Tools to Use During a Power Struggle
We all have power struggles with our kids. Even after learning what to do, it doesn’t make it easy in the moment to put it into practice. What helps me the most is if I feel I’m getting into a power struggle, I pause. The pause gives me a chance to consciously use a tool from this chart. It allows me to change my tone from frustrated to empathetic.
This graphic is a chart on Tools to Use During a Power Struggle from the Parenting Network.
This topic alone can be a full parenting course, so there is obviously a lot more to each tool. For this post, I am just going to highlight and elaborate on a few.
1) Decide what you are willing to do and express it with kindness and firmness– “I will read a story after teeth are brushed.” “I will drive only when seat belts are buckled.”
This is such an important part of power struggles. I often hear from people that their child asks for something, they immediately say “No” and then she begs and pleads and they say “ok a little” and then she begs more and ultimately they fully give in.
My suggestion is don’t be so quick to say “No.” Think before you say no, if it’s something you can say yes to – say yes! And if it’s something that the answer is no for now but possible in the future, for example – “can we have ice cream now?” Try, “we can’t right now, but why don’t we put it on the schedule for tomorrow?” And if the answer is definitely a No – for example, we can’t drive without seatbelts – be firm and kind – as it says above, “I will drive only when seat belts are buckled.” If you say no and then give in – your “no” holds no weight and they just learn they need to persevere and ask over and over in order for you to say yes.
2) Withdraw from the conflict– “I love you too much to fight” “This isn’t working for me” “I think we need a cooling down time”
I love this because they are “I” statements and not “You-messages.” When we are stuck in a power struggle with our kids, neither of us are benefitting, so as the older more mature player in the struggle, the best thing to do is withdraw. Your child will also learn this behavior by you modeling it, and will hopefully be the one to withdraw from conflict when you’re not there.
3) Create a “feel better” space for your children– Create a nurturing (not punitive) cool down area with your child.
This can be so helpful! I can’t tell you how many times a parent has said to me, “We threaten to send him/her to a time out and he/she says ‘ok good! I don’t care!” with a smirk as they go to their time out – only leaving the parent frustrated and angry and a power struggle still existing.
I understand as a parent wanting to send to a time out, but it comes across to the child as you using power over them to punish them, and no one ends up feeling good. There is definitely value in taking a break from a situation, but the angle it’s presented can make all the difference in a child appreciating and learning from it vs feeling angry and defeated.
Depending on the age of your child the space can look different. The space should be set up together with your child and role play should be done at a good time where you can talk about the space and it’s intentions. Then, when it comes to a time that it’s needed, “I think we can go to your area and take a few minutes to re-set” it’s not a punishment, rather an acknowledgment of their inability to fully control themselves at their age and could use a little help and encouragement to calm down and re-set vs a commandment to separate.
4) Do it WITH them
During clean up time this is always the best way to avoid a struggle “Give me a job, should I put away the cars or the puzzle?”
So much of avoiding a power struggle is remembering that they spend so much of their day being told what to do and they just want some control.
Which leads us to…
5) Instead of telling, ask “what” or “how” questions
Instead of barking orders (which I’m definitely guilty of too!!) try, “What do we have to do before your bus gets here?”
Instead of “wash your hands” the second they get in the house, try, “Which sink do you want to wash your hands in?”
6) Make it fun
It’s so easy to forget that they are kids and not just adults that are small. Kids love to laugh, make things into a game.
When my kids don’t want to get out of the bath, we set a timer on my phone and then when the music goes off we do a little dance and then they come out.
7) Show Empathy
It can be very helpful to put yourself in their shoes. Imagine you wanted a snack and you weren’t allowed to go to the drawer and take what you want anytime.
Acknowledge their feelings. It’s time to leave a play date – you’ve given warnings etc but they are still very upset and don’t want to leave. Give them a hug and validate what they’re feeling. “This play date was so fun. I know you want to stay and play and you’re very upset but it’s time to go now.”
Being young means they don’t have the same independence as an adult but it doesn’t mean they don’t want it. If you feel like you are having daily power struggles, the first suggestion is to think about ways you can give your child “power.” For example, “do you want to play and then have a bath or have a bath and then play?” “Do you want to wear this or this?” The more you allow them to choose, the more they feel they have control over their life, and hopefully leads to less power struggles.
After a power struggle, or if you feel they are recurring, it can be very helpful to hold a family meeting and address the problem and have the child be a part of brainstorming solutions. Bring them into the discussion, “we’ve been having so many fights, we love you and we don’t want to have these arguments, what can we do?” Perhaps introduce the “feel better” space in a meeting. Let the child have ownership in the solution and truly be open to working together to create an environment of teammates vs ‘me against you.’