Parent VS Child - The Power Struggle

It’s not a new idea - parenting is hard. From those early sleepless nights, to teething and potty training, to cultivating an interest in education and an understanding of social ietiquette all while, ya know, making sure everyone stays alive, healthy and happy! Oh and you and/or your partner has to hold down a job or two. Yes, parenting is hard.

But what about the times parenting just seems extra hard? Because - let’s be be real, there can be challenging kids. Kids, that for a myriad of reasons need even more from their caregiver, are pushing boundaries, and acting out. If you aren’t able to crack the code as to what will soothe or satisfy such children in those moments, you can quickly find yourself sucked down that proverbial rabbit hole that is The Power Struggle.

In the family system, a Power Struggle is when the child seeks to gain control or influence over his/her caregiver. Buttons are pushed, and caregivers often find themselves operating on a shorter fuse, with less patience and grace than desired. Unfortunately, such a response often creates a feedback loop that only serves to ensure that the cycle continues! 

How to End a Power Struggle

As with most any relationship issue, the first step is to consider the perspective of the other person. In order to get to the root cause of the Power Struggle it is helpful to determine whether it Experience Related or Developmental?

Experience Related

Consider the point of view of that kiddo that is being perceived as stubborn, or rebellious. What occurred just before or at the point that you first noticed such behaviors? Has there been an addition to the family, a change in routine, or a significant event at school? Suppose a new baby has joined the family and the older child is getting significantly less attention from caregivers. Or, the child was teased and embarrassed by a schoolmate. If you think critically here, the core experience of such events is highly likely to be “Others don’ give me what I need/want”. So, quite naturally the child may simply decide to take!

Developmental

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that not all Power Struggles are the result of an experience. There are many growth stages in which every child will demonstrate the developmental task known as Individuation. Starting around age 2, children will begin to assert themselves from their caregivers and the world around them through virtually any means possible. If you have ever been around a toddler, you know how true that last bit is!

What You Can Do

1. Choose Not to Engage

Now that you have a sense as to the root cause of the Power Struggle, it will be much easier not to engage in the cycle! Intentionally choose not to fight, yell or scold the child. Even avoid the response “No”. Instead, look at those challenging moments as opportunities to give to your child a sense of control, importance and power.

2. Give Options

Prior to your new perspective on the Power Struggle, you might have found yourself responding in an either-or, black and white solution to a given conflict. Fortunately, parenting is really much more flexible than we realize most of the time. Consider how to rework the conflict so that the child has a say in the solution, or an opportunity for control. Instead of arguing over what to do on a Sunday as a family, consider presenting options as to the order of events, or a choice between 2 of 3. It is important that when providing a child choices, that all are acceptable and ones that you intend to support.

3. Help Them Be Powerful

The next step is to look for creative and constructive ways you can facilitate the child to feel Powerful. What makes a child feel Powerful? The same things an adult! Decision making, exerting their will on people and situations, getting their own way and declaring authority and ownership. For example, rather than engaging in a battle over clean up time, consider making the child the boss of clean up time, making it his/her job to ensure that everyone in the household helps to clean up.

Important Considerations

A child responding to the caregiver with "No" is not necessarily a bad thing. While frustrating, consider that you will want the child to be capable of saying No in his/her future - no to drugs, peer pressure and inappropriate situations. Instead, teach your child how they can respectfully and appropriately disagree.

What Powerlessness Breeds

Children who feel powerless or overpowered are likely to seek power as they grow through revenge. Revenge can take the shape of hurting others or engaging in behaviors that will ultimately hurt themselves - e.g. substance use and/or abuse, unsafe sex, seeking risky and dangerous experiences.

Key Take Away

Changing your perspective as to why your child is seeking Power from a negative to a positive is essential to ending a Power Struggle. Supporting your child in developing a sense of Power, control and autonomy will help to contribution to a health, self-reliant adult, that will feel confident in decision-making.