How To Avoid A Power Struggle

Power struggles.  We’ve all been there – the dreaded no.  Toddlers are famous for it.  Preschoolers like to try out the “I Hate You!”  Middle Schoolers might threaten to run away, or tell you that Suzie’s mom is way better than you are.  And teenagers will just walk out the door.  But how do we avoid a power struggle?

They all do it.

Kids at every age will continuously question your authority and test their independence.

It is absolutely normal and something that we want our kids to be doing.  It is how they grow and develop in to an adult.

But as the child tries to pull away and the parents try to maintain control, the process can be anything but smooth.  The screaming, fighting and tantrums that may follow can be exhausting and hurtful for all parties involved.

How can you avoid a power struggle and still help your child develop his or her independence?


1.       Limit the use of negative words.  “No”, “you can’t”, “stop” and “don’t”, for example.  Any time your child hears that he can’t, he is going to want to.  Instead, put a positive spin on whatever you are saying.  If you want to say “stop hitting”, try saying “Keep your hands to yourself”.  If you want to say “You cannot go out tonight” use “Tonight won’t work, can we plan for Tuesday instead?”

2.       Give choices.  If your daughter feels she has an option, then she will be less likely to fight.  Make sure it is an option you can live with.  For example, it’s bed time.  Your daughter doesn’t want to go to bed. But it is bed time, and that is your end goal.  Instead of telling her that it is bed time, tell her it is time to get ready for bed.  Then give her choices.  Does she want to have a snack and then read stories, or read stories and then have a snack?  Maybe it’s time to leave the house.  You are in a hurry and your daughter refuses to go. The end result is you are leaving.  Does she want to take a blanket with or a stuffed animal?  Does she want to wear her flip flops or her tennis shoes?

3.       Be careful with your tone.  Talk softly and clearly and always calmly.  People immediately feel threatened when you raise your voice or put a hard edge in it.  You may think it has more authority (and it does) but with someone that challenges authority, you want to avoid anything that might get them up in arms, including your authoritative voice.

4.       Check your stance.  Are you facing your child straight on?  Try angling the way you are standing, so that your hip is facing her, or the side of you.  If you stand at an angle instead of straight on, you are perceived as less-threatening.

5.       Do not maintain constant eye contact.  Constant eye contact can be perceived as intimidating and may get someone defensive.  Glance away occasionally while you are talking.

6.       Be conscious of where you put your hands.  Are they on your hips?  Hidden behind your back?  Keep them loosely at your side and in sight.  Don’t ball them up or wring them together.  These gestures can be seen as threatening.

7.       Put yourself at or below your child’s eye level.  If you are talking to a small child, don’t tower over him.  Get down to his level.  This gives him a sense of power and then he doesn’t feel the need to assert himself as much.

8.       Paraphrase everything back to your child.   This way he knows that you heard and understand.  “I am sure it can be incredibly frustrating to be the only guy not able to go to the party.” Or “I’m hearing you say that you feel worthless when you show up in the rusted, old pick up”.  Or “I know it is hard to see your brother having so much fun with your toy truck.”

9.       Tell them what they are doing well.  Are they sharing well, even though they don’t want to?  Have they always come home on time?  Do they share their concerns with you?  Find something that they do well – related to the topic at hand – and let them know.

10.   Let them mess up once in a while.  We want our children to be perfect, and we want to shield them from all hurts.  But nobody is perfect, and everyone gets hurt at some point.  We can’t protect and shelter them forever.  So we want them to make mistakes while we are around to help them through those mistakes.  Better now, with mom and dad, than when they are on their own.  You may know it is a bad move on their part, but if it isn’t going to harm them terribly, let them make that mistake.  Lessons are better learned through experience than through lectures.

11.   Choose your battles.  If it is a battle that doesn’t mean as much to you, let them win.  Winning will empower them – it will boost their confidence and improve their decision-making process.  If they discover that it is a poor decision, winning will also show them that mom and dad do know what they are talking about after all.  The child will have to face the natural consequences of that decision.  Resist the urge to swoop in to save them right away.

12.   Prevention is key.  If you know your child is going to struggle with the situation and fight your authority, set the situation up in a way to avoid the struggle in the first place.  Prepare him.  Will he resist leaving?  Give him ten, five, three and one minute warnings.

13.   Give your child a time out.  If he challenges your authority and will not back down, there needs to be consequences for his behavior.  Utilize time out.  If he won’t sit in time out, don’t physically force him to.  Try sending him to his room instead.  If he refuses to stay in his room for the allotted duration, then leave him.  Rather than removing your child from the situation, try removing yourself and the rest of the family from the area.  Leave your child there to calm down on his own.  If he allows you to, work through it with him, but have everyone else leave the area.

14.   Give authority to the rules.  Point out the rules in your family often.  If your child is breaking the rule, put the focus on the rule being broken rather than on his behavior or your disappointment.  It’s hard to get in to a power struggle with mom when mom would really love to let you have cake before dinner…..but a rule is a rule and there is nothing mom can do about it.  To make this work, however, you need to be sure that you consistently enforce the rules.  You can’t allow cake today and not tomorrow.  Your child will pick up on the fact that rules can be broken and challenge you.

15.   Involve your children in finding a solution.  This works especially well for kids with good reasoning skills.  Ask them what they think a good solution to the problem is.  Hear them out.  If it isn’t something that would work, share your concerns with them and ask them “How can we make it work for both of us?” You may be surprised with what they come up with!

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