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Skip the Power Struggle

By Nancy Olsen-Harbich, MA

“It doesn’t matter what I ask – she never obeys me.”

“He’s impossible! I hate it that every day ends with me yelling and him crying.”

“The simplest thing turns into a contest, and no one wins.”

Sound familiar? What parent hasn’t been frustrated by trying to solicit cooperation from a young child who has a different opinion about what, when, how, and why things should be done?

Young children’s rapidly developing thinking skills and verbal abilities are a joy to observe when they describe the fun they’re having at school. But no parent is happy and proud when his or her child uses those same new skills to evade bedtime at the end of a long day.

The key to avoiding unnecessary conflict is to find a balance between your child’s need for some control and your need for his or her cooperation. Adults have more experience and knowledge than children, providing guidance to keep them safe and allowing them to thrive. On the other hand, it’s easy to fixate on “winning” a fight or “laying down the law,” especially when you’re sick of arguing with a child who, just yesterday it seems, was eager to please and obey.

Finding a respectful middle ground is important for family well being, because unresolved, chronic power struggles create distance and hostility between you and your child, which make for resentment and increased resistance. Suddenly, you can find yourself in an environment in which everyone’s miserable. Try these ideas to avoid landing in that place:

Allow your young child to make choices every day

His or her increasing need to have some say in how the day unfolds can be met without compromising your control over the big things. What to wear, do, play, or eat are decisions that feel important to a small child, and offer you opportunities to be flexible. But be aware of how you word these choices. “What would you like for breakfast?” can be answered with “chocolate ice cream”, setting off, instead of heading off, conflict. Instead, ask “Would you like cereal or yogurt with fruit for breakfast?” Structure the choices you offer to produce results you can live with.

Bring down the intensity

Anger and frustration are strong emotions, and expressing them selectively and respectfully is a learned behavior. Avoid yelling, name-calling, and sarcasm because your child will model his or her style of argument on yours. Be calm when negotiating if the point is negotiable. When your decision is final, refuse to engage in a fight. Say, for example, “When these toys are picked up, we will bring out the new puzzle” and leave the room to give your child the space to acquiesce without sensing you’re invested in showing who’s boss.

Raise your Emotional I.Q.

What looks like defiance may be a behavior designed by your child to handle his or her feelings. A child who dislikes school may create a whole morning of power struggles to avoid going there. Be alert to situations that are always a problem, when power struggles are the rule rather than the exception. Look for emotions behind actions so you can help your child talk about how he or she feels, preferably not right in the middle of a conflict. Listen, really listen, to what your child says and try to address problems together. Not all of them can be solved as kids have to go to school, but giving a child the chance to express what he or she feels, rather than concluding that no one cares, will diffuse anger.

At the end of the day, your child should know how proud you are of his or her new independence – not miss it behind frustration.

Recommended Book: Kids, Parents and Power Struggles by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka

HarperCollins 2000

Nancy Olsen-Harbich is Program Director and a Human Development Specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County’s Family Health and Wellness Program. She can be reached at 631-727-7850 ext. 332 or at


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