The do’s and don’ts of ending power struggles

By | September 4, 2012 | Motherhood & Family

The do’s and don’ts of ending power struggles

When my daughter Molly was five, I was exhausted. I couldn’t see a way out of our daily power struggles. She was pushing all my buttons and I was reacting with hostility. But it was the mental notes playing in my head that got me the most. I was worried we would always fight. Fortunately, I was wrong.

One morning, the same whiny, angry face with its protruding bottom lip approached, but something was different. Every other morning when I saw this face, I thought to myself, “She’s out to get me.” This particular morning I thought, “Wait a minute, she’s not out to get me. She’s miserable.” Suddenly I saw her differently. Instead of a resistant, defiant (OK, I’ll say it) brat, I saw a very upset little girl who didn’t want to separate from me. I was battling her and she was anticipating the battle. It was all she could do to get me to understand her, and I wasn’t cooperating.

My shift in perception – that she wasn’t being a problem, she was having a problem – changed our relationship. Yes, forever. My emotions switched from anger to compassion. Once I got there, I didn’t have to fight her anymore.

A power struggle is a fight to the finish when you and your child are both out to win. If you win, your child must lose. It’s your fear that fuels your need to win. Your child becomes defiant, and you’re afraid you’re a terrible parent and your child will become a terrible person. When that power struggle begins, you do have a choice even though you feel trapped. You can fight back or not. There is no power struggle if you choose not to engage. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

Let’s start with the don’ts:

  • Don’t try to reason with an upset child. Rational thought is impossible when the system is stressed.
  • Don’t resist in response to resistance.
  • Don’t punish, threaten or coerce.
  • Don’t give in or try to fix it. If you feel responsible for your child’s feelings, you will try to make him happy (which is not within your power), you will inevitably lose, and then you’ll feel like a failure.
  • Don’t take it personally. It’s not about you. Your child is expressing upset in the only way he knows how right now.
  • Don’t ask questions.
  • Don’t worry. Easier said than done, but this too will pass and soon you won’t remember what it was about.

Here’s what you can do instead:

  • Detach. This is your child’s problem, not yours (until you make it yours).
  • Observe and listen. Allow your child’s feelings to come out until they dissipate.
  • Maintain a “holding” attitude. See the hurt she is feeling and empathize.
  • Do hold her as soon as she will let you.
  • Acknowledge her feelings and intention. “You really don’t want to go to school today. I bet you wish you could stay home and play with me.”
  • Give in fantasy what she can’t have in reality. “Wouldn’t it be fun if you had a magic wand. What would be the first thing you would change?”
  • Find a way to honor desires. “How do you think you could make that happen?”
  • Offer a choice. “Do you want to put your clothes on or would you like me to help you today?”
  • Be an intentional parent. Plan, anticipate, give warnings, set predictable expectations and be firm and clear with limits.

When your child feels accepted for his desires, he is more likely to cooperate when he can’t have what he wants. His resistance is merely telling you that he doesn’t like being pushed around. Some children are more sensitive to that than others. Don’t try to change him but do let him know that you understand even when he has to do it your way.

Spread the word!

Bonnie Harris

Bonnie Harris, MS Ed, is the director of Connective Parenting, dedicated to guiding parents in the discovery of why both they and their children behave and respond the way they do. She is the author of When Your Kids Push Your Buttons and Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With. Bonnie teaches parent workshops and professional trainings internationally and offers private parent counseling through phone or skype. She is the mother of two grown children and lives in New Hampshire. For more information visit

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