Minimizing Power Struggles with Kids
Power struggles are common when parenting young kids - but those struggles don't have to destroy your family life. By making a few simple adjustments to the way you act and react during stressful situations, parents can help their kids develop a strong sense of self-esteem and give them an age-appropriate amount of control.
All parents have experienced it: the seemingly never-ending power struggle between caregiver and child. From basic defiance, to shouting “no,” to throwing tantrums, to stomping away, children can exhibit all kinds of challenging behaviors when it comes to pushing back against authority.
Kids engage in power struggles for several reasons.
Power struggles between parents and their children can be tricky, but they are really more common than parents realize. A child shouts “No!” and runs away when you ask them to clean the playroom, she refuses to put on her shoes when it’s time to leave for school in the morning, or he won’t budge when it comes to brushing his teeth before bed. Sometimes, kids say no to things they actually want to do. They might say no even when given several choices.
Trying to avoid power struggles isn't the most realistic expectation. Even so, trying to stay positive when your child refuses to do anything you ask them to do can be annoying. Hearing “no” constantly can be aggravating!
Making decisions is a way of building self-esteem and identity.
Although the word “no” can be frustrating when your child seems to say it around the clock, using the word “no” is actually a way of testing out self-definition. The ability to say no means that we are our own person, separate from others. Making choices allows us to have our own identity and helps define us. Therefore, saying “no” frequently during toddlerhood and early childhood is to be expected because this is a pivotal period in a child’s life where they figure out who they are and how they exist in relation to others - in particular, their parents.
If the constant “no” is driving you crazy, try out these three methods to alleviate some of the frustration:
Allow the “no.”
Do not react when the child says “no.” Instead, take a deep breath, and count to 10. A quick, negative reaction merely adds to your child’s resistance. Going overboard in your angry, annoyed response is only going to make your child want to act worse. Giving yourself the space to calmly assess the situation before reacting gives your child time to pause, have space to think, and realize what they should be doing.
Reassure the child that they are their own unique person.
Help your child by narrating the situation, naming the need, and identifying the goal. For example, you can say, “I can see that you’re very upset that it’s time to leave the playground now. You wanted more time to play. However, it’s time for us to go home so we can cook dinner. Can you help me by gathering your toys?” Of course, your child might still say no at this point, but the simple act of acknowledging their feelings and needs can go a long way. Try to see things from your child’s perspective. What do they really want? What need do they have? How can you both move toward a goal together?
Add fun to the routine.
Children are less likely to resist when they are having fun. If they are refusing to do a task like clean up their toys, make the task into a game. Be silly. Ask the child to think of a way to add fun to the scenario. Allow your child to come up with a solution that works for both of you. Ignore the frustration, as much as you can. You can tell your child “I bet you can’t ______ before I do!” or “Let’s race and see who can put away the blocks first!”
How does this relate to bodily autonomy?
Bodily consent is an important factor when it comes to power struggles. What if your child’s refusal has something to do with them being in control of their own body? Boundaries are important, but what if your child says “no” to healthy things?
For example, your child might refuse to brush their teeth or take a bath. Think about what your child’s resistance is a sign of. What need is being expressed? What can you do both in the moment and outside the moment to make these power struggles less of a battle?
Help kids feel like they have some power by letting them be in charge.
Kids like to feel like they are in charge, so give them an opportunity to be in charge! They’ll be much more likely to cooperate and chances are, power struggles won’t get as heated. Play the “You’re in Charge” game: give them a chance to be the boss, and lead them to something silly. Act out saying “no, no!” and be silly. Practice role reversal where the child makes the requests and the adult must follow. Build a connection with your child through play.
Tell stories about your family when you were a child.
Tell your child stories about when you were a kid. Show your kids you relate to them and empathize with them. Explain to them how you remember how frustrating it was when your parents asked you to do certain things. Get on your child’s level, acknowledge their feelings, and momentarily join them in their frustration. They will appreciate the empathy and respect.
What if my child still resists and struggles to have control?
Sometimes even though you’ve put in the work through play and preparation, your children are still resistant. Validate your child’s feelings, but stay firm in your role as their parent. Remind them that it’s your job to keep them safe and learn how to be a good person. Empathize with their feelings, and tell them you want to work with them to come up with a solution. Help them understand that yes, you understand that it might not feel good at the moment, or they don’t want to do something because it’s not fun, but you want to work with them to figure out a way to make it more exciting. Sometimes, the matter is urgent, and the child’s resistance puts them in some type of danger. In this setting, name your leadership role and act on it.
Tips for minimizing power struggles:
Decide what you will do, and follow through.
Once you’ve made your decision, be sure to follow through. Parents might say, “I will get you a snack when you’ve washed your hands.” Do not get the snack for the child until they wash their hands. Following through should be kind but firm. Kids learn through our actions better than through our words!
Do “positive time-outs.”
Time outs don’t have to be punitive. In fact, they can be more productive if they are not used as punishment. Time outs can be a way to take a break and cool down from heated moments. Create a nurturing, calming “time out” area for your child to retreat to when they need a moment to collect themselves. Include sensory toys, fidget toys, soft pillows, cozy blankets, and fun books.
Offer a means of distraction.
Distraction works very well for toddlers. Young children need time to process things. Kids, especially young children and toddlers, are often punished for doing what they are developmentally programmed to do. Children are hard wired to want to explore, experiment, and test boundaries. If your child is constantly pushing back, try to distract them by making mundane tasks more fun, or playing a role reversal game where they pretend to be the parent for a change.
Have children get involved in the creation of routines and responsibilities.
Make a chore chart together. Make a poster with images of the daily routine. Write out the daily schedule on a whiteboard. There are many ways to get kids, even young children, involved in the creation of routines and responsibilities. Having them take part in the planning can help lessen some of the power struggles at the moment.
Be direct and use fewer words.
Next time you sense your child is about to put up a fight, try using fewer words. Children learn best when parents are firm and direct. Use phrases that your child is old enough to understand, in an age-appropriate manner. Listen to your child's response, talk them through the task, and try not to resort to yelling.
Offer limited choices.
One of the easiest ways to minimize power struggles is to offer your child choices. These choices should be simple and limited, though. Ask your child if they want the red plate or the blue plate at dinner (but either way, they need to sit at the table and eat). Ask them if they want the pink glitter toothbrush or the purple rainbow toothbrush (but either way, she still needs to brush her teeth). Ask your child if they want to pick out their clothes for school the night before, or in the morning (but either way, they need to get dressed on time in the morning). Just having the ability to make these simple choices can help a child feel more empowered and seen.
Make it a game.
Children learn best through play. If power struggles are becoming a constant terror in your household, try adding a sense of playfulness to the daily routine. Set a timer and see who can clean their bedroom the fastest. Get a box, and see who can clean up the most blocks. Ask your child who can put the most books back on the shelf. Making tasks fun can take some of the stress and defiance out of the moment.
Try to put negative emotions to the side, and search for ways to get on your child's level.
Parents need to acknowledge that it’s frustrating, and it’s okay to feel upset by your child’s resistance. That doesn’t make you a bad parent. You are trying your best, and sometimes it’s more difficult than others. When parents get frustrated, there is usually an expectation that wasn’t met.
When dealing with power struggles, have realistic expectations. Deal with the matter at hand firmly but with respect for the child. Visualize your day, visualize the moments when your child will probably say no, and visualize yourself taking a step back and calmly assessing the situation. The mental prep work outside of the moments of power struggle can help parents stay grounded in those heated moments.
Children's desire for power often comes from underlying needs.
Try to see your child’s goal underneath the no. Do they want something specific or general? Are they upset about a transition? Do they want more time to do an activity? Naming the wish can help your child feel seen and validated.
You don’t have to understand why your child has those feelings. All you need to do is validate their experience. Validation helps a child feel seen and respected. Reassure your child that you believe them.
Power struggles are a common part of parenting young children - but they don't have to ruin your family life.
Power struggles in early childhood are common, even from the time your child is just a few years old. Because kids typically don't have much power when it comes to family rules and responsibilities, your child's behavior might include some level of defiance as a way of asserting control. Sometimes, a child refuses to do simple tasks, and sometimes the power struggle escalates into a bigger issue.
As much as you can, stay positive and calm, and parent your child in a way that allows them to develop their sense of identity and self-esteem.
Meet Our KeaMommy Contributor: Kaitlyn Torrez
I’m Kaitlyn Torrez, from the San Francisco Bay Area. I live with my husband and two children, Roman and Logan. I’m a former preschool teacher, currently enjoying being a stay at home mom. I love all things writing, coffee, and chocolate. In my free time, I enjoy reading, blogging, and working out.