Who Wins? Resolving Power Struggles at Home

Remember the first time your little, previously compliant infant arched his back as you tried to strap him into his car seat? He wanted power and you did too.  Your two ways did not align and he let you know by struggling to free himself from the five-point harness with all the strength his little 20 lbs could muster (Surprisingly this is exponentially stronger than one would think!).

What about when, while walking through the grocery, your toddler declares she wants Sugary Princess Puffs.   Throwing herself down and squalling at a volume that tempts the manager to announce, “Meltdown, Aisle 6!”, she stakes her claim.  She wants what she wants.  So do you – mainly to exit through the fire door without anyone noticing! Your wills are not united and she’s about the business of letting you (and everyone else) know how unacceptable the situation is to her.

Power struggles are normal in a family.

They don’t have to destroy you or your children.

Certain members of the family may fall into them more easily than others. 

Arm Wrestle

photo property of hearts homeward

Let me tell you something I’ve learned in these 14 years of being a mom:

When it comes to power struggles, no one wins.

You may feel triumphant if your child relents and does what you want. If your “victory” comes by way of power, it comes at a price. You probably had to act in a way you would rather not have. A pattern of engaging in power struggles leaves long term scars. When we go after situations on a win-lose basis, forcing our children to do what we want, we are never going to win their hearts, help them embrace the root motivations for doing what is good or help maintain true respect and love between us.

image of an angry woman who is controlling her children with force instead of resolving the power struggle.

photo courtesy of Prawny on Morguefile

A controlling approach to parenting leads to either one of two things in our children:

  • Fear which complies  
  • Outward or Passive Rebellion

As parents we need to decide if we merely want external conformity and compliance (and yes, of course, in part we do) or if we want heart level agreement from our children which includes them working through issues and making choices, even disagreeing with us at times.

Now, I know when it comes to a fit in the grocery store, your child may not agree with you that Princess Puffs are not a nutritious and economical choice for breakfast. She can, however choose to go along with your decision without you getting stuck pulling her flailing body off the floor while trying to avoid knocking over the end-cap.  

Here are four keys to resolving conflict while avoiding the power struggle:

Ignore the power struggle, not the child.

Sometimes the most effective and helpful response is to drop the issue and sidestep the battle. With most little children, distraction works wonders in times like this. You can start to sing your one-year-old’s favorite song as you buckle up the car seat.  Twinkle Twinkle … and voila, all’s well. 

image of a baby smiling because his mother used distraction to avoid the power struggle.

photo courtesy of Feliphe Schiarolli

With your older children, distraction won’t prove to be as effective. You need to state something like, “I’m not going to fight with you about this. I love you. Tell me when you are ready to move on.” Step aside, let them escalate. You don’t have to buy a ticket on their ride. The old saying, “It takes two to tango” bears true here. If you back off the dance floor, the dance will eventually end.

Don’t make Mountains of Molehills.

Our children can push our buttons like no other human beings on this planet. Top that off with our healthy concern for their well-being and we can end up anxious over them.  Have you been plagued with thoughts of “What if …”?  Fear creates imaginary crises and unnecessarily sends us through the roof.  “What if he never learns to make his bed … and is irresponsible forever … and ends up homeless!” 

image of a homeless man - representing how parents can fear the worst for their children and end up in power struggles as a result.

photo courtesy of giovanni randisi

The answer lies in gaining perspective.  Cool your jets.  Most situations don’t have to come down to a “you’ll do what I say, when I say” ultimatum.  Ask yourself the long-term importance of the issue before you make a big deal of it.  

Keep it Win-Win:

Always remind yourself that you are on the same team. It isn’t you against your child.  

Training and rearing your children involves buckets full of love, grace and flexibility.  We can’t lord our authority over our children and hope to end up in a win-win.  

In the case of the Princess Puff cereal meltdown, you could say, “Hunny, I know you want that yummy cereal.  I’m saying, “no,”  but you can pick something else we both say “yes” to before we leave the store.”  This empathetic way of relating with our children shows them we aren’t trying to override their emotions, normal desires or individuality.

image of mother holding child in a win-win solution to a power struggle.

photo courtesy of London Scout

A beautiful balance exists between being kind and firm simultaneously.  Our healthy limits don’t budge; our compassionate love doesn’t disappear either.

Don’t try to change them, decide what you will do:

Deciding what we will do may be the key of all keys when it comes to evading a power struggle. It dovetails with ignoring, but goes deeper.

Often, when we are in a power struggle, our hidden aim is to make our child change.  Instead, we need to make a seemingly small, but very significant shift by looking at our own realm of choice.  We can ask ourselves: “What will I do if they don’t change?”  You are not stuck.  You have choices.

Of course there are consequences for behaviors, sometimes natural, sometimes ones we have to put in place (logical). Consequences go so far, but they won’t successfully make a child stuck in stubbornness relent.  In teachable moments, when the heart of our child is open, we can shape their character.  During an invitation to battle, we bow out gracefully and let them simmer down, leaving them room to choose and to accept the outcome of their own choices.

If you were blessed by these parenting insights, I’d love to hear from you.  When you subscribe to my newsletter, I send you my weekly letter.  I pinky-promise not to spam your inbox with meaningless clutter.  

If you want to learn more about my availability to come speak to your group, you can go to my contact page on Christian Women Speakers or fill out my contact form.

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  • Reply
    January 21, 2016 at 2:36 AM

    Excellent, wise and relevant!! Love the humour as well. I will be re-reading this… it was not how I was parented (I wish) and will take lots of practice.

    • Reply
      January 21, 2016 at 3:04 PM

      I wasn’t raised this way either. It has been a process of studying, applying, reading, failing, getting up, asking forgiveness and trying again which has led me to these gentler and deeper ways of parenting. I lean towards the Nike approach when it comes to the way I want my kids to hear me: “Just Do It.” Though my heart is tender towards them, I get tense and want them to simply do what I want. It’s been good to be stretched and to find excellent parenting support to help me grow over these 14 years. I’ve had to unearth pain from my own past that kept me from relaxing and entrusting my children to God too. Now I’m committed to helping other parents move into this kind of effective, grace-based, honoring place as I continue to grow as well. I’m not “arrived” but I’ve grown enough to see the benefits and I want to help other families do the same. We all lean either towards too much “kindness” which becomes soft and permissive OR too much “firmness” which can be authoritarian and demanding and lack grace or relationship. The balance of kind/firm is such a key. I need to know that my limits are real and for their good (like them or not, like me or not) and yet I love them and am with them as we go through this “growing up” together. Thank you SO MUCH for commenting here. I love hearing how this touches others – especially people I love dearly.

  • Reply
    January 22, 2016 at 3:31 PM

    Just important reminders – especially “ignore the struggle and not the child”. It’s so easy to become frustrated and get wrapped up into the struggle. It takes a moment of stepping back and seeing what is really going. Thanks for this great wisdom and for the great reminder that we are called to love and support our children.

    • Reply
      January 22, 2016 at 5:19 PM

      You sweet lum bao of mine. Thank you for this. You and I together can do this. I’m so grateful for how God uses us to spur one another along in gentle and effective parenting. Such a gift – one I can’t find words to express. I’ll get teary if I do. Love you.

  • Reply
    Life Lessons: Parenting Your Teen (Part 2) – Hearts Homeward
    June 15, 2016 at 10:49 AM

    […] take it from wordy-girl over here who has learned this parenting lesson the hard way.  {More on avoiding power struggles in a future post in this […]

  • Reply
    November 4, 2017 at 8:08 PM

    I agree that these strategies are best when they work, and are the ideal (I love connected parenting in theory), but they do not always work. There are times when a child must learn to accept obedience purely out of respect for the parent. Use grace always, and choices, distractions, or negotiation when possible, but instill respect for authority as well.

    • Reply
      November 5, 2017 at 6:20 AM

      Good word, Marsha! It’s so true that many of the ideals don’t always pan out in real-world parenting. I have a strong-willed child and these approaches have tended to work better with him than the “because I said so,” approach. We parents need to maintain balance and that usually means picking approaches that work, and then being willing to shift the way we do things as circumstances and personalities require. Like you, I surely believe in parental authority. In seasons when my boys (or foster daughter) have been struggling with questioning or resisting leadership, we’ve had to work on that with them. We have more “Do what I said first and then we can talk about why I want you to do it …” kinds of interactions with them at those times. Obedience becomes a part of our conversations when their hearts are soft, and when needed we even have heart-habit-training times where we practice them saying yes and doing what I said (in the elementary age years). I do believe obedience in itself can’t be a primary aim as we parent. We need to focus on the wellbeing and forward growth of our children. Discipline needs to be about instruction grounded in love. Obedience is a fruit of love, trust, confidence and a submitted heart. Without those foundations parents who focus on obedience at all costs tend to end up with compliant (externally conformed) or rebellious children. Obedience involves the will – it has, by nature, an element of choice. Thank you so much for visiting Hearts Homeward and for sharing your thoughts. You added a lot to the conversation.

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