5 Ways to Avoid a Power Struggle with Children

5 Ways to Avoid a Power Struggle with Children

The new school year is almost here and for some families that means children are excited about having a more structured routine, but for other families children can be resistant to the changes that come with going back to school. Adjusting to the new pressures of school can add a lot of stress for children, which may result in more defiance.

We’ve all been there, the climax of a power struggle with a child— we know we’re losing (we’re almost always losing), we wonder how we got there and how we can make this stop. Sometimes it starts small, maybe your six year old refuses to take a bath, an hour has gone by and you’ve threatened they can’t watch TV for a month, no toys for a week, they can’t date till they’re 21, and you swear someone has taken over your body because you just heard yourself say something like “BECAUSE” even though your rational self remembers from public speaking class or English 101 that argument has no legs to stand on. This scene probably ends with both you and your child going to your separate rooms, closing the door, and crying.  To help avoid escalating a situation into a power struggle with your child, here are 5 questions you can use to assess the situation before it spirals out of control.

1. Is your child safe?

As always, first assess, “Is this an issue of safety?” If the answer is anything close to “No, not really,” then let’s move on.

2. Is this arbitrary?

Once I worked for a company that had someone donate tickets to a pro basketball game for us take our middle grades clients that were attending a summer camp group. We got hooked up with a private suite. At one point a few of the boys stood up to watch the game and a couple of the adults with our group kept yelling “sit down” followed by threats that they wouldn’t be able to participate in future events. These 12 year olds were looking around, confused about why they were in trouble. I, too, was confused. I finally had to speak up and tell these adults they were being irrational. Why can’t these 12 year boys stand up at a basketball game of all places? There was no answer; it was just an arbitrary rule. Sometimes we make rules just to have control or because we have a preference on the way something is done but there isn’t actually negative consequence if these “rules” aren’t followed. If your child doesn’t finish all the broccoli on their plate, will they stop growing? Will children in other countries stop being hungry? No.

My favorite parenting technique to teach is natural consequences. Most often the best way to stop a power struggle before it starts and still have a consequence in place is to let the situation play out. It’s 40 degrees out but your child doesn’t want to wear his jacket to school today because he isn’t cold? You could spend 20 minutes of your morning arguing about the jacket, he can be late to school, you can be late to work, or you could let him be really cold for a day and chances are tomorrow he’ll want to take his jacket. There is also a chance he actually isn’t cold without his jacket and maybe his body responds to temperature differently than yours.

3. Is there an alternative?

I once witnessed a child be punished because an adult was eating dinner at the same time a child was banging keys on a piano. The adult asked the child to please stop because the sound was bothering him. This situation played out very theatrically with lots of crying and screaming. From the child’s point of view he wasn’t doing anything “wrong” and he doesn’t understand why his actions were not okay. In this situation I see 3 alternative solutions: the adult could pick up his plate and move somewhere where the sound was less annoying, the adult could have compromised with the child (also great social skills training) that the child take a break from playing on the piano during dinner time and may play again in 15 minutes, or the adult could have given the child an alternative activity to do with his hands that would still be entertaining but less quiet. Sometimes the real problem is we don’t want to take the 2 minutes to work out the problem so we yell and make threats that the behavior stop now, which consequently usually ends up taking more of our time.

4. Can this wait?

For this one I’m thinking of situations in which it is an important lesson for you to teach your child and you so desperately want them to “get it” in the moment, but maybe this should be a conversation for later. This can be situations like your child hits another child and you want them to apologize, but it escalates into something very theatrical and you can’t convince your 4 year old to act like an adult and apologize. Another example is grandma buys your child a very expensive gift and the child will not say thank you nor give grandma a hug. This could be a situation in which the rules aren’t arbitrary. However, in some cases when you are on the brink of a power struggle, it may be best for you to apologize to the person, remove the child from the environment, talk to the child about kindness, respect, personal space, etc. Sometimes even helping the child act out how to make a situation right can be helpful. “Sarah, when you see Charlotte tomorrow, what can you say to let her know you feel really bad about hitting her today?” “John, what can you say to grandma to let her know you appreciate the gift she gave you?”  These are important lessons but maybe the child needs to calm down first and then apologize at a later time. It will probably mean more to the other person when the child is feeling more sincere.

5. Am I reacting to this situation or something else?

As parents you carry a lot of stress. If only your kids could understand that you really need to make this deadline with no distractions because that’s how you keep your job that buys them all the things they need and want. Alas, the human brain doesn’t fully develop until the age of 25 so you’re in for a long ride. The times that can be the easiest to escalate a situation into a power struggle is when you are really stressed and tired. During these times you feel like the easiest thing to do is to bark orders and have your child obey them or else they are grounded from fun for the rest of their lives. Most often what ends up happening here is a power struggle that ends up taking much more of your time and energy than it would to stop and think through your options and come up with a better alterative. Ask yourself am I really that upset their bed isn’t made up or is it all those other stressors that you are unleashing in that moment?

These 5 questions could help you quickly assess if a situation is even a problem, if there is a way to keep things from getting out of control, and could save you from wasting time that could be spent reading an extra bedtime story.  However, there are some factors that when applied to these scenarios are not solved as easily. If you are repeatedly having an issue with power struggles in the home then be sure to follow up with a pediatrician or therapist.