How to stop power struggles with your child

Whether it’s a broccoli stand-off between you and your toddler or your teenager’s refusal to clean their room, as a parent you’ve probably found yourself deep in a power struggle with your child at some stage.

It’s important to set limits on bad behaviour and establish your authority as a parent. But if you’re consistently going head-to-head with your child, there may be deeper issues at play. 

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Understanding why these power struggles are occurring, and how best to respond to them, can help prevent tempers from flaring and create the oasis of calm and love that you likely want your home to be.  

What are power struggles?

A power struggle happens when two people (or groups) are both vying for control in a situation or any sphere of influence, and neither is willing to back down. 

When it occurs between a parent and child, it’s usually at a time when the child is exploring their sense of self and independence, and testing boundaries. 

Yet to the adult involved, this can feel more like a test of their control and credibility as a parent. They may feel that it is them and their rules that are being disrespected. 

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When these buttons are pushed, the adult often responds by dogmatically laying down the law. But the follow-up is that they tend to feel guilty and end up allowing their child to do the very thing both were locking horns over. 

The issue never gets resolved, the parent never feels respected, the child doesn’t know where their boundaries are, and both parties end up in a battle of wills again and again. 

When this kind of situation occurs, the parent is really making the issue all about them. 

…And, of course, they’d be right. Because power struggles between adults and their offspring usually come from an unresolved issue within the parent. 

My experience with power struggles with my child

I’m speaking from experience here. Though it’s difficult for me to set limits for my child without feeling restrictive or authoritative, I often hear my exhausted and frustrated self uttering the words, “I am your parent so you do what I say, END OF STORY”.

I want to have the last word and ensure my son doesn’t get used to always getting what he demands whenever he cries, complains or throws a tantrum. 

I want him to respect me. But, the truth is, I don’t always respect myself for playing the “tough parent” card and as a result, I do give in (which – note to self – is why he’s gotten used to getting what he demands every time he cries, complains or throws a tantrum!)

As a parenting coach, I often ask myself the questions I would ask my clients in this situation:

  • What am I scared will happen when he cries?
  • Why am I scared to set limits?
  • What do I fear will happen if I don’t find a way to give him what he wants without making him win over me?
  • What is behind my need for control?

The answer is obvious to me but it took me a while to really make the connection: I don’t ever want my kids to feel dismissed, unseen or unheard. Because this was my biggest hurt in my childhood!

Yet, here’s the problem with always using your own experiences to determine your behaviour: 

In my situation, when I act and react to ease the fear of being unseen or unheard, I end up undermining other work I do as a parent such as helping my son to respect others’ opinions, even if they go against his own and feel safe under my direction. 

I need to own that and acknowledge that my son is having a different lived experience from me. And at the same time, I also have to expect that my fear might be creating another kind of pain in his life. 

So, if you’re a parent who, like me, feels it’s hard to set limits without feeling restrictive or authoritative. Or a parent who wants to teach your kids respect and rules without all hell breaking loose, here are some tips to stop those power struggles with your child. 

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Tip #1 to stop power struggles with your child

Work on your fear but bring compassion to yourself as you do. (Please feel free to contact me if you want any coaching help to achieve this as this is a primary area of my expertise). 

Practice finding your inner peace – Meditation can help.

Remember it’s not about your child, it’s about you. And if your argumentative child is young, likely, they are just testing their limits in a way that is a natural and normal part of their development as an autonomous individual. 

Tip #2: Set limits – and stick to them

Set limits that feel OK to you – and then stick with them. 

Agree with yourself on what the rules are and then agree with your child on what is a clear “must” and what is an option. 

For example, eating vegetables is a must – but maybe they can choose which vegetables they eat. This allows your child to feel that they also have some level of control over what is happening in their lives. 

When you’re setting limits for your child, it’s important to understand that there’s nothing wrong with this. Children need a certain amount of rules and direction in their lives. Not only does it teach them what’s socially acceptable and the consequences that can follow if they behave badly, but it provides a sense of security and love for them.  

Tip #3: Prevent the power struggle before it even happens

As noted above, part of setting limits is providing options. But by limiting those options you can stop a power struggle before it even happens. 

For instance, if you’re constantly battling with your child to do their homework, don’t ask them an open-ended question like: “When are you going to do your homework?” This is likely to raise their hackles and push them into “fight mode”! 

Instead, say something like: “Do you want to do your homework before dinner or after dinner?” 

Of course, they’ll still groan and grumble, but the understanding that they’ll be doing their homework at some stage is still there AND they get to choose when they do it (even though you’ve limited that choice to two options). 

Tip #4: Show, don’t tell

The way forward is not about fixing your child, but about fixing yourself so that you can mirror other behaviours that highlight a better approach to a situation.

For example, if you’re likely to blow your top as soon as your child starts getting cranky and refusing to do what you asked, practice staying calm. There are several techniques you can employ to help you do this. You can count to 5 in your mind or breathe deeply before responding. 

Practice active listening too so that you can really hear what your child is telling you instead of drowning out their voice with your own demand. 

Encourage cooperation. Say something like, “I can’t make you clean your bedroom but I really need your help to keep the house tidy”.

The more you show them that there are ways to move towards a solution other than battling it out with each other, the more likely they will, eventually, learn from your behaviour and follow suit. 

Power struggles are draining. They create a disconnection with our children and can make us feel like we’re failing as parents. But just by shifting your perspective a little and understanding that the roots of the problems often lie with the parent rather than the child, you can work towards creating a close relationship with your child and a happy, loving and safe home life for all the family. 

Alice Chepeau
Verified Coach
Verified for professional standards and commitment to clients. Read more Close

Alice Chepeau is a certified transformational life coach helping parents to flourish without sacrificing themselves. Focus on you first and the rest will follow. Find out how; email hello@alicechepeau.com or book a free consultation here.

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