Power Struggles 101


Have you ever felt so trapped in the power struggle, that you know it is no longer worth the fight, but you cannot let go? Power struggles are a common issue that I see between parents and children. The issue may be minor (which clothes to wear, finishing dinner before having dessert, and going to the bathroom before leaving home), but the underlying issue is that the child wants to have control in their decisions, and the parent or caregiver is unable to allow it. They can also occur between an authority figure and the individual who is subordinate to them, including teachers and other school authorities, and other family members. Any power struggle can feel incredibly stressful for everyone involved.

Why do we engage in them?

From the kid’s point of view, she might have her mind set on doing an activity a certain way, he might just not like brushing his teeth, or they want to watch one more show before bed. Some kids can be very strong-willed, too, and they will fight with you about whatever they can. This can be a wonderful part of their personality – if it is channeled correctly. They have a passion, and a will to advocate for themselves (and sometimes, others, too). For the parents or caregivers, they might want to set a precedent, or define a boundary. Both parent/caregiver and child are intensely connected to their perspectives, and cannot let go.

No one wins in a power struggle

A power struggle is a type of conflict, which can be sorted out. However, in continuing to engage in the tug-of-war, no one wins. When you think about the conflict, and one of you has “won,” or it is a stalemate, the relationship still suffers.

How to avoid them

Kids need choices. They need to feel a sense of agency in their own lives, even though many of their decisions are guided by the parents. Children do not have a whole lot of say when it comes to their routines and daily activities. They do not have a choice to brush their teeth, take a bath, go to bed, or go to school. If parents can find as many opportunities as they can to provide their kids with a sense of agency, they fighting it will not be as necessary for them. Also, when they have practice making choices for small things, that are age-appropriate, they will be more confident to make bigger decisions later on, like using substances or having sex.

How to disengage when you find yourself in the middle of a power struggle

First and foremost, tune into yourself. Take some deep breaths, and try to recognize what is happening. Power struggles can often be heated and full of emotion. Negotiating and/or finding a solution can only happen when you are both calm. When you are both ready, think about the situation as one to problem-solve, rather than a fight that you need to win.

Parents and caregivers often want to know what to say or do in the moment. To be honest, there are no exact right things to say in every situation, for every kid. It can help to point out what is happening, and that you both need a moment to cool off. Or to ask the kid what they need from you. The tricky part about this is that it can be so difficult to do when you are fully engaged in the struggle. Getting through this takes practice, and using your own coping and calming strategies in those moments will really come in handy.

Problem-solving with kids 101

  1. Identify the problem – what are your kid’s needs? What are your needs? When does this problem tend to happen?
  2. Think of ideas together to resolve the problem (there are no bad ideas).
  3. Choose the one that works for both of you. If you and your kid are having trouble finding one that works for both of you, try taking a break from the conversation, and come back to it after a while. You might come up with some other ideas to add.
  4. Once you have put the best idea into practice, evaluate after a couple of days/weeks/months (depending on the situation, and the results you would like to see).