Children and adults both have a need for control—you’ve seen it when your toddler demanded the red cup instead of the green one you offered, or when your teenager didn’t listen to your advice about wearing protective gear while skateboarding.
The topic of power struggles has come up frequently in our One-2-One virtual chats with parents. We all are feeling anxious about what the future holds as we wait out this pandemic. Even children, who are primarily unaware of what’s happening outside the home, can pick up on their parent’s feelings of uncertainty.
Sense of security and need for control go hand-in-hand with power struggles. But understanding why you are in a power struggle with your child, and how to best respond to it, can go a long way in minimizing arguments in the home.
What are power struggles?
Power struggles occur when both parent and child are determined to have their way—and neither has any intention of backing down. Power struggles are a natural and normal part of a child’s development as they explore their autonomy and independence. They are testing boundaries, trying to learn the rules that govern our family lives and our world.
Our role as parents is to find a way to give them a sense of control, while maintaining some boundaries. It’s a balancing act, and you’ll have questions such as:
• “How much is too much for them to control?”
• “What boundaries need to be firmly maintained?”
• “How do I safely let my child test the limits?”
A good starting point is to ask yourself:
1. “What is my child trying to control?”
2. “What is a simple, actionable thing that gives me a sense of control?”
3. “What works best for my child when we are in a power struggle?” Is it distraction? Explanation or reason? Having choices?
Ways to minimize power struggles
One of the best ways to minimize power struggles is to let your child make a lot of little decisions and choices that are safe and age-appropriate. For example, your toddler can pick their shirt to wear; your elementary school-age child can decide which friend they want over for a playdate; or your teenager can choose which classes they want to take or sports to play. Letting your child have control over their food choices, clothing, chores, or extracurriculars can help lessen power struggles over the big issues.
And when it’s appropriate, take a moment to recognize and applaud your child’s decision-making skills, as well as make moments each day to just connect as parent and child (for example, cooking together, reading a book, or talking in the car on the way to the store).
Lastly, remember that although you can’t control your child’s emotions, you are in charge of your own—and you have the superpowers to help your child work through their feelings and make decisions that will help them grow into smart, capable adults.
This article appeared in the June 2020 edition of Oregon Family Magazine.