How to Avoid those Dreaded Power Struggles

We've all been there. The dreaded power struggle. Here's how to avoid the land of "Because I said so."

By Alma Villarreal, Parent Educator | Feb 12, 2016
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This post is part of our “I’m Stumped: Our Answers to Your Common
Parenting Dilemmas” series. For all of the posts in this series, click here.

We’ve all fallen victim to the dreaded power struggle. It starts out innocently enough. You’ll say something like, “Okay time to pick up your toys!” and your child will say back, “I don’t want to.” You know there’s probably a better reply but you can’t think of it, so you just say, “Well you have to.” Then of course your kid says, “Why? I’m playing! I don’t want to!” And you retort with, “Because it’s time to pick up your toys! Do it now!” And of course from there it just spirals. Back and forth with “No!” and “Do what I asked you to do!” and so on and so on. It never really ends well, does it?

Before I go on further about power struggles, let’s define it. Once we have a definition for it, we’re able to really see it for what it is. A power struggle is simply two people fighting for control. That’s it. It sounds silly when you say it out like that, though, right? Why should we have to fight for control with a child? But we have all been there, and we’ll probably all find ourselves there again sometime soon.

So, what do we do? The best antidote to a power struggle is a clearly defined set of rules and consequences. This is really important because you never know when something is going to creep up and catch you off guard. You may be having a perfectly lovely day when all of a sudden, you sense a power struggle coming. Or you might be having a frustrating day where nothing is going right, and you can’t think clearly. In either case, having a default set of rules and consequences is very important so you don’t make impulsive decisions.

A lot of power struggles come up in predictable settings, such as every single night when your child is supposed to unload the dishwasher, or do his homework, or get his pajamas on. Clear rules and consequences are really helpful in these situations, because your child will come to learn that there’s no point in fighting it. If he chooses not to unload the dishwasher, he doesn’t get dessert that night, or if he doesn’t put his pajamas on, he loses one of his bedtime stories. Of course, you have to keep in mind the appropriateness of what you’re asking a child to do – if something is a struggle every single night, and even with clear consequences your child really isn’t able to accomplish the task, it might be too much to ask of him. Try breaking it down into smaller steps to see if that alleviates some of the struggle. For example, a two year old can likely not clean up his whole bedroom, but he can probably pick up all of the cars and put them in their basket.

In addition to setting predictable rules and consequences, you can also acknowledge your child’s feelings. If he throws a little tantrum when you ask him to unload the dishwasher, instead of saying, “I don’t want to hear it. Unload the dishwasher!” you might try, “I know, unloading the dishwasher is not the most fun job in the world. But it’s important and it doesn’t take too long, and as soon as you’re done, you can play!” It’s not any more work for you, and your child hears your compassion and feels understood in his frustrations.

Be mindful of your need for control. It can be so tempting to micromanage the way your child finishes a task. Let’s say you ask your son to clean his room and you see that he keeps getting distracted. You can set a timer and say, “I would like you to have all of your toys put away in five minutes. If you don’t finish, we won’t get to have our dessert tonight. Here’s the timer to let you know how much time you have left.” You can stay in the room, but don’t redirect him every time he picks up a toy and starts to play with it. Just allow the five minutes to pass and see what happens. He already knows what to expect – clean the room and get dessert, don’t clean the room and don’t get dessert. It might be hard to give up control in this situation and watch him play instead of clean. But the need for control is what starts a power struggle, and we already know we want to avoid that.

We make a lot of choices for our kids. But when they grow up, we want them to be independent. So I encourage you to start letting your child make some choices for himself. I’m not saying you should let him choose ice cream over broccoli at dinner, but I would suggest allowing him to choose whether he wants to do the dishes before or after he reads a book, or whether he wants to get dressed before or after he brushes his teeth. Freeing ourselves from the role of dictating every move our child should make can relieve us of power struggles.

I hope this advice is helpful next time you find yourself spiraling into the land of, “Because I told you so!” We already know that nothing good comes from fighting with a child for power.