Over the last few decades, ideas and practices regarding parenting and childrearing have significantly changed. Children are no longer “seen and not heard,” and the focus of parenting is now on a more child-centered approach. This type of parenting focuses on understanding and supporting the child’s developmental needs, respecting them as unique individuals, and providing them with opportunities to develop a sense of agency and independence.1
When children are allowed to be heard instead of just “ruled over” or punished for not listening or complying, the normal development and needs of a child to feel independent and in control can result in “power struggles.” A power struggle is a need to exert control. This may result in emotionally charged situations where a child resists their parent’s efforts to get the child to comply with some rule or request. A child may refuse to obey, and the parent continues to request or insist the child listen or complete the task, resulting in a battle of wills as each tries to control the situation.2
Why Do Power Struggles Occur?
With power struggles, the more a parent tries to force their child to be obedient or comply, the more frustrated they and the child become. And the less likely they’ll accomplish the task you initially set because the struggle delays completion. Sometimes, the more we dig our heels in, the more resistant a child can become. It is normal for young children to experiment with how far they can push boundaries and rules. Coupling that with their desire to control their world is what drives these power struggles to occur. Some other reasons are:
Some children are born with less adaptability or can be more intense. These things can make a child less flexible or open to other people’s needs or suggestions. Being strong-willed can make them more likely to be more persistent in controlling their environment.
Core Needs are Unmet
Their core needs could be things like they are tired or hungry.
Parenting and Discipline Style
Fear-based parenting styles that rely on punishment or reward are less likely to work. You are trying to incentivize cooperation, so your child is less likely to learn to comply because they want to. Instead, they rely on the reward before cooperating.
How to Manage Power Struggles
Pick Your Battles
Things will become very exhausting if you are making a stand about everything. Once you have a rule or have asked them to do something, then you will have to follow through. Instead, decide whether you need to make a big deal about it. Pick a minimum number of non-negotiables rather than getting into a battle of wills about everything.
Give Them a Choice
When you only give one option, it can trigger a power struggle, so try offering choices. The overarching rule or request doesn’t change but try and give them an alternative. For example, “Put your shoes on now” is more likely to result in a power struggle than providing a choice like, “You can either put your shoes on now or after you brush your teeth. Which one will you choose?”
Show Them the Natural Consequences
If your child is arguing about putting their shoes and socks on, and you are asking them to do it because it’s hot outside, it may be worth stepping aside. Instead, pack the shoes up with you, and allow them to learn where your request came from and why. In the case of shoes and socks, let them have hot feet and feel uncomfortable before explaining to them why putting on shoes might be helpful.
Try to Find a Compromise
Try to problem-solve and come up with a solution together. For example, you can discuss how to get on the same page with something like, “We both want to leave the house and go to the party, so how can we work together to leave as soon as possible?” or “I can see you want to do it yourself, that makes me proud. How about you let me know when you are ready or if you need me to help make it easier?”
When children feel powerless, they are more likely to engage in challenging behavior to exert or regain some of the control they feel they have lost. Parents must consider their own needs and temperaments when they notice power struggles with their children. We often need to step back and become conscious about what is happening to our child and why they are struggling with the rule, boundary, or request we have set. It’s not to say that we shouldn’t have these things because we absolutely should. But being open to changing how we comply will help us encourage more cooperation in our children and support and helps develop their strong-willed nature positively.