The Heart of a Power Struggle

Power struggles in the home usually boil down to a single issue.  Today, I am going to talk about that issue and how you, as a parent, can actually turn power struggles to your advantage.

Doesn’t it just stink when you tell your child to do something and what you get back isn’t what you asked for?  For example, when a child talks back, refuses to follow a direction, argues, screams, or fights, it can be enough to want to make a person pull their hair out. Sometimes, when a child gets older, they can be more manipulative, defiant, or say hurtful things to us.

The single issue power struggles typically boil down to is control.  It starts much earlier in children than you may think.  For example, my 4 year old hates having his hand held in a parking lot.  There is a power struggle between us.  He wants that little bit of independence and isn’t happy when he doesn’t get it.

The first key in handling a power struggle is to know you are the parent and it’s up to you to be in control of yourself and the situation.  One of the worst things a parent can do during any type of power struggle is to lose his/her cool.  In the short term, it can work if, for example, you scare a child into compliance.  Long term though, it’s more risky because over time, the shock factor is reduced or eliminated.

When children have really challenged me over the years, I have frequently made the conscience effort to control my voice.  I’ve always had the confidence that I was going to win the power struggle in the end. What’s the point of losing my cool? Besides, if any child I have worked with could see that their behavior could physically control my response- in essence, I have lost that part of the power struggle.

Another key to winning a power struggle with a child is to be quiet.  Go ahead and let the child have their say.  It’s beneficial for many reasons.   For example, the child may make a good point for you to consider.  But remember, just because a child makes a good point doesn’t mean the power struggle has been lost so relax.

Another reason to let the child have their say is because you are modeling how a power struggle can be handled with civility.  Power struggles tend to get really ugly when both sides are yelling and neither side is listening to the other.  It’s been my experience that when I let the child have their say- not only will I still get what I want in the end but the struggle itself takes much less time.  When I was a teenager, my mother obviously wasn’t privy to my blog.  We had knock down drag out verbal wars that would last for days.  I remember them well and refuse to have the same circumstances with children I work with.

One of the last things that have been a key for me concerning power struggles is that I have a short memory.  I don’t let arguments of the past consume me.  Harboring ill feelings of power struggles of days, months, and years past don’t serve any real purpose.

Towards the beginning of this piece, I referenced the power struggle of holding my 4 year old child’s hand in a parking lot.  I’ve already told you that power struggles typically boil down to control, and I told you I had full confidence I was going to win.  So, here’s how this plays out.  Keep in mind I have used the same general strategies even on tough teenagers.

When my child wants to let go of my hand, I listen clearly and then remind him to be safe in a parking lot by walking and staying close because cars can’t see him.  In essence, I let go but I am still very close.  If one misstep happened, I could grab him immediately.  From there though, I slowly back off.  Nowadays, the struggle doesn’t exist to a great degree because he clearly knows what to do.

The reason I won that power struggle was because I recognized what my child wanted and guided him on a path in order to achieve his goal.  Hypothetically speaking, some parents would have wanted me to win the power struggle by holding on to my child’s hand.  But, why do that unless, of course, he attempts to run away in the parking lot?

This piece, though long, wasn’t nearly long enough to handle all the “what ifs.”   There are so many ways power struggles can occur; I simply cannot cover all the situations.  If you have further questions or comments, please leave a message in the comment box.  If you want a private response, drop me an email at

My next post will be on Tuesday.  It will deal with split second decision making on 9/11, how it was handled with my elementary classroom, and lessons I learned that day.

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  1. Jenn says:

    It's hard to 'let them win,' but I agree that sometimes you learn/get more by listening to the reason behind their desire to do or not do something than forcing them. My DS and I are in a constant power struggle, and it's even more trying because he has PDD and doesn't process things the way other children do. I am going to try your suggestion of letting him get his way while I'm really getting mine :-)

  2. Leslie S. says:

    I am gonna try to listen more (be quiet). We are doing Conscience Discipline, but it is easier read then done! Thanks for another great post. Also, I agree with your previous kindergarten post. I just worry if I am doing enough!!!

  3. Casey says:

    I loved this post! We're currently going through a rough patch with our newly-two year old. She has always been headstrong and defiant, but more recently she's discovered the word "no." She thinks it's funny when mom and dad have to chase her and then physically make her comply to things., for example, a diaper change. She won't come to us willingly when we ask her to. She won't sit at the table for dinner when we tell her to. It's a never ending battle with her sometimes.