Who’s Really In Control? Effectively Handling the Power Struggle

Children are uncooperative at times, especially during the toddler years and early adolescence. As they struggle to prove their independence and separate from their parents, their behaviors may often resemble defiance. When parents feel challenged by their child’s resistance, a “battle of wills” may erupt. Parents often react by attempting to overpower their children. The disempowered child may respond to these feelings with either a “fight” (power struggle, tantrum, or revenge), or “flight” (withdrawing and giving up) response.  Here are some tips for how parents can avoid the power struggle:

Listen carefully: When you realize your child is getting upset, stop talking and listen. Try to understand what your child is saying and what she means (e.g. “It sounds like you are upset because…”). Talk in private: You don’t want to be embarrassed in front of friends so avoid disciplining your child in front of theirs. Confrontation in front of their peers creates a lose-lose atmosphere where “saving face” becomes the primary goal. Use manners: Saying “please” and “thank you” demonstrates the way you want them to speak to you.  Give limited choices: Be sure that all choices are acceptable. For example, “Do you want to do your homework before or after dinner?” Don’t give your child an option that you don’t want them to choose, (“Are you ready to go to bed now?”). Give warnings: Give children a 5 or 10 minute heads-up that they need to finish what they’re doing so they can do what you need them to do.  Avoid lectures: Use ten words or less; they aren’t hearing the rest so don’t waste your breath.  Use teamwork: A preschooler might feel overwhelmed by being asked to clean up a messy room independently. Say, “Let’s do this together” and offer encouragement or sing songs while working to make chores more enjoyable.

At times, despite your efforts to empower your child and prevent a standoff, you will still meet resistance. When you find yourself in this position, follow these steps: 1. Set limits and clarify consequences: Be calm, clear and consistent. State what the consequence will be if the child doesn’t comply within a stated time (usually 5-15 minutes, depending on the child’s age and the situation). 2. Disengage: Physically walk away and give your child time to comply. This allows time for both the adult and the child to calm down. Realize that an upset child is not a good listener. When kids are resistant, too often parents move in closer, increasing the volume and intensity of their demands. The child matches that intensity by increasing his resistance. By stepping back, you allow the child to save face and choose to cooperate. 3. Let it go: Follow through with a consequence if necessary, then move on and start fresh.

Remember, you don’t have to attend all arguments that you are invited to. There is no power struggle if one party refuses to pick up the other end of the rope.

Jodi Maspaitella, has a Masters in counseling and has been working with children and families in private and non-profit agencies since 1993. She has facilitated numerous workshops and works as an in-home parent coach combining her love of teaching with her love of children. Jodi is a foster and adoptive parent and has had the opportunity to parent children of all ages, from infants through young adults. Call (707) 557-1423 or visit www.familieshelp.net for more info.