve from. Have you considered talking with a health provider to exclude any health issues, maybe digestion is painful or something else is going on. You are right, the natural consequence of always being hungry in this case is probably not a good idea. best wishes to you as you sort this out!

  7. Any suggestion for diaper change struggles with a 2 year old? First thing in the morning he does NOT want me to change his diaper (and it’s most important then after going 10+ hrs). He often asks to pick a book to read or rock and NO to a diaper change. I’ve tried saying, after we change your diaper you can pick a book to read. I’ve even tried reading a book and rocking first, thinking a few more minutes in the diaper won’t hurt, and saying we’ll read a book now and we’ll change your diaper after. That sometimes works, but not usually. I’ve even tried saying, “mommy will sit over here until you’re ready to get out of bed and change your diaper.” (sometimes followed by “after we change, we can go downstairs to play, or you can pick a book to read”). This rarely works and has resulted in a hold out of at least another 10 min, even 30 to 60 min. Any ideas on other solutions to this recurring problem?

  8. oh, and picking a book to look at while changing his diaper doesn’t work either. 🙁

  9. We are having these quite a bit at present with my 2.5yo & I am generally struggling to stay calm and not react to everything he is doing. Our biggest struggles at the moment are him walking with me rather than running off & home generally following instructions. He doesn’t pay any attention to what I’m asking even if I am being inclusive of his thoughts & wishes. I’m honestly losing the will to keep trying & am facing pressure now from others that I should be more firm with him.

  10. I try and practice the don’t Say no unless it can’t be avoided.
    If my daughter asked for something I don’t want her to have because she may of had enough or it’s not the right time, then I always say “yes you can, but not right now” or you can have another one tomorrow. And she’s fine.
    I’ll try some of your other suggestions.

  11. Hi

    This is a power struggle…I have a 10 yr old daughter, 9, 5 and 3 year old boys. I am a single mum.

    My 9 yr old and i continually have power struggles where he never feels he should follow the rules. He would make suggestions to me to even change the rule with a supporting back-up argument or reason.

    He has always been strong willed, for exaple he one never coloured a picture of a glass because he would support that its milk.

  12. Hi! Diaper struggles can be quit frustrating, particularly because as parents we worry about things like hygiene and potential discomfort (rightlfully so) but children sometimes become possessive of their diapers and wish to control their diaper changes. This can be for various reasons, discomfort laying down, not wanting to feel cold, it’s boring and so on…how can you involve your 2 year old in the diaper changes? Most 2 year olds prefer to be in charge of their own bodies, diaper changes included. Can your 2 yr old open the diaper sides for you? Can he be in charge of putting in in the waste basket, handing you the new diaper? What would happen if you let go of this struggle, don’t even ask to change his diaper first thing, do something else totally different and not even mention it. Do read that book, cuddle for a bit and then kindly and firmly say something like “Can you pick out a clean diaper and bring it to the changing table?” If there is a NO! I would add “either you bring the clean one or I bring it” so you are creating a limited choice. hope that helps.

  13. Hi Alli,
    Are you feeling confident and calm about when and how to set limits? Do you worry that being firm will create tears and you want to avoid that? Sometimes, our limits make young children cry, because they have one plan and we need to limit that plan to fit within certain safety or social norms. Children are wired to explore, that’s their job – ours is to make it so they can explore in a safe way, which includes saying NO at times. For example, the running away: “Walk with me, which finger do you want to hold?” is specific and gives the child a limited choice. If you get a “no” or a running start – catch up and say “Either walk with me/ holding my hand or I will carry you, It’s my job to keep you safe” As far as following instructions at home – at 2.5yrs it’s very helpful to break your requests into small steps. Also 2.5 yr olds still need guidance and presence to complete most requests, it’s not that they are not capable, they are, but our presence is reassuring and they much rather work WITH us than alone. You might like this post on using play to deal with power struggles with little ones! http://positiveparentingconnection.net/playful-parenting-through-power-struggles/

  14. A wonderful way to overcome constant power struggles is to dedicate time to talking and defining rules together, as a family. Family meetings are an excellent way to do this because children are much more likely to follow rules they have helped create than to simply follow what has been set without their input. Also, getting children to feel involved and a part of the family is important, having jobs and a chance to share their thoughts. I think the 1st suggestion in the article about looking for solutions might be helpful to you, if you can pin point what your most common struggles are. this is a lovely post about family meetings that may help http://www.joyfulcourage.com/blog/2012/01/why-use-family-meetings.html thank you for sharing and please feel free to ask more questions.

  15. My 5 year old and I are in, what seems like, a constant power struggle. The two of us have quite strong personalities, and they are extremely similar in a sense, but also very different. I often find myself frustrated and sometimes even emotional about it. I find it difficult to find anything to make it so we can even compromise at times. I’ve tried numerous types of discipline but only find myself lost. By no means do I allow her to dictate how things will go, but the continuous arguments is getting tiring. Any advice?

  16. Hi Kyeleigh,

    Five year olds often are looking to have some control or decision making power, particularly because there is so little they can control… from meals to schedules, adults pretty much set the day and we expect our children to follow. It can be helpful try and step into your child’s shoes, how are they feelings, what does she need? Also can help to tell yourself that it’s not a battle or a race and to remember that when children are resisting they are trying to tell us something. When you sense a power struggle is going to start, pause, ask yourself what your goal is – if compliance is necessary for safety reasons, stay firm, if not, see how you can work together instead of against each other. Try using questions instead of commands “What do you have left to do?” works better then “how many time do I have to tell you to put on shoes” for example. What choices CAN your 5 year old make? Can she choose her clothing? Can she choose a meal once a week? Also, have you tried special time, where you spend 10 minutes or so together, and your daughter gets to choose what you do? This can help you to connect and work together, having fun which can naturally reinforce your relationship for those moments when you need cooperation.

  17. i have an almost 5 year old who knows the routine for bed. But when it’s bed time we get. “I’m not tired. I’ll go to bed when you go to bed. Why do I need to go to bed?” “If you take me to my bed I’ll just get up.”

  18. Often validating a child feelings in such a case is very helpful. “I hear you dont want to go to bed” as you walk to bed you can add “ok hop in to bed and tell me all the things you wish you could do if you stayed awake!” That extra moment of validation, connection and wish fulfillment can really help reset the mood. Not wanting to go to bed is often a request for more attention and love, so a focused, positive 5 minutes together, just listening can really help. Afterwards set a limit with kindness “now its time to sleep, and i look forward to seeing you in the morning! Plus this was nice, lets chat again tomorrow before bed ok!” That last moment of connection in the routine can make a huge difference to how children look forward to a mini one on one time with you. Hope that helps!!

  19. I am also a mother of three,( 3,5&7)and most of the conflict comes from not being able to meet everybody’s needs. It very rare that all three kids will want to do the same things or have the same agenda. I find all the examples really effective one on one or even two on one, but there is something about the dynamic of three that means when I use problem solving stance, we get nothing done because it is so time consuming. Do you have any tips on setting boundaries for multiple kids?

  20. Hi Gabby, as a fellow mama to 3, I totally hear you. Especially at 3,5 & 7 the dynamics of meeting all needs gets very difficult at times. I found that I had to get really, and I mean really comfortable with knowing that not everyone would get what they wanted, when they wanted. Basically, I would brace myself to listen to the protests and instead of taking it as a personal failure (or guilt) I would simply breathe and validate. “You really wanted us to play monopoly, and I am busy with a load of laundry and I promised your sister first. You feel last in line and that stinks. Did I get that right?” Sometimes I will also simply say “This isn’t what you want, I totally get that.” For me it boils down to remembering to be kind and clear at the same time. And being willing to accept their disappointment and frustration when they can’t have what they want or if I can’t meet their needs in that very moment. Family meetings and making agreements helps us heaps too. It helps everyone become more aware of what living as a family is all about. Also, deciding on what YOU can do and sticking to that decision (again with kindness) is a big game changer for the better as well. I hope that helps!

  21. Can you help me apply this to my 4 and a half year old? He is a lovely lovely boy but we are struggling with him taking any responsibility for self care and it’s really getting all of us down.
    He can wake up in a lovely mood but at that point that I ask him to get dressed, it’s met by stalling, and when we pick something to wear (often I do this- he refuses) I lay it out and he ends up throwing it across the floor and rolling around saying ‘I can’t, help me’ if I lay it out again and talk him through it, we do the whole cycle again. Ultimately I tend to ask him to let me know when he’s ready and walk away as I find it frustrating, or after trying to help a few times stop physically laying it out for him, and just talk him through sorting it out himself, which doesn’t seem to be doing a lot, but pointing out what he’ll miss out on and positive reinforcement don’t seem to do a lot either! Tooth brushing and putting shoes on have similar challenges and we’re now almost always late for preschool, even though I’m allowing more and more time to get through it all.

  22. Hi Natalie, have you tried problem solving with your son and inviting him to offer a solution he might like? For example, would he like a routine of getting dressed and then 10 minutes of play before leaving the house? Is there something going on in preschool that is keeping him from wanting to go? “I can’t” and “help me” are usually requests for more connection or a possible sign of discouragement…to turn things around it can really help to have a nice routine (with pictures or drawings to follow) plus something fun built in like a race, a game, play time… you may also want to consider if your requests and expectations are clear and kind at the same time. what do you think?

  23. Thank you… I have tried the choice of getting dressed and then play OR play and then get dressed, and he always goes for the latter and then drags his feet, hence why the play time is shrinking! I’ve not done this consistently recently though, so thank you, I’ll try again!
    Developmentally, it’s appropriate requests- he’s been getting pants and trousers on since before he was 3- I still do the tricky bits like socks for him.

    He loves preschool so I don’t think it’s a problem there.

    You may be right about seeking connection. I try to help this By staying, with him, give positive reinforcement and talking him through it (as far as my sanity allows!). I also try and give special time daily, plus we have ‘mommy mondays’ when we do something fun just the two of us. So again I’m struggling… I do this informally (aside from mommy Monday) though- so there’s no official start and end time- do you think that would help?

    It may also be insecurity/ need for connection due to the stress of the last year- we moved house 15 months ago, I’ve since had 3 miscarriages and am now pregnant again (though he doesn’t know it explicitly yet), hubby isn’t happy at work and my dad is just going through a cancer diagnosis. I’ve spent a lot of this year crying which must be scary for him.

  24. I’ll try the visual timetable type idea too… That did help previously when he was first settling at preschool!

  25. Hi my 4.5 year old has previously had trouble with stool withholding. She has been fine now for over a year until around 2 weeks ago after a virus and her sister being in hospital then her dad breaking his leg when she has begun to withhold again. She has now had a suppository and didn’t appear to be very constipated but refuses to go to the toilet despite me knowing she is desperate. We both end up shouting and screaming and I know it’s doing neither of us any good. Should I ignore the issue and keep up with a high fibre diet and mild laxative?? Is she just trying to be in control?? I really don’t want this to be an issue when she starts school in September.

  26. Hi Louise,
    Constipation can be painful and is at times related to anxiety. In this case given all that has happened at home and the shouting and screaming it’s very possible that your daughter is working out some fear/anxious feelings surrounding using the toilet. While I understand it can be very frustrating to watch your daughter hold it in and want to insist she just “go” because you see she needs to, it’s not helpful to create more tension around this. For the diet and laxative question I will encourage you to ask your pediatrician what they reccomend, but for the shouting and screaming I would encourage you to take a moment to see what you are willing to change about this interaction so you can work WITH your child to help her feel better. Using the toilet should be a calm and safe activity, and one that the child does when they feel ready. If parents try to take control away (i.e. insist when the child needs to go) the child will quite naturally try to get control back by refusing to go. So how can you give trust back to your daughter on this issue? Make things calmer? Perhaps sit in the bathroom and read a story together, sing a silly song (genuine belly laughs do wonders for digestion and bowl movements!!) Getting outdoors and moving helps a lot as well. Double check with your pediatrician on diet / excercise suggestions and as for this being a power struggle – try to stop the struggle by giving back the power to your daughter to go when she is ready and being willing to help her through the discomfort. hope that helps.

  27. Thanks. We have ignored the problem entirely and she has now been twice on her own and is really chuffed with herself. She needs to go twice more to go bowling which was her choice of activity. I think it’s probably a control thing as her personality is very controlling. She has however just soiled herself in bed which I am very surprised at. I have calmly cleaned her up and suggested that she goes to the toilet to which she refused so I have walked away.
    This all seems so frustrating as she has been sorted for over a year. Never did I think this would become an issue again.

  28. I too have a child that refuses to eat and has very poor sleep quality as a result. I love the idea of letting him help in the preparation of the meal as well as the self serve snack basket or shelf. I’m definitely going to try this to end the meal time power struggle. I also have a difficult time leaving the house or getting ready for school. It was suggested to me to set a timer and say something like when this timer buzzes it’s going to be time to go and help him understand how the timer works so he understands that It’s getting close to time to go. I’m hoping these suggestions work and trying to stay positive about finding the right solution for my child and our particular situation. Thanks for the ideas

Follow Us

Copyright Notice: It is not permitted to copy, re-blog or distribute contents without prior written permission from the Positive Parenting Connection.