Power Struggles with Your Child

Dec 30, 2008

As I meet with parents at my office, I am noticing a trend of an increase in reports of power struggles with their children. It seems that children are fighting for control more than ever before, which manifests itself in defiance, rebellion, indifference to consequences and tantrums when things do not go their way. There is a basic reason that kids fight for control and a few easy techniques to manage this common issue, so let me share my thoughts with you.

The most common reason children fight for control and power struggle with parents is they feel they have no measure of control over anything in their lives. Children are told what, why, when and how to do things all day, every day. Teachers, parents, after-school care workers, coaches, Sunday-School teachers, etc., all with good intentions and appropriate techniques, instruct, guide and direct children constantly. The result is children feel confined and restricted by all of the rules and expectations, which leads to them grasping at any control they can find.

This becomes a further issue when parents divorce, separate, split custody, etc. A child feels that everything is out of control, they are caught in the middle of chaos. Therefore, any chance that they see to try to demand, expect or take control, they do.

While it can be frustrating and difficult to handle, it is actually a very normal coping skill that children develop. Children live in the here and now, and age-appropriately think that they world revolves around them. So, when things feel out of control, a child focuses on making him or herself feel better, typically by finding things that they can control. Adults do the same thing in a more cognitive fashion, like over- or under-eating, perfectionism, exercising, etc.

So, now that you better know why your child seems to always be fighting with you, how do you handle it most effectively? Here are a few ideas:

  • Try to recognize that it is a natural process for children to test boundaries and establish independence. The more you understand it is normal, the less frustrated you will become.
  • Take note of when your child fights the most for control with you, and/or over what. If you notice patterns, you can be pro-active to set the stage for success by modifying the frequency, environment, your reaction, etc.
  • Offer your children choices whenever possible, just for the sake of a choice. At the grocery store, you can offer this choice: “You can choose to buy Vanilla or Chocolate Ice Cream this week. Which do you choose?” (Make sure the choices you offer are acceptable to YOU as well). You can do this daily with seemingly trivial choices in most places and circumstances. This gives children the chance to feel in control many times a week, and therefore reduce the likelihood of power struggles in bigger issues. You can read more examples and further explanation of Choice Giving from a previous post: Choice Theory.
  • Work to see the situation through your child’s eyes and be understanding. Your child may just need a better explanation of the rules, an example of how better to behave or a calm moment after the incident for you to discuss the issue. (In the moment is not usually the most helpful time to teach a lesson).
  • Kids do not have abstract reasoning skills until the age of about 12. Trying to rationalize with a child is useless, as is getting into a negotiation or persuasion discussion. Do not get caught in the trap of fighting for power. Set the limit calmly and leave it with the child to ponder.

Being aware of the reasons why and using techniques to alleviate the issues can greatly reduce the frequency and severity of the power struggle issues that you face. Children want to feel that they have a say in things, just like we do as adults. Choice giving truly sets the stage for a reduction in control problems and makes both of you feel better.

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