The Art of Avoiding Power Struggles with Children
by Kathryn J. Kvols, author of Redirecting Children's Behavior
Mom is in the kitchen preparing dinner. Ten-year-old Ryan comes in and asks for a candy bar. Mom says, absently,
"Not right now. Dinner willl be ready in an hour." "Why not? I'm hungry now," Ryan insists."You know we don't eat
candy right before dinner, Ryan!" Mom says irritatedly."Yeah, but I'm starving. Come on, just one little candy bar."
Mom stops what she's doing and turns angrily at Ryan. "I told you no candy before dinner and that's all there is to it!"
"But I'm hungry. Why can't I have something to eat when I'm hungry?" "You are not going to eat a candy bar before
dinner. You know the rules in this house. And if you keep this up, you'll go to your room and skip dinner entirely!"
"But, Mom..." "Is this really about the candy bar?"
Is this a power struggle or just a typical dialogue between a parent and child? And, is this really about the candy
A power struggle is when a person holds one position and another person holds a different position and both are
unwilling to change their positions. Then it becomes a struggle for power. It is rarely about the issue at hand. It is
about feeling powerless and wanting to feel more power within the situation.
Let's look at the difference between "authentic power" and "coercive power." Coercive power arises from judging
children and situtations as "bad" or "wrong" and whose ultimate outcome is separation from our children. Force is
used to manipulate our child to do what we, as the parent, want them to do. Force includes the use of guilt, threats,
punishment, spanking, sarcasm, criticism, intimidations, humiliation, withdrawal of love, yelling, nagging, or any other
attempt to control or force our child to do something against her will. Coercive power motivates through fear instead
of love and teaches children to be externally motivated rather than driven by their own set of rules or consciences.
This allows children to look for outside sources to blame for their mistakes or for others to be responsible for their
On the other hand, authentic power does not judge a child as "wrong" or "bad," but works to solve problems in ways
that will unite or bond with our children through understanding and loving unconditionally. It's intention is to build
positive self-concepts and to make sure that everyone wins. It is the ability to empower others to become motivated
through paying attention to their own internal feelings, wants and desires, and to listen quietly for inner guidance.
Authentic power teaches children that they are their own source of happiness. The end result is closeness, respect,
responsibility, cooperation and a sense of joy and aliveness.
Unfortunately, coercive power is very seductive because it often works in the short-term and it is how most of us were
parented so we are comfortable with it. It is very easy to use, but it seldom brings lasting results and it definitely
creates strains in our relationships. So, how do we stop using it?
The first step in using authentic power is to realize that your child is not bad. That, in fact, your child is "being" just
like you when you don't get one of your needs met.Secondly, admit that coercive behavior is not getting you the
results you want, i.e., more closeness and cooperation with your child.The third step involves using a combination of
the 17 ways to avoid power struggles in this article.
The fourth step is experimenting with the alternatives and acknowledging yourself if you were successful. If you
weren't, ask yourself how you will do it differently next time. Gently encourage yourself. The last step is to choose a
method of personal growth for yourself that will unblock your ability to unconditionally love yourself, your child, your
spouse, and others in your life. This could be books, personal growth courses, or private counseling, but it will help
you help yourself.
The following alternatives are 17 ways to avoid power struggles. These are wonderful ways to use authentic power in
your relationships with your children and it promotes positive self-concepts and cooperation. Use any or all of these
suggestions and see what a difference it makes!
1. Use friendly action. Oftentimes we nag and nag our children about what they should be doing. Or we talk so
much that our children become "parent deaf." Use friendly action instead. For example, you ask your child to pick up
his toy from the living room floor. He says, "In just a minute." A minute goes by and the toy still isn't picked up. Put a
friendly smile on your face, bring your child over to the toy on the floor and walk away. If he says, "What?" just
continue smiling and walk away. The minute you start answering questions or talking, you leave the door open to
engage in a verbal struggle.
2. Use one word suggestions. We make over 2,000 compliance requests daily to our children, "pick up your
toys," "brush your teeth," "eat your cereal," etc. That kind of communication gets old and children just begin to tune it
out. Instead, use one word, like "toys" or "teeth" or "cereal." Make sure it is in a friendly voice and with a smile. Tell
your children ahead of time that you are going to stop nagging so much and that you will be using just one word from
now on to say what needs to be done.
3. No is a complete sentence. Children are programmed from birth to push and resist against rules. Saying no
is just a boundary and if you feel guilty or bad for saying no, you are training your children to have the belief that life
should go their wayand if it doesn't, it's your fault as their parent! Say no, just once, and if she throws a tantrum, walk
out of the room and let her anger be her problem.
4. Teach your children to say no to you in a respectful way. How many of us were allowed to say no
growing up? If we weren't allowed to, we did say no in a number of other ways. Like rebelling, or doing a job half-way.
Teach your children to say respectfully, "No, I'm not willing to do the dishes, but I will sweep the floors and clear the
table." This creates an atmosphere of cooperation and support.
Let your children know
how valuable they are to you.
6. Give your child choices. We all like to feel powerful and influential and our children are no different. Let
them make as many choices as they can that will give them control over what happens to them. For instance, "Do you
want to wear your red pajamas or your blue ones?" or "Do you want to take your bath before I read you a story or
7. Let your children know how valuable they are to you. The more they feel valuable to us, the less likely
they are to misbehave. Ask their advice on buying clothes, or how to decorate your home. Have them teach you a
game or a fun activity.
8. Use win-win negotiation to resolve conflict. Most of us were not taught the concept of win-win
negotiation. We most likely experienced situations that were win-lose or lose-lose. In a power struggle the most
effective negotiations are when both sides win and are happy with the end results. It can be challenging since you
must listen intently to what the other person wants while staying committed to what you want. Ask your child, "I see
how you can win and that's great, because I want you to win. How can I win, too?" When children see that you are just
as interested in seeing them win as yourself, they are more than willing to help figure out ways that you both can win.
9. Brainstorm solutions to the struggle. The idea is to get wild and crazy and to never discount someone
else's idea. Write all the suggestions down and then hand the list to your child first. She will go through them and
cross off the ones that she doesn't like. Then you get the paper and the opportunity to cross off the ones you don't
like. Usually there will be two or three suggestions left that the two of you can come to an agreement about. This is a
wonderful problem-solving method and with enough practice, it can be done without writing anything down.
10. Give your child appropriate ways to be powerful. We all want to feel powerful and if we don't have
opportunities to do it appropriately, we will create ways to feel powerful that are inappropriate--like power struggles or
picking on siblings. In the middle of a battle with your child, stop and ask yourself, "How can I give my child more
power in this particular situation?" It might be as simple as asking him for his help or giving him a particular job to do
that he is totally in charge of.
11. Use signals. Sometimes when a parent and child are working on resolving recurring power struggles, it is
helpful to have a signal that alerts both of them to this pattern of behavior. Use signals that you both have agreed
upon and feel comfortable using. Remember the more power and control you give your child, the more likely he will
be to cooperate. Signals that are funny are also a light way of reminding each other about your patterns.
12. Make learning fun and enjoyable. Many of us approach disciplining our children with a serious,
no-fun-allowed attitude. But think about how much more you learn when you are enjoying yourself. For example, try
singing "no" instead of speaking in your usual admonishing tone of voice. Or use a gibberish language to ask your
child to pick up his socks from the living room floor. That's a lot better than getting tense and angry and having the
power struggles escalate. Some people believe they don't have time to think of unique ways to teach their children or
that they aren't creative enough to come up with ideas. Those are just self-limiting thoughts and you would be better
served throwing them out of your brain. What is the real cost of handling the struggles in negative ways and what is
th lesson that you are really teaching your children? A great skill for them to have as adults is to think of fun ways to
handle difficult situations. You might be able to immediately win a power struggle by forcing your child to do
something, but in the long run, you both lose.
13. GEMS. In a University of Iowa study, it was found that the average child gets 432 negative comments per day
versus 32 positive comments. This is why it is so important to offer your child Genuine Encounter Moments (GEMS) to
help them feel important, cared for and valuable. The more supported your child feels, the less she will want to
engage you in power struggles to get a sense of importance. The investment of giving your full attention and curiosity
to your child for a few minutes several times a day will pay big dividends by making your child feel special, unique and
14. Use self-quieting. This is a method you or your child can do instead of reacting negatively to a situation.
Take a break to get into a peaceful state of mind, to work through your emotions and find alternative solutions to the
problem. It is a way to get calm instead of reacting in an angry or hurtful way. Try counting to ten or go to a special
space you have created for yourself that is peaceful. Ask yourself the following questions: (1) What is the problem?
(2) What is my part in the problem? (3) What is one thing I can do to improve the situation?
15. Understand that misbehavior is a form of communication. If we hold the belief that misbehaving
children are "bad," then we get drawn into trying to fix the bad child and make them "good." That type of thinking sets
up the power struggle system. Instead, understand that your misbehaving child is trying to communicate something to
you and it is your job to "hear" that message. A more positive way to communicate to your child about their
misbehavior is to ask them if their behavior is effective, are they getting the results they wanted. That way the
judgment is taken out of the situation. You could say, "That doesn't look like it worked because it made you really
mad. What else could you do?" or show curiosity about their behavior, "Honey, I'm curious, why did you do that?" You
will probably get an honest answer and have a better understanding about what is going on with your child.
16. Don't major in the minors. The average American child receives approximately 13 minutes a day in actual
communication with his parents. The parents spend 9 minutes of that time correcting, criticizing or arguing with their
child. That only leaves 4 minutes with anything positive happening. So, carefully choose the major issues to work on
with your child, don't hassle them with a lot of minor problems. Working on too many issues at once can be
17. Detach. Sometimes we create patterns of reactive behavior with our children. They do something we don't
like, we react to it, they do something else, we react to that, and pretty soon, we are reacting to each other. The
problems escalate and we begin to control or force our children to do things they don't want. We aren't solving the
problem and our reactions are hurting our child and ourselves. The first step in detaching is to understand that
reaction and control will not work. The next step is to self-quiet, get peaceful and balanced. Out of that peaceful calm,
a solution or an intuitive thought will emerge that will effectively resolve the problem.
18. Take care of yourself. Have you ever noticed that when you are tired, overworked and overscheduled that
you become irritable and controlling of your children? Probably the most important thing you can do for your children
is to take care of yourself. To be effective and loving parents we need a lot of energy and encouragement. Make time
for you whether it is a bubble bath, a workout at the gym, or meditation. Knowing your early warning signs of burnout
is also helpful. It might be feeling overwhelmed, or your shoulders getting tight, or just a sense of being grumpy.
These are symptoms of not taking enough time for you and if you don't take that time, you'll begin resenting the time
others demand from you.
Everyone wants to feel powerful. Our children are not exempt from these feelings so the more we can do to give them
appropriate ways to feel powerful, the less power STRUGGLES we will have with them. If a child feels valued, loved
and respected, he will still create power struggles because he is human. But if parents consistently keep in mind why
their child does this, the struggles can be effectively handled and many times avoided altogether.
Kathryn Kvols, a national speaker, is the author of the book, "Redirecting Children's Behavior" and the president of
the International Network for Children and Families. Presented by Laurel Ann Browne, Certified Parent Educator
RCB Home Video Course www.ChildParentRedirection.com