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How to Handle Power Struggles With Children

July 14, 2009

By Chantelle K. Dockter,
MA, Licensed Professional Counselor
Associate of CCCOW,

Question: I have a very strong-willed child that runs me ragged. We seem to fight over every little thing daily, and sometimes I can’t remember who the parent is! How do I deal with him?

Answer: This is a very common parenting concern. Even the most conscientious parent can find themselves sucked into an argument with their little one, and find themselves on the losing end. It is very important to remember that you are the parent, and that there is a reason for that. Our kids, as much as they think they know what is best for them, need us to place appropriate boundaries for them, and to enforce those boundaries.

The first thing to focus on is what you are trying to teach your child. Is it that bigger/meaner wins or that the problem-solving/compromise approach is best? View each situation as a teaching moment with your child. This can help parents keep their cool and look towards the goal of raising a productive member of society.

Preventing power struggles should be the first line of defense. There are definitely times that call for consequences, but prevention should be attempted first. This can set your child up to be successful. Begin to predict when things will be rough for your child, and plan for that. For example, many children have an especially hard time in the late afternoon and evening. One reason for this is that they have held it together all day at school and then melt-down when they get into the comfortable and safe arena of home. Often kids will attempt power struggles with parents that they won’t attempt with others in authority, such as teachers. Be more aware of what frustrations he is able to manage and be open to eliminating unimportant and unnecessary frustrations which will reduce the opportunities for power struggles and meltdowns. Routines are a very important part of prevention. Most kids do better when kept on a consistent routine, especially regarding sleep, meals, and daily expectations. Of course there are moments when routines need to be broken due to situations that come up, but the goal should be to create and keep healthy habits and routines as they make children feel safe and cared for. They also then know what is required of them and can make better choices.

Any of us who are parents know that all the preventing in the world will not nix power struggles completely. It is very important to win the ones you pick, and only pick the ones you can win. You can never pick what comes out of your child’s mouth or bodies! Kids will do what works for them. At a very early age they learn how to get what they want and can find every button to push with their parents. It is important to say something to yourself to remind yourself who is the child in that moment…such as, “You are five, and I can keep you from pushing my buttons”. You are wittier, smarter, and can endure more as an adult. Power struggles with our children cause us to forget this in the heat of the moment.

The broken record approach is one of the most effective. Consider saying, “I love you too much to argue with you” or “I am not having this conversation”, and calmly repeating it over and over as necessary. It is very important to take the emotion out of your voice, and not to yell it. Repeating the same statement over keeps you as the parent from engaging in an argument with your child and after a while they tire when they realize that you are holding firm. This results in a lot less work for you as the parent and keeps you healthily detached from their meltdown. Children test us constantly and need to see that we can be the parent and stand strong and make wise decisions, even when they come at us strongly. Try and look at the power struggles and difficult situations objectively, which helps keep you from emotionally melting down yourself!

Chantelle K. Dockter, MA Licensed Professional Counselor
Associate of CCCOW,

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Discuss this article

Kay July 14, 2009

You bring up some excellent points. I especially like the one about predicting “meltdown” times. This not only holds true for the kids,but parents themselves are known to melt down by late afternoon. Probably not the best time for either side to do too much “reasoning”.

Margie July 14, 2009

Interesting how so many of your great tips require the parent to “know the child”. Whether it;s about what they best respond to in terms of discipline or when they melt down, only time with your child could give you that information.

Tina July 14, 2009

I’ve always cringed at that “quality not quantity” phrase for the very reason Margie alluded to…you need both quality and quantity of time with your kids to really know how they tick.

Kay July 14, 2009

Agreed Tina! Especially when establishing good lines of communication. If the kid never feels there is enough time to simply sit down to talk, they refrain from talking instead of bothering the “busy” parent. They have to know that talking is a comfortable and easy place to be. Another argument for at-home parenting.

Alice July 14, 2009

Our children are special treasures, so glad to see such good advice. Consistancy and boundrys make children feel safe, even when they try to “bush your buttons.”

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