No parent wants to get locked into a battle of wills with their child, but power struggles can creep up when you least expect them.
Maybe your kid refuses to get dressed in the morning or throws a fit about bedtime. Or they argue over homework or whine for candy at the checkout line.
Whatever the case may be, these conflicts can leave you feeling frustrated, aggravated, and at a loss.
Before you know it, a simple request can escalate into an all-out war.
What is a power struggle
A power struggle is a situation where two or more parties compete for control or dominance in a situation. The struggle can occur at home when a child and parent are fighting for control.
This invisible tug-of-war can be a disruptive force in your home.
Power struggles often lead to conflicts and tension, resulting in a hostile environment not conducive to cooperation. They damage parent-child relationships and prevent proper communication.
When they become the norm, frequent conflicts can create toxic stress that is harmful to everyone involved, but especially to children’s development and mental health.1
Examples of power struggles with children
- Chores – One of the most common examples of power struggles occurs around completing chores. This everyday task often becomes a battleground where power dynamics play out in real-time. A child may complain, argue or refuse to complete their assigned chores. Parents, trying to teach responsibility and maintain a clean home, might insist on the completion of these tasks
- Screen time – In the digital age, disagreement over how much time a child spends on electronic devices can become a significant power struggle. Children might want to spend hours on video games, social media, or watching TV, while parents try to limit screen time in favor of physical activity, reading, or family interaction.
- Mealtimes – A child may argue about what is being served for dinner or refuse to eat certain foods. They may also protest because they want to have dessert first.
- Bedtime routine – A child might refuse to eat certain foods or insist on eating only their favorite meals. Parents, on the other hand, insist on a balanced diet, leading to a tug-of-war over what and when the child eats.
- Homework – Homework can be another area of contention. Children might resist doing their homework, preferring to spend time on screens. Parents, understanding the importance of education, might insist on homework completion before playtime.2
Why do power struggles happen
Power struggles within the family often originate from a desire for control – parents attempting to regulate their child’s behavior, while the child seeks to assert their independence.
When both sides aggressively want to win in this battle, power struggles begin.
Conflicts tend to fuel emotional responses, which in turn prevent clear thinking and escalate the situation into a full-blown argument.
In the end, everyone is upset, problems are not resolved agreeably, and the relationship is strained.3
Power struggles create lose-lose outcomes.
How to avoid a power struggle with your child
The key to avoiding power struggles is not engaging in the first place. It takes two to tango in a battle of wills. As long as one side refuses to dance, there will be no struggle.
This may sound simplistic, but preventing a clash before it starts is truly the most effective approach. Once emotions escalate, child and parent alike lose the ability to think rationally. The original issue then becomes a competition over who gets to come out on top.
So how can parents avoid starting a struggle?
Here are some actionable strategies that can prevent confrontation.
Be respectful to your child, even when they aren’t respectful to you
Have you noticed how kids sometimes get into fights over small, silly things?
In those moments, they’re not actually concerned about the superficial issue at hand. Rather, they’re really bothered by how they were directed to do something or how they were treated in a less-than-respectful way.
Being respectful doesn’t just prevent power struggles – it also models desired behavior for our kids.
When we make requests, voice disagreements, or provide negative feedback, we should aim to do so in a way that respects our child’s feelings and perspective.
Speaking respectfully prevents the emotional escalation that leads to defiant power struggles.
More importantly, it teaches our kids how to treat others with dignity, establish boundaries diplomatically, and resolve conflicts through cooperation rather than aggression. Our words set the tone for the entire family dynamic.
Ignore the disrespectful tone for now
When your child begins to challenge you, it’s common for the following thoughts to cross a parent’s mind:
“They’re being defiant.”
“How dare they talk to me like that?”
“I can’t let them get away with this.”
“I need to teach them a lesson about respect.”
“I’ll show them who’s the boss.”
But, do you recall the initial issue you were trying to address? Are you still working on that?
Even if you’re not outwardly participating in the conflict, mentally engaging in it can divert your attention from your original goal.
These thoughts are making you more upset, more likely to engage in the conflict and less likely to come up with a constructive solution.
Many frustrated parents find it challenging to overlook disrespectful tones from their children. It’s likely that many of us were taught at some point in our lives that speaking to adults like that is unacceptable.
Choosing to overlook the tone momentarily doesn’t imply disregarding it completely. But in a contentious situation, it’s more effective to tackle one issue at a time.
Address the immediate problem first, and then revisit the matter of tone and attitude later.
If you find it hard to shift from this perspective, it might be useful to reflect on why receiving respectful communication holds such paramount importance for you.
Listen and respond to the content
Listen to what they are saying and address that issue.
Here’s an example.
Parent: “It’s time to start your homework.”
Child: “I don’t want to do homework. Homework is stupid. You’re stupid.”
Parent: “Wow, that was disrespectful and I don’t like that. But let’s first talk about why you don’t like homework. It helps you practice and sthorengthen what you learn in school. Why don’t you like it?”
Child: “School is stupid. I never learn anything.”
Parent: “Why can’t you learn things in school? Are the materials too hard or too easy? Do you have problems getting along with other kids or the teacher?”
Get to the bottom of the issue. Show your child that they are your priority instead of your desire to be respected.
Respect is rooted in relationships. If your relationship is under stress or has been harmed, getting genuine respect can be challenging. Even if you could enforce respectful language through punishment, the true essence of respect cannot be achieved without a healthy relationship.
Do not engage
For a power struggle to occur, two parties must participate. If one side refuses to engage, the clash fizzles out.
Since parents are the only adults in parent-child interactions, it’s up to us to disengage from potential struggles.
When you sense a confrontation brewing, such as when your child is angry, you can choose not to reciprocate heated emotion.
Take some deep breaths to remain calm and collected. Show them how not to be pulled into an irrational battle of wills.
You can remain silent and wait for that moment to pass. If you refrain from fueling their anger with words, the intensity of the emotion typically diminishes after some time.
After a while, you can return to the issue.
“I saw that you were angry. I care about you. Can we talk about why you don’t like doing homework?”
Care about the child, not about the rules
Adults are less likely to get into frequent power struggles with each other than with children. It could be attributed to their increased maturity. But adults also have a wider range of strategies at their disposal to handle situations they are unhappy with.
They can quit their job.
They can sever a friendship.
They can move away.
They can hang up the phone.
Children often cannot remove themselves from a situation. They are dependent on their parents and have limited choices when they are dissatisfied.
Struggles, therefore, often arise from this imbalance of power in the relationship.
As parents, we make most of the decisions for our children. We have more life experience and knowledge about how the world works. We want to protect our kids from mistakes and steer them down the right path.
So we create ground rules and make our children do things they may not want to do – eat their vegetables, finish homework, get to bed early.
However, we often rely on the imbalance of power to make them do things instead of explaining the reasoning behind them. It may work for toddlers, but as your child grows, the lack of control and understanding becomes frustrating.
Of course parents need to set boundaries and guide behavior, especially when children are young.
But as they grow older, it becomes important to have open dialogues about the why behind the rules.
Explain your rationale – you enforce an early bedtime because lack of sleep can impair focus and learning. You want them to avoid risky or negative behaviors because you care deeply about their safety and wellbeing.
Show that you care about them, not about the rules.
When children understand the loving intentions behind parental rules, they become more willing to cooperate. They see you aren’t trying to control just for the sake of control. You have their best interests at heart.
Build relationship and teach respect in everyday life
Attempts by parents to teach respect during a heated power struggle is unlikely to be effective. When emotions are running high, kids are more focused on “winning” than listening and learning. Respect then becomes just another thing they are forced to do, instead of a value they internalize.
Cultivate respect during calm, connected moments. Build a strong relationship so kids are more receptive to guidance and life lessons.
The more children’s sense of self is built upon caring connections and mutual understanding, the less likely power struggles become.
Set the tone by modeling respect in daily life. Speak to your child calmly, avoiding hurtful words even when upset. Thank them for their cooperation and contribution to family life.
Explain why respect is important by pointing out examples in books, TV shows, or real life.
“See how those characters resolved their disagreement respectfully?”
Ask thought-provoking questions: “How do you think it makes someone feel when you interrupt them?”
Autonomy supportive parenting
As children grow, granting appropriate sense of control is key to avoiding power struggles and raising responsible, competent kids.
Autonomy supportive parenting maintains authority while allowing children self-determination within developmentally appropriate limits.4
For more information, check out Autonomy Supportive Parenting
The key to stopping power struggles with children is patience and consistency. Don’t expect change overnight. With regular guidance when things are calm, respect and problem-solving become an ingrained habit and core value, not just a demand made in the heat of conflict.
- 1.Franke H. Toxic Stress: Effects, Prevention and Treatment. Children. Published online November 3, 2014:390-402. doi:10.3390/children1030390
- 2.Froiland JM. Parents’ Weekly Descriptions of Autonomy Supportive Communication: Promoting Children’s Motivation to Learn and Positive Emotions. J Child Fam Stud. Published online August 25, 2013:117-126. doi:10.1007/s10826-013-9819-x
- 3.Hagen KA, Ogden T, Bjørnebekk G. Treatment Outcomes and Mediators of Parent Management Training: A One-Year Follow-Up of Children with Conduct Problems. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology. Published online February 28, 2011:165-178. doi:10.1080/15374416.2011.546050
- 4.Benito‐Gomez M, Williams KN, McCurdy A, Fletcher AC. Autonomy‐Supportive Parenting in Adolescence: Cultural Variability in the Contemporary United States. J of Family Theo & Revie. Published online February 26, 2020:7-26. doi:10.1111/jftr.12362