eliminate power struggles

how to establish healthy cycles of power

Children learn early on how to manipulate others to get what they want. They may not be able to reason it out logically or cognitively, but they seem to learn quickly that certain behaviors will get certain results. Because parents naturally have the power in the relationship, when that balance is challenged it becomes a “struggle” for power. Our children want it, and as parents, we want to retain it. The thing is, power struggles are not a childhood behavior problem, power struggles are a relational cycle.

before the struggle begins

Teach During the Good Times: Read books together, role play, or reenact an actual past incident when you are not in the middle of resistance or a conflict. Try to problem solve together with non-threatening language like, “I’ve noticed we’ve had some issues with what you’d like to wear to school, what are some things you think we could do to make that go smoother?”

Don’t Engage / Set Personal Boundaries: We can prevent most power struggles just by being aware of our urges to control everything in our children’s lives and when they pop up, just don’t engage. If your daughter wants to wear fairy wings to school on “picture day” and you think it’s ridiculous, that’s OK. You don’t have to constantly bark orders or meet her every request with, “No you can’t!” Pick your boundaries! Boundaries are simple statements of what you will and will not do, or what you will allow them to do to you. Consider saying, “I’m sorry, I’m not willing to argue about this. I love you.” Be firm and state it only once. It takes the wind right out of their sails when there’s no one to argue with.

Choices: Whenever possible offer you children “either / or” choices so they feel like they are sharing the power. “Would you like to wear your red shirt today or your blue one?” Both choices should be options that you are completely happy with.

During the Conflict (When Your Child Challenges Boundaries or Behaviors)

Respond Firmly but with Empathy & Respect: It’s always a good idea to respond with respect & kindness. Even when your child continues to challenge something you have set a firm boundary on, you can be sympathetic to their desires or point of view and still stand firm. For instance:

Child: “But Mom, I’ll be back from Joanie’s before dinner. Why can’t I just go?”

Parent: “I know you really want to go. You and Joanie always have so much fun together. But, I’m sorry, that’s not going to happen tonight. Let’s call Joanie’s Mom later and see if we can work something out for Friday night.”

Child: “But Mooooom!!”

Parent: “I Love you!”

Redirect: The “But Moooom!!” could turn into endless whining or a list of all the reasons why you should relent and give in. This is a great time to distract your child with, “How would you like to help me make dinner, or go play Legos?” You might even offer to join him in an alternate activity.

after the struggle for power has calmed down

Reengage in Positive Ways: In the aftermath of a power struggle “incident” the first tendency when someone has tried to pull you into a power struggle is to either push back or withdraw. However, we only reinforce negative power cycles when we continue to sulk or withdraw and fail to reconnect. Showing an increase in love, which is the most beneficial thing in breaking down barriers and promoting a healthy sharing of power, is often the most difficult thing to initiate. After your child has disengaged from the struggle or you have successfully redirected them, do all you can to find ways to reconnect. Play with them, bake cookies, or just hug them and let them know how much they are loved. This routine practiced in the early years sets the stage for less dramatic / more peaceful resolutions as they reach the teen years.

It Could Play Out Differently……better……next time

Let’s go back to the fairy wings incident, you may have been able to prevent a struggle simply by choosing not to engage in the first place. Your daughter’s wings may have been met with snickers from her classmates, her teacher may have asked her to remove them, or the photographer may have convinced her that the wings didn’t match the background. Natural consequences would have come into play without any input from you, and ultimately your daughter would have gained some insightful experience (And bonus, you’re not the bad guy!)

Most power struggles can be averted if we consistently apply these 3 steps before, during, and after a struggle. Remember, it’s a relational cycle. Your children will notice you are willing to share a little more of the power than you did before. In turn, your children will learn to wield power more responsibly and the parent / child bond will become stronger. Next time your child tries to pull you into a power struggle, stop trying to win the argument and instead seek to listen, solve problems, and grow. It’s a “Win Win” situation!