You Can’t Make Me! How to Handle Power Struggles


Power struggles with kids are exhausting and discouraging. We hate them and want to avoid them. And we can. When we learn how to handle them and when we have a clear and respectful discipline plan in place, your kids just won’t see the need to challenge you. Give it a try, it works. And check out today’s article.I am often asked when will I be in your community. You want to share expenses with other local clients to save on travel expenses. Well, when I will be traveling it is mentioned here, in the newsletter but an even more immediate place to go is twitter. You can follow my activities on twitter.

When the weather improves do you find yourself sitting out in the sun and reading a good book? Whether you like print or digital books, Parenting Today has two great resources for parents of children of all ages.

How to Handle Power Struggles.

“You can’t make me!” We hear these words from our child and wonder what to do next.

Get out of power struggles. That’s what the books, the courses and experts all say. Unfortunately, they don’t always tell you how.

What is a power struggle? A power struggle exists in a conflict when the issue becomes winning and each party to the conflict is focused only on that. Each person stands his ground, unwilling to budge, and tries to force the other to move. In a power struggle the real issue gets lost in the need to win. Power struggles often end in stalemates. Even when they don’t, no one really wins because the relationship suffers so badly. A parent may “win” power struggles with a child because she can physically move him. He’ll either submit and know that he’s a loser or decide that although his parents can pick him up, they can’t control his thoughts. He’ll say or think; “Just wait until I’m bigger.”

If the parent’s goal is the short-term one of changing the behavior immediately, she’ll define herself as a winner.

But the long-term goals — directing and teaching the child about acceptable behavior, helping him to have high self-esteem and to be independent, building a strong relationship between parent and child — those will all suffer.

Then there is the lazy way. Avoid dealing with the situation and simply give up. This is a trap created by misinterpreting the advice to stay out of power struggles. Staying out of a power struggle does not mean ignoring the behavior and allowing the child to continue doing whatever she wants. It means breaking the tension, changing the focus. It means changing your own motivation from needing to win (“I’ll show this kid! If he thinks he can do this to me. …”) to your larger discipline goals (“This is not acceptable behavior; Jeffrey needs to learn that when he acts in that way he can’t participate in family activities”).


The more your family has developed a positive approach to discipline, the less likely you are to be dealing with power struggles. However, that doesn’t make you immune and at certain times conflict will escalate and you will find yourself embroiled almost before you know it. You will know you are in a power struggle when all you can think about is winning. If you want to deal with the issue and try to salvage the self-esteem of both your child and yourself, you will first have to break the struggle and refocus.

The best way to do that is to physically separate — even for a minute. A trip to the bathroom is a beautiful way to accomplish this. You can leave the scene and return without losing face or giving in. But the break does give everyone a chance to regroup and a new and more positive approach can be tried when you return. (This is equally effective when engaged in a power struggle with another adult.)

Sometimes a bit of exercise helps: “I think we need to clear our heads. I’m going for a walk around the block, then we can continue this discussion.”

You can also suggest a time-out: “Look, we’re getting nowhere right now. Let’s discuss this after supper.”

Let’s look at how this might play out in real life. It’s time for Janelle to go to bed. You’ve asked her to put on her pyjamas and she refuses. You reach to grab her and force her into her PJs; she is sitting firmly on the bed determined to stay in her clothes. You are face to face, heading for a real confrontation, when suddenly the phone rings. You leave the room to answer it and your conversation with a friend allows you to calm down. Now you are able to return to Janelle’s room and handle the pyjama issue with some maturity.

It is likely that the mere action of your leaving the room allowed Janelle to get ready for bed without losing face. After all, sitting all alone on the bed being stubborn can get boring in a real hurry. In that case, you can be matter-of-fact as you kiss her good night. If she is still dressed you can say something like; “It’s bedtime. Do you want to wear your clothes or your pyjamas?” or “I know you can get into your pyjamas now so why don’t I just tidy the bathroom while you get ready for bed.”

Remember, staying out of power struggles doesn’t mean ignoring your child’s misbehavior. It doesn’t mean letting him do whatever he wants and it doesn’t mean standing by helpless in the face of his decisions.

It means re-focusing, re-directing and dealing with the issue. It means working toward a solution to the problem, not winning.

And in this way everyone wins. But, it’s hard work!




Posted in Discipline, News, School-Age, Teens | 1 Comment

One Response to You Can’t Make Me! How to Handle Power Struggles

  1. Nice. Thank you for the reminders to shake things up (do not shake people!) and get out of the win-lose argument. I’d also like to add a suggestion used in mediation and many communication strategies: hear the meaning and interests in the positions people take (our own and others).
    Often we argue over words and strategies. That is, the “how” we want to meet our needs.
    We can come to agreement and understanding more when we hear what is motivating us to say and do the things we do. What’s important about … ?
    If we’re willing to stretch ourselves (ususally after taking a time out for a break or to cool down if we’re enraged) and have curiosity about why we and others say and do what we do, we can unlock our creative power to co-create solutions that consider everyone’s needs.

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