Parenting involves many challenges; one of the most frequent parenting challenges that I have observed client families experiencing regularly is the ever-daunting Power Struggle. Power struggles may look different depending on the stage of development and age of the child, however, I believe that there are some strategies that parents can utilize to decrease, manage, and avoid power struggles that can be effective in many cases and can be tailored to kids at various ages.
To begin, it is important for parents to develop awareness around when and how they are being pulled into power struggles. This can often look like negotiating, arguing, refusal, and/or a parent working far too hard to try to get a child to see things in a more rational way (when maybe this child’s brain isn’t yet developed to the point where that is going to be a reasonable expectation). This can look like a child pushing and pushing to get his/her way and escalating negative behavior, even to the point of an all-out verbal fight or screaming match (because, parents are human! And as much as they may try to stay calm, we all know how skilled kids can be at pushing the buttons!). I encourage parents to envision power struggles as if the child(ren) is trying to reel the parent(s) in with a fishing pole, and, however well-meaning parents may be, as soon as they have allowed themselves to be reeled in to that power struggle, they have lost, because they are now in an escalation, and the child(ren) is/are determining the energy and mood of the household. I imagine that this description probably sounds all-too familiar to many reading this right now, and I encourage those of you who want to get a better handle on power struggles to make it a point to notice when and how you are getting sucked into them with your kids.
Once you develop an awareness of what the power struggles in your home look like and how you may be getting sucked into them, here are a couple of strategies for stopping yourself before getting sucked in in the future. First, have clear, concrete, consistent expectations and boundaries for your child’s behavior; if it helps (which I think it often does) to have these written out, try putting them in the form of a chart that you and your child can track together. Start with maybe 5 or so objective behavioral expectations, so that you and your child are on the same page with understanding what is and is not acceptable behavior in your home (for example, “Mom/Dad will not have to ask more than two times for [child’s name] to complete a task;” “[Child’s name] will complete two specified chores each day before being able to have screens;” “[Teen’s name] will check in with parents every hour while out with friends and will be home no later than 9pm;” etc. to tailor to your specific child). Also have clear rewards/consequences in place for when these expectations are or are not met. The more concrete, clear, and consistent you can be with both the behavioral expectations and the rewards/consequences, the less room there will be for negotiations and arguments in the heat of the moment. As kids get older, and especially as they become preteens and teenagers, it becomes very appropriate to have your kids give input into setting the expectations and the rewards/consequences. A family counselor can help you navigate this process as needed.
Now you’ve established the boundaries, so you can further avoid getting sucked into power struggles by ignoring (yes, ignoring!) negative behaviors that are pushing the boundaries (unless these behaviors are in any way dangerous or causing harm!). As your child is working to reel you in, state calmly, “You know the expectations, and you know the consequences if you continue to choose to not follow them,” and then walk away and/or completely ignore the ongoing behavior. So often the very act of giving extra attention to negative behaviors that are pushing the boundaries is in itself reinforcing those behaviors, because they are attention-seeking behaviors. Denying that attention stops that inadvertent reinforcement, and eventually (this will not be immediate and may take some real dedication on the part of the parent!) the behavior will decrease because it is not accomplishing its function. This is maybe the toughest part of avoiding power struggles, but it can be very effective!
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By Heidi Bonilla, MA, LPC
I have a primary passion for working with people and seeing people improve their well being and happiness. I am invested in seeing my clients discover their own strengths, and I do this through an integrative and client-centered approach to counseling that focuses on the client’s own goals and ideas for what recover and growth look like and on the style of counseling that makes the most sense to each individual client of family.