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Eliminating Power Struggles

It’s Okay to Say “NO”

Often, adults have the attitude that children should not say “no” or question authority. However, it’s best to hear a child’s “no” as a way of disagreeing. We want children to say “no” when faced with peer pressure and inappropriate situations. The tricky part is meeting in the middle and teaching children how to disagree respectfully, and, as a mom, it’s even harder to look into your own parenting habits. Kid’s listen! Pull the plug on power struggles once and for all and realize that your own disposition, personality style, and discipline strategies may be actually intensifying it.

•    Reaffirm: I understand you don’t like what I asked you to do.
•    Relate: I don’t like doing (fill in the blank) either.
•    Give the reason why: This needs to be done because…
•    Choice: Would you like to do it this way or this way? Or this time or this time?
•    Praise: It must have felt awesome to…
•    Avoid the Fight

A key skill adults can use when confronted with a child who wants to drag them into a fight is avoidance. Think of it this way: when you engage in an argument with a child, you are just giving them more power. In effect, you are increasing your child’s perception that they have the power to challenge you.

The first step in effectively and positively dealing with power struggles is to step aside during the struggle. Refuse to pick up the other end of the rope. If it’s nap time, don’t give yourself a second to feel challenged by the child resisting. Simply ask the child, “Do you want to walk to your bed, or do you want me to carry you? I want to carry you upside down as we go.”

The example above created an ending that was happy, nurturing, and silly, rather than initiating an argument. Stepping aside sends the message that you aren’t going to fight with them, but you are not going to give in either.

Let Go of the Control

Power struggles often ignite when a child is given orders. A child that avoids their homework does so because it’s not fun, they’re tired, they have another activity that is more engaging, or it’s too hard. Give the child a chance to pick when they do their homework, where they do their homework, and how much they will focus on it at a time. Giving choices to the child allows them to have some power in the situation.

When giving children choices, adults must be absolutely sure that all are acceptable.

It’s best not to give a child a choice that you more than likely won’t follow through on, or a choice that isn’t related to the task. It’s easier to say things like, “If you don’t do this, we will not go to the party tomorrow.” That is unrealistic, the two are unrelated, and most importantly, you will show them you are making empty threats, unless you truly aren’t going to that party tomorrow.

Give choices that aren’t so autocratic and narrow that the child senses no freedom at all. A narrow choice prevents children from having any control, which will continue the struggle. Eliminating threats is difficult, especially when the adult is frustrated, but it teaches children to be fearful, intimidated, and escalates situations further than they need to go. Choices should never represent punishment as one of the alternatives.

Don’t Do: You may either pick up your toys or take a time-out.

Do: Would you like to pick up your toys before dinner or after? Would you like to pick up your toys by yourself or have me help you?

How Can You Give More Power?

Whenever you find yourself in the middle of a power struggle, ask yourself, “How can I give my child more power in this situation?” If it is a routine-based struggle, be consistent so they know what is expected and why it’s important. Find ways in that routine to give them power.

Every adult that interacts with children can think of a time that the child responded, “I can do it! I want to do it!” Stop and think about why it’s so important that you continue to do it. It’s the missing link. If the answer is that it’s faster, then that is easy: stop.

As you think through your day as an adult, think of all the decisions you make for yourself that you take for granted. You get to choose what you eat, where, when you shower, what you watch on tv, what you wear, etc. Some of the hardest times of day for a child is not having any authority in the little decisions. Simple shifts in the day, like incorporating more choices for the child, will reduce meltdowns. Allow your child to choose what color of plate they would like to use, their own clothes the night before, or if they want a shower or a bath before bed. It seems silly, but children will see authority in these choices, and if all else fails, you can tell them they made the choice if they continue to be upset.

Children who are overpowered, or who feel powerless, will often seek to gain power through revenge. They will seek to hurt others as they feel hurt and will often engage in behavior that ultimately hurts themselves. Revenge at the age of two or three looks like talking back, coloring on the wall, or messy food spills. Revenge at age 16 or 17 looks like skipping school, sneaking out, or even worse: alcohol or drug abuse. When children act out in a power struggle, they are most often feeling powerless. They know their actions count.

Most adults’ goal is to raise or teach a child who is self-reliant and can make good decisions with confidence. A child will grow to have strong social and emotional competencies when allowed to practice their power in useful and appropriate ways in their early years.