Lately, I’ve noticed that my four-year-old just can’t let things go. We will be having a conversation or debate about something, and she has to have the last word. “Come on, please, I need you to make good choices and go into the shower the first time I asked.” My little person has a bit of a fit and mutters, “Well, how come you don’t have to take a shower!?” This can turn into a tit-for-tat kind of conversation where we each try to convince the other person to take our side. Soon, the conversation becomes a power struggle. I know I’m not alone in experiencing this kind of interaction with my child.
Why Kids Engage in Power Struggles
First, power struggles are pretty normal but not necessarily a pleasant parenting experience. It’s also not just young children doing this. Power struggles can exist right through adolescence and even early adulthood. Power struggles often occur because children and young people do not feel very powerful. Our children see us as adults who have power, or at least that is the perception. Grown-ups also have to follow the rules and boundaries, but children don’t see that. They see us as the “makers” of rules, and they see us as being self-reliant and making our own choices.
Everybody wants to feel in control of themselves and their lives. This need for power is not just something children strive for. Each and every one of us wants to feel a sense of autonomy and independence. Wanting power isn’t a bad thing. The problem is when children engage in challenging behaviors to “fight” for it.
Childhood Power Struggles Are Relatively New
The idea of power struggles as part of the parenting landscape is relatively new. In previous generations, children (and their thoughts/opinions/values) were held very differently. Power struggles did not exist in those days because children did not have any say or discourse. They were not even invited to the debate. They were expected to follow with obedience. The cultural norm was for children to be seen and not heard.
In recent decades research into parenting and the treatment of children has led us to a much more child-centered way of rearing children. This type of parenting very much focuses on the child’s developmental needs and respect for the child as a unique individual. Children are given opportunities to develop a sense of agency.1 This kind of parenting and framing of children changes how we talk to children and the types of behaviors we expect and cultivate.2
Strategies for Handling Power Struggles
1. Offer Choices.
Give them a sense of power and control by giving choices (where safe and appropriate). If children need to feel in control, then it makes sense to provide them with opportunities in their world to be in charge of some decisions. Do this within your comfort zone, and set up a situation so that your child feels in control.
One of the ways I do this is by curating my child’s wardrobe. I keep it relatively empty and ensure that only weather-appropriate clothes (or event-specific clothes) are accessible. Then I can happily allow her to choose whichever clothes she wants to wear, knowing that the choices will be appropriate. But for her, this is a huge win in terms of gaining a sense of independence. She has gotten to make the choices for her body and align with her mood and preferences for the day. So she feels confident and in control of her world. We both win!
Depending on your family’s unique rules and boundaries, you might extend opportunities for your child to help choose the recipe for that night’s dinner, pick a movie for the family to watch, decide on the paint color for their room, etc. Whatever it is, find things each day that your child can be in charge of. When they feel more confident and in control of their world, they will be less inclined to battle over everything.
2. Consider a Non-Response.
Do you need to respond at all? When your child is trying to engage you in a power struggle, consider whether you need to engage. It’s certainly tempting, and sometimes we feel the need to jump in and have the last word ourselves because we worry about what it will mean if our children “win.” We get concerned that they will think everything is up for negotiation if they continue to pester us or question our authority. But it’s important to pick your battles. Don’t die on every hill! Use core family rules or boundaries to help dictate what things are essential and which things can slide. That way, you aren’t battling over every little thing.
3. Give Yourself a Time Out.
Give yourself a time out to calm down and consider your response rather than reacting. Just grab a moment to yourself to take a deep breath (or several!). Instead of reacting, the moment you take can help you get perspective to respond calmly. Sometimes we instinctively respond to the power struggle with our own need to feel powerful and in control. But it’s not always necessary and might be due to ingrained habits rather than parenting choices we would instead align with.
4. Help Them Manage Big Feelings.
Our children aren’t born knowing what an emotion is or why they occur. This only comes with experience and learning from the people around them (namely parents). Imagine experiencing an emotion like anger without knowing what it means. Your heart races, your muscles clench, or you might feel your stomach lurching. You may grit your teeth or feel that internal heat and irritation. Big feelings can leave children confused and feeling out of control.
Helping them to manage their emotions helps them with a general sense of comfort and security that arises from understanding why they have reacted in a certain way. When you are experiencing a power struggle, they will be better equipped to manage their own frustrations at not being in charge. One key strategy to help children manage big feelings is by helping them understand them. So name feelings, model how you deal with big feelings, and support them to express their feelings in appropriate and healthy ways.
5. Give Them The Power!
I know, I can hear what you are thinking: If I give them the power, they win! Well, first, there is no winning in conflict. If you “win,” you gain power and compliance over your child, not respect, and certainly not a strong relationship.
I’m not saying give in. As parents, we need to uphold some boundaries or rules to keep our kids safe. But I am saying give them the power to have the last word. Instead of them fighting you for it, ask them if they want it. It is incredibly powerful to say to your child, “I have had my say and shared my opinion…would you like to have the final say?” This simple phrase changes the whole dynamic. They don’t need to get power over you to feel heard, and you don’t need to gain power over them by “taking back” the last word.
While these are some great tips to help you minimize the power struggles, remember that the only reason we have any issue with our kids (or indeed anyone else) having the final say is that we actually want to have the final say. There’s no such thing as a perfect parent. Remember that and use some of these strategies to support you and your family through these power struggles. Soon, they will become a thing of the past.
Bloch, M., Kerstin, H., Ingeborg, M.,& Popkewitz, T. (2003). Governing Children, Families, and Education: Restructuring the Welfare State. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
Hoffman, Diane. (2013). Power Struggles: The Paradoxes of Emotion and Control among Child-Centered Mothers in the Privileged United States. Ethos. 41. 75-97. 10.2307/23360468.