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Unplugging Power Struggles

by Jan Faull, M.Ed.

One element of self-esteem is power.  All children need power; this need can be satisfied through control, decision-making and choice. This does not mean children can overpower others but instead have a personal sense of power where they control some aspects of their lives.

Children see themselves as having little power and parents holding most of the power.  To a young child this is evident because grown-ups turn on lights, control food, make the rules and set the daily schedule.  These tasks may not seem exciting to parents but to the young child they are signs of power.

In addition, parents are more powerful physically because they are bigger, stronger, louder and more forceful.

To older children, parents are powerful because they control money, and have more life experience and knowledge.

A child who has an adult overpowering him, telling him constantly what to do, soon has deteriorating self-esteem.  This can be manifested in submissiveness, rebellion, sabotage or misbehavior.  It can be exhibited in destructiveness, violence and power struggles over toileting, eating, clothing, getting dressed, chores, independence and numerous other issues surrounding control.

Guiding children toward independence and competence involves a gradual turn over of power and control from an adult to the child.  Power struggles occur when grown-ups inappropriately attempt to control children or children seek control beyond their age and ability.

The two ages when children make the biggest push for power are at two years old and when they are teenagers.  However, if behavior changes drastically for the worse at any age, it can be out of need for more power and control.  At these times parents need to see where they can turn some power over to children being careful not to jeopardize a family’s values or a child's safety.

It's important for parents to realize what they can and can't control about children's lives:

  • You can't control children's bowels or bladder.
  • You can't control children's sleep.
  • You can't control children's thinking.
  • You can't control children's emotions or attitude.
  • You can't control what children swallow or the words that comes out of their mouths.
  • You can't control your child's pace.

Parents can do lots to influence these behaviors for the positive but if a power struggle erupts, the adult will lose because ultimate control lies with the child.

The key to minimizing power struggles is to give children a power that is appropriate to their age and development.

  • A four-year-old can decide if he wants to play with Billy or Sally.
  • A ten-year-old can decide how he wants his room arranged.
  • A twelve-year-old can decide to save baby sitting money for a new radio or a bicycle.
  • A teenager can decide what classes to take and what school activities to be involved.

This does not mean parents do not attempt to influence children by advising and consulting with them, but certain decisions need to be left up to children.

When children make a decision or choice, talk about it, and recognize it.  This validates their decision-making ability and builds confidence and competency.

Parents need to let children make many little decisions that are appropriate to their age and development.  When children feel powerful from making little decisions about clothes, food, and friends, they're more willing to comply with the big decisions that are necessary for parents to make regarding values and safety.

Each time a parent makes a decision for a child, it's important to consider, "Is this a decision the child could be making for himself?"  If the answer is "yes," back off.  Let the child decide.  It can be as simple as asking Jimmy if he wants milk or juice for lunch, or as important as letting Jenny decide whether to take Spanish or French in school.

If children have some say in decision making then they are more likely to be positively involved with that decision.  In addition, once the child makes a decision, and then the child is responsible for the consequences of that decision.

"You chose milk for dinner, drink it first then I'll get you some juice."
"Your decision was to take Spanish, it’s up to you to follow through with your decision."

Whenever you can offer your child a choice, make sure the choice is one you can live with.  For instance, parents don't let children decide where the family will spend their vacation.  Parents have too much interest and investment in this decision to allow children total control.

Also, don't offer a child a choice when there isn't one.  If a child must take medicine, don't say, "Do you want to take your medicine?"  However, you can give the child a choice within this "no choice" situation.

Turning too much power over to children equates to permissiveness.  Children need parents who have enough interest and energy to set reasonable limits.

No matter how you work to avoid power struggles by turning power over to children gradually and by offering choices appropriate to their age and ability, many parents find themselves in power struggles from time to time.

Because of the emotional link between parent and child, it's common for parents to get into power struggles with their children.  Most parents know what a power struggle is.

It's when you're trying to get your child out the door in the morning, and your child refuses to get dressed.

It's when the parent insists and the child refuses to eat peas.

Power struggles occur when a child is determined to have her way, and the parent insists on hers.  Both dig in their heels.  Both are determined to win.

In power struggles, there is always a strong element of emotion.  It's an emotional battle over who's in control.  Usually when the struggle ends both parent and child are emotional and exhausted, and often the struggle persists day after day.

The goal in any power struggle isn't for one to win over the other but for both to emerge winners.

In any power, struggle parents have three options:

  1. Hold onto your power. This option is necessary when the power struggle involves safety or values.
  2. Give up some power but hold onto some. This is done through negotiation, compromise and offering the child choices.
  3. Let go of your power.  Drop out, drop back. This is the most difficult option but sometimes necessary when a parent is inappropriately trying to control a child.

Parents find themselves in power struggles with their children because they care deeply for them.  They usually don't get into power struggles because they maliciously want to dominate their child.  Most parents truly want what is best for their kids.

Often for parents the root of power struggles is fear.  Parents fear what will happen to their children if they let go of their control.  A child might get hurt if he rides a bike to the neighborhood candy store.  A child might fail in school if the parent doesn't see that his homework is completed each evening.

To resolve any power struggle, the parent must choose one option and take on a matter-of-fact attitude.  If you're emotionally involved, that alone can keep the power struggle continuing.  Remember it is extremely powerful for a child to be in control of his parent's emotions.

Power struggles occur most frequently when parents want something done one certain way, their way.  Power struggles that go on and on can deteriorate the parent-child relationship.

In addition, the paradox in power struggles is most interesting.  Often when parents relax their control about sloppiness, schoolwork, eating habits and toileting, then the child miraculously becomes more easily influenced by the parent's wishes.

Giving children power, choice and control builds responsibility, trust, and good will and sets them on the road to competence.  Choices help children to solve problems, negotiate and compromise.  These are valuable tools they'll use throughout their lives and will contribute to the child’s level of competency and self-esteem.


About the Author

JanFaullesizedJan Faull, M.Ed., has taught Parent Education for more than twenty-five years and was the Seattle Times Parenting Columnist for 10 years.  Ms. Faull holds a Masters Degree in Early Childhood Education from the University of Washington, where she also earned her undergraduate degree in English Education.

She is a recognized speaker to a wide variety of local and national organizations and regularly conducts classes at Overlake Hospital on Seattle’s Eastside.  Along with a team from the Comprehensive Health Education Foundation, she developed a training program titled Social Beginnings:  Guiding Children Toward Positive Behavior.

She is the author of four books:  Mommy, I Have to Go Potty (Raefield & Roberts, 1996); Unplugging Parent-Child Power Struggles:  Resolving Emotional Battles with Your Kids Ages 2-10 (Parenting Press, 2000); Darn Good Advice—Parenting (Barrons, 2005); and Darn Good Advice—Baby (Barrons, 2005).  Her next book:  Amazing Minds:  The Science of Nurturing Your Child's Developing Mind will be published this year by Berkley Books a subsidiary of Penguin.

Jan Faull is the Parent Advisor for Ladies Home Journal, Better Homes & Gardens, and Healthy Kids online services for parents.  Her articles also appear on the Microsoft Network,   Jan’s latest endeavors include a series of 104 articles titled: Your Brilliant Baby and Your Clever Toddler Week-by-Week on  Also on the web, at Life takes VISA, she has a video interacting with babies.

The mother of three adults and grandmother to three granddaughters, she resides in Seattle, Washington.

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