Powering Through Power Struggles


By: Nina Malanay

Sooner or later in our parenting journey, we find ourselves engaged in a battle of wills with our child. It can happen while feeding your baby, or when your curious toddler insists on using his toy hammer to “fix” the TV screen. It can happen when your three-year old insists on wearing his favorite pajamas for the third night in a row, or when your 4-year old refuses to pack away his toys in time for dinner.

As parents, we need to make sure our children are safe, healthy and cared for. However, beginning at around age 2, children like to have more control over their lives and assert their growing sense of independence. Such attempts at autonomy can inevitably lead to power struggles especially when parents feel overwhelmed, overpowered and unable to get their child to behave according to what they want. Unfortunately, even well-intentioned attempts by parents to regain control over their child who is being willful backfire, resulting in an even more defiant, angry child.

Power struggles unravel when a child is determined to have his way, and the parent insists on hers. Both dig in their heels, both are determined to win; neither is willing to yield. It is an emotional tug-of-war over who is in charge, with the child pushing for independence to do something he may not yet be developmentally capable of doing, or the parent imposing control over something that would be better relegated to the child.

However, this constant push-and-pull between parent and child, though emotionally exhausting, can actually be a good thing because it is a sign that your child is growing, developing and thinking. Most parents want their kids to be independent-thinkers, to be able to take the initiative and not just blindly follow what everybody else tells them to. But if children are not given opportunities to voice out their needs and wants, they will not learn how to stand up for themselves later in life. The problem is when we, as parents, respond negatively to our child’s resistance and allow a power struggle to unfold.

The good news is that power struggles can be avoided. Here are 7 ways you can dissolve a brewing battle of wills between you and your child.

1. Change your mindset.

If you view your child’s defiant behavior as “bad”, you will inevitably feel the need to “fix” them and make them “good”. This type of thinking leads to a power struggle. Instead of viewing your child’s misbehavior as a deliberate act to annoy or disobey you, try to see it as a healthy, positive sign of their child’s normal development. Understand that as kids go through the stages of development, they will sometimes need to challenge their parents to assert their independence. This thinking will help parents better accept their strong, unyielding nature and be more mindful in teaching children that being self-reliant comes with responsibility and accountability.

2. Don’t engage.

The most effective way to stop a power struggle is to not take part in it in the first place. When you engage in an argument with your child, you are inadvertently giving them power over the situation, thus further reinforcing your child’s perception that they have the power over you. This only results in even more defiant behavior. Instead, calmly restate the boundary (or what you expect your child to do), and leave the room. The more you engage your child in an argument, the more you are encouraging future power struggles.

3. Connect before making a request.

Sometimes children are just really so engrossed in what they are doing that it’s easier for them to flat-out refuse to do what you are telling them to than it is to explain that they are in the middle of building the coolest race car tracks ever, or that their superhero action figures are on the verge of saving the entire human race from attacking aliens. So instead of barging into their world and telling them to do something that they are just not interested in doing at the moment, spend a few minutes connecting with them in their world. Acknowledge what they are doing at the moment, offer praise, and phrase your request as something that just needs to be done. For example, you can say, “That’s a really pretty picture you made; I love how you used colors to make it realistic. How about adding the last few touches on your artwork and then go take a bath?” Letting your child feel that they are seen and heard, and that you care about their interests makes them more willing to accept interruptions and comply with your requests.

4. Offer choices.

Parents need to let children learn to engage in age-appropriate decision-making. Not only does it build their self-esteem, it also gives both parent and child a sense of control, which is key to side-stepping power struggles. When giving choices, however, parents should make sure that the choices you offer to your child are acceptable to you; do not offer a choice that you cannot follow through. Creating decision-making opportunities for your child such as what to wear, what to eat, or what to play with will make them more willing to comply when there is no choice but for them to do what you need them to do.

5. Empower your child.

It is human nature to seek power; some are even willing to go to extremes just to satisfy their hunger for power and control. It’s the same with our kids. If they feel powerless, they will do what it takes to regain power and control – like standing their ground and engaging in power struggles. When a battle of wills between you and your child ensue, try to step back and ask yourself how you can help your child feel powerful, without compromising your standards and limits. It can be as simple as asking for his help or giving him a job that he can be in charge of. For instance, if your child refuses to wear her seatbelt, make it her job to remind everyone to wear their seatbelts.

6. Brainstorm for win-win solutions.

Power struggles usually feel like someone has to win and someone has to lose. To diffuse power struggles, both parent and child should come up with a win-win situation where both are happy with the outcome. Reaching a win-win situation takes negotiation and diplomacy, which may not always be easy when you are dealing with a child who is developmentally hardwired to be self-centered. The key is to listen intently to what your child wants without compromising your standards and boundaries. Brainstorm solutions to the struggle and try to come up with an agreement that will be acceptable to the both of you. When children see that you are just as interested in seeing them win as yourself, they will be more than willing to help figure out ways that you both can win.

7. Don’t take their “No” personally.

Most parents are of the belief that children should not question authority – parents, most especially. Thus, when children say no or vehemently refuse to do what they are asked, parents can’t help but take offense and think that they are raising brats. However, if we will think about it, learning to say no is a skill that will help children later on in life. After all, no parent would want their child to grow up unable to stand up against peer pressure or do something out of blind obedience. Instead, teach your child to say communicate their disagreement in a respectful way.

Everyone wants to be powerful – even kids. The more we give them appropriate ways to feel powerful and in control, the less power struggles we will have with them. After all, the goal of most parents is to raise children who are self-reliant, confident and are able to advocate for themselves. This will only be possible if you allow your child to practice being powerful in constructive and appropriate ways.

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Nina Malanay is a mother to two rambunctious, affectionate boys, aged 7 and 4. Her husband-slash-best friend died in a tragic bombing incident in 2013. As she tries to navigate through life with her boys as a solo parent, she hopes to rediscover herself beyond the many hats she wears – mother, teacher, writer, baking enthusiast, student of life – and move boldly into her future.


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