“Put that toy truck away. And walk it there, don’t push it. Stop pushing it. I want you to walk it there right now. Do you want a consequence? I told you to WALK IT. Look at me right now. You’re not looking at me. That’s it, you get a consequence, time out. Come here and sit down. Come here!”
Power struggles are frustrating, and when they happen in public they can be embarrassing as well.
I've seen a number of families that through either temperament or training (and by training I mean our own upbringings) find themselves in power struggles with their kids more often than they’d like.
In the moment the power struggle can feel like it’s about respecting the parent, or holding onto authority, or even about an underlying fear that if your child doesn’t do what you say now, what will you do when they’re older?
Often parents come to me when they’re already exasperated, asking “How do I get her to listen?” The problem seems like it’s located in the child, with their stubbornness, with their defiance.
Yet with a bit of exploration I usually find that question shifts, evolving into something that shows the pain of each participant in the struggle. After some conversation parents begin asking, “How do I get us out of this? None of us like what’s happening, but what do I do to change it?”
I see that shift as an opening, as a first step on the path out of the power struggles.
It's a Two-Person Situation
When the problem is solely located in the child the power struggle is still alive and active. We’re locked in a situation where the other person has to do something – something that we’re telling them to do but that they don’t want to do – in order for the struggle to end.
When we find ourselves in these situations it puts both people in a bad position: each party feels like they’ll lose if they don’t keep up their side of the fight. But when we begin to see each of us as contributing to the battle of wills we not only have an incentive to try something different, but we can feel more flexibility in how we respond.
In my work with parents, I often have us think together about what’s going on for them in these situations. I might explore:
- What is your goal in these moments?
- What keeps you pushing on your end of the fight?
- Are there certain issues that bring up power struggles?
- Where did you learn the strategy you’re currently using?
- How do you understand your child’s behavior?
Exploring these questions helps us understand what’s happening behind the scenes of these difficult moments. Sometimes all it takes is a shift in a parent’s perception to find new ways of responding to power struggles.
Some parents also come to me hoping for simple, straightforward ideas on how to do things differently. Here are four techniques that work for many families to find a path out of power struggles.
The Power of We
A telltale sign of a power struggle is the Me vs You nature of it. “You need to put that away.” “I told you to stop doing that.”
Introducing “We” and “Us” into the situation makes the problem a joint one, up to both participants to solve together. You may each have a different role to play –as a parent your job might be to supervise while theirs is to act – but using a “We” communicates that it takes both of you for success.
It can start out feeling like semantics, but it’s also a reality. You and your child are a team. See what happens if you start talking that way.
- “Come on, we’ve got to finish cleaning up so we can leave.”
- “I know you don’t want to stop playing basketball, but we need to stop so we can have dinner.”
- “Ooops, you’re running. Let’s walk together until we get to the door.”
- “You know we can’t hit each other and we can’t break things, so let’s put that down.”
Choices – You Give the Options, They Choose
So much tension and struggle with kids comes from their desire to feel like they have agency over their lives. During a power struggle kids are often locked into a behavior because they’re trying to maintain some sense of control.
Giving them simple, clear choices during a power struggle can give them the chance to feel in charge of what happens. It also helps you sidestep the struggle; you’ve given them 2-3 options, and now it’s their challenge to pick what they think is best.
You retain your authority because you pick the options; they retain control because they pick what happens.
- “Alright, we’re done arguing. Here are your choices: you either get to take your plate to the sink or you get to go to bed right now.”
- “I know you want to play on your device, but that’s not an option right now. Your options are either to put it down and put on your shoes in the next minute, or you can lose the device for a week. It’s up to you, and I just started the timer.”
Children will often fight this. That’s okay. Simply repeat their choices until they make one.
- “I want Taco Bell for lunch!” “I’m making your lunch, so you can have a PB&J or quesadilla.” “I don’t want that, I want a burger.” “That’s not a choice. You can have PB&J or a quesadilla.” “Fine, I want a pepperoni sandwich.” “If we hadn’t been fighting all morning I might feel like making that, but now your choices are PB&J or quesadilla, and if you can’t make the decision I’ll make it for you.”
Reflecting Both Sides
Many kids feel like adults don’t listen to them and power struggles highlight that. They’re trying to do what they want, and you aren’t letting them.
Sometimes simply letting a kid know that you see, hear, and understand what’s going on for them can ease the tension enough to end the struggle. When you combine a recognition of their desires with a statement of your own goals it can be a clear message that you are paying attention to their wants even if you aren't able to go along with them.
- “I know you’ve really enjoyed playing with your friend and you don’t want to stop, but it’s time for us to go now.”
- “I can see how frustrating your homework is, but we still need you to finish that last page before class.”
- “It’s making you mad that I’m holding you, but I can’t let go until you stop trying to hit.”
Stating Your Own Feelings
Sometimes a child needs to know she’s having an impact on you. For some kids, simply stating your feelings in the moment can grab their attention in a way that all the reflections and choices in the world can’t.
While it may not always be conscious on their part, some children also need to know (and even feel relieved to know) that what they’ve been doing has made you upset.
The goal of stating your own feelings isn’t to invoke shame or guilt to get a behavior to stop; it’s just to let them know that you’re picking up what they’re trying to make you feel.
Some parents are uncomfortable sharing these difficult feelings with their children, but consider this: if you can’t share your feelings with your child in a calm, contained way, how can they learn to share their difficult feelings with you?
- “You know what? I’m feeling really frustrated with how this is going right now. We need to stop this.”
- "I feel nervous that you’re going to fall out of the chair or something will break when you do that, that’s why I’d like you to stop.”
- “I’m starting to feel angry. I’m worried about showing up late. That’s why we need to go now.”
These are just four techniques out of the many that exist to help reduce power struggles in your family. Each parent will need to find what works for them. Sometimes the needed change is not even in what we say, but how we think about what’s going on.
I’m happy to meet with parents to begin untangling what happens in these difficult situations and to start uncovering the paths out of power struggles that are right for you and your family.