Power Struggles

_I decided to serve my kids macaroni and cheese for every meal until they asked for something else, just to teach them a lesson. They outlasted me.
—Mother of three, Boise, Idaho

Power struggles come with the parenting territory. When children are babies and toddlers, the issues often revolve around sleep struggles, diaper changes, and food preferences—situations that drain us and challenge our patience. As kids mature, some of these struggles continue in a similar vein, but new ones may crop up and assume more importance, such as disagreements over alcohol abuse, drug abuse, sexual behavior, and school performance.

A key to your successful handling of power struggles is to remember that issues become struggles in the first place because all parties involved have very real and important feelings about the issue. Here are some ideas for managing a range of power struggles in your family:

Tips for . . .

  • parents with children ages birth to 5
    • Whenever possible, use humor and distraction (such as music or a change of activity) to de-escalate power struggles.
    • Change the tone and volume of your voice (whispering captures their attention magnificently).
    • Remember that hunger, fatigue, fear, and loneliness drive children of all ages (and parents, too) to express themselves in not-so pleasant ways. If you can uncover and address root causes of whining in a particular situation (“But I want to watch my favorite video right now!“), you can often resolve the conflict more peacefully.
    • Resist the temptation to try to talk your child out of a tantrum; instead, focus on keeping your child’s environment safe and calm, and allow her or him to express frustration in appropriate ways (such as punching a pillow or working through feelings with toys or dolls). When the time is right, talk about the underlying feelings that may have caused the outburst.
    • parents with children ages 6 to 9
    • Speak to your children respectfully, even when you disagree with them. Maintaining a conversational tone suggests to children that they do the same. The end result may be that you both understand better what’s going on.
    • If your child refuses to dress for school, explain that going to school is mandatory, but choosing whether to wear school clothes or pajamas is up to them. Sometimes the real issue is not what you think it is: while you might see the situation as one involving defiance, your child may simply be ready for more independence in choosing outfits, or perhaps the clothes you’ve offered are too scratchy or tight. And, if it comes down to sending your child out in public wearing pajamas, he or she (not you) is responsible for any embarrassment that results.
    • Seek out trusted friends, family members, parenting books, and reputable Internet sites for advice and suggestions. Chances are good that if you’re having trouble with a particular parenting issue, someone else has dealt with it, too.
    • parents with children ages 10 to 15
    • Be clear about your expectations for your children and listen to them. Consider drawing up a family contract covering the most contentious issues (e.g., curfews, after-school activities, and computer, video, phone, and TV usage). Outline the positive and negative consequences for respecting or violating boundaries. Hold family meetings to talk over plans, and involve your kids in deciding upon the rules. Post them, and be consistent in how you, your children, and your parenting partner renegotiate rules and enforce plans.
    • Current brain research reveals that children’s brains continue to develop into their early twenties, particularly in the area that handles conflict resolution. You can help build positive skills and competencies in your children by keeping the environment safe and calm during disagreements, and by empowering your preteen or teenager to express frustration in appropriate ways (with words, in writing, or by channeling frustration into a physical workout or project).
    • parents with children ages 16 to 18
    • Respect your teenager’s ability to think through issues more carefully and realistically now than when they were younger. Listen seriously and consider their viewpoints, before and after sharing yours.
    • Remember that it’s normal for teens’ emotions to be very strong and to shift dramatically. If a disagreement with your teen becomes heated, put the conflict “in the parking lot”—meaning you’ll deal with it later (even in just 20-30 minutes), when you’ve both had a chance to cool down.
    • Check out parenting books (from a library or bookstore) that explain the latest neuroscience findings on adolescent brain development and teenage behavior. It’s important for parents to know what’s behind teenagers’ actions and reactions.
  • Remove yourself from a situation immediately if you ever feel troubled enough to use physical or emotional violence against your teenager. Leave the room—go for a walk, visit a neighbor, call a trusted friend or counselor—but physically go somewhere else and calm down. Hitting will only escalate (not solve) a problem, may lead to retaliation, and will send the strong message that violence is an acceptable response to anger.

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