“It’s always a power struggle with him!” Have you ever said something similar? When your child simply refuses to eat, do their chores, follow your directions, or persists in asking about something you have already said no to a “million times,” we identify their argument as a power struggle.
Have you ever noticed that “power struggle” is an exclusively adult phrase? You never hear your child say, “Whenever I ask if I can go play, it’s always a power struggle with mom. Why is that?
It’s because parents naturally have the power in the relationship and when that balance is challenged, it becomes a struggle for power. Our children want it and parents want to retain it. Power struggles are not a childhood behavior, power struggles are a relational cycle. When we view power struggles as a child behavior, we misdiagnose the problem and its origin.
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Why can’t I wear a goalie glove to school?
I remember a little interaction between a mother and her first grade son that started as a silly wardrobe choice and ended as an all out battle. This young boy wanted to wear a single goalie glove to school. Why? I have no idea. He just thought it was cool. I suspect that he was going for the old school Michael Jackson look. Anyway, he came to the breakfast table proudly sporting his new fashion accessory. His mom quickly chimed in, “You’re not wearing that to school.” Without delay he charged back, “Yes I am!” The power struggle had begun. Both Mom and her son dug their heals into an ever escalating tug of war. Finally, after thirty minutes of arguing, yelling and demanding, the 8 year old retained the goalie glove and retreated to his room. Mom was fuming. The boy didn’t even end up going to school that day. The exchange left everyone feeling angry and powerless. No one won.
On the surface, the struggle was over a goalie glove. It was meaningless, but that was not what they were arguing about. Ultimately the struggle was over power, power over self and each other. The willingness to share that power and compromise was overshadowed by the need to have the last word.
So, how do we change the power struggle cycle?
The wonderful thing about cycles is that they have happened before and we can anticipate that they will happen again. We can plan for the events that come before, the response during a conflict or disagreement and what follows afterward. This allows us to respond to our child’s struggle for power with TRU principles that establish a healthy balance of power between you and your child and give them the education and support they need to learn to be both assertive and respectful. We can be okay with relinquishing some authority and sharing some power in order to teach most effectively, maintain the relationship and upgrade our own leadership and self control.
3 Steps to establish healthy cycles of power
1. Before the struggle begins:
- Teach during the good times: Read books together, role play or practice respectful communication, active listening and boundary setting in times when you are not experiencing resistance or conflict. Address specific issues and problem solve together with non-threatening language like, “I’ve noticed that we’ve struggled with chores lately. What do you think are some things we could do to make that go smoother?”
- Don’t engage/Set personal boundaries: We can prevent most power struggles by simply being aware of our urge to control everything and when it pops up, just don’t engage. Some use the phrase, “pick your battles.” I prefer to say, “Pick your boundaries.” If my son wants to wear a goalie glove to school and I think it is ridiculous, that’s okay. I don’t need to tell him he can’t do that. There is no need to bark out orders every few seconds. Boundaries don’t have anything to do with what you will do to the child and what you will make them do. Boundaries are statements of what you will and will not do or what you will allow them to do to you. You may say, “I’m sorry, I’m not willing to argue about this. I love you.” You may even follow up with choices or other options of things you would like to do. Firm boundaries stated clearly only need to be stated once.
- Choices: Give them choices rather than demands. Whenever possible, share power with your child by offering two “either/or” choices. Would you like to put your pajamas on now or in five minutes? If they select five minutes, which most of the time they will, set a timer. Make sure that any set of choices you give represent two options that are both positive and that you are completely happy with.
2. During the conflict (When your child challenges boundaries or authority)
- Respond firmly but with empathy and respect: Responding with respect and kindness is never a bad idea. Even when a child continues to pursue something that you have set a firm boundary on, you can respond with a validation of their desire or point of view without agreeing to it. A conversation might look something like this…
- Jimmy: “But Mom… I’ll be back from Johns before dinner. Just let me go.”
Mom: “I know you really want to go. That would be fun. Sorry that’s not going to happen tonight. Let’s see if you might be able to do that Friday night.”
Jimmy: “But Mom!”
Mom: “Love you!”
Here is where the next step of redirection comes in.
- Redirect: Jimmy’s “But Mom” could be met with, “How would you like to help me make dinner or go play legos.” If your child continues to challenge the boundary. You can simply let them explain all the reasons why you should cave. Don’t become defensive or combative. Just listen and offer other suggestions he might enjoy. If you have the option of joining them, you may even offer to participate in an acceptable alternative.
3. After the struggle for power has calmed.
- Reengage in positive ways: I’ve found over my years as a parent and throughout my counseling with families that the first tendency of people when someone has tried to draw you into a power struggle, is to either push back or withdraw. When we fail to reconnect after a conflict and continue to withdraw or sulk we reinforce the negative power cycles. Showing an increase in love, the very thing that is the most beneficial to breaking down barriers and encouraging healthy sharing of power, is often the most difficult to initiate. However, when we do, we see the advantages of it immediately. After your child has disengaged in the struggle or after you have successfully redirected them, find ways to reconnect. Play together. Gather your child up in your arms and remind them how much they are loved.
It could play out differently… Better
If we had been able to go back and step in on the goalie glove incident, we may have been able to prevent a struggle simply by choosing not to engage in the first place. The little Michael Jackson wannabe may have gotten to school and had some snickers about his one goalie glove. The teacher may have asked him to remove it. He may have even lost it, but natural consequences would have played out and learning achieved. Even if Mom would have engaged the goalie glove dilemma and applied TRU principles to offer choices or redirect his attention to breakfast and the need to get to school the struggle would have been short lived and the outcomes more positive.
When we apply TRU principles before, during and after a struggle, within the context of the power cycle, we can begin to rewrite our story. Most power struggles are averted simply because we are willing to share a little more of the power than we were before. Our kids learn how to wield that power more responsibly and our relationship with them continues to improve. Next time your child tries to pull you into a power struggle, stop struggling and instead of trying to win the argument, seek to solve problems and grow. Turn powerless kids into powerful kids! The amazing thing is that when we do this, both parent and child are empowered.
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Comment below: In the comments, write one thing that you think you can better share power with your children on.
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