Updated: Jul 30
Mark Twain once said, "Never argue with an idiot. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience."
A friend of mine has a variation of that phrase pop into her head whenever she’s locked in a power struggle with her son: "Don’t struggle for the upper hand with your 11-year old," she thinks. "He might realize he’s got it."
Power struggles are tricky. So tricky, in fact, that they are the reason I ended up taking my very first parenting class 10 years ago. Here's how a typical power struggle would go in my house.
I would ask my daughter to put her plate away. She'd say no.
I'd ask her again, more firmly this time.
She'd say no, more firmly this time.
I'd dig in my heels, tell her it wasn't a choice. She'd start to get angry and demanding.
My voice constricted and heart thumping, I'd tell her a timeout awaited her if she wasn't willing to do it. She'd lose her shit.
It was exhausting. She was exhausting.
Then I realized, to my chagrin, that she wasn’t the problem — and neither, incidentally, was the plate. The problem was me. Power struggles, like so many other parenting challenges, are an attempt by a child to get his or her needs met. Coming out on the other side, with my dignity intact, was as simple as walking through a locked door. With the right key, I could pass right through. With no key, I'd struggle and struggle and exhaust myself and end up with a damaged door and a furious child.
In those early days, I believed that power struggles meant I’d created a monster — a child so spoiled or drunk on power that she felt entitled to do whatever she wanted to do (or not do, as the case may be.) When she refused to take no for an answer, or to cooperate with simple requests, or to go the fuck to sleep, I worried that she was not respecting me or my limits. I felt, on a fundamental level, like she needed to learn her place.
I remember saying "That is not appropriate" to my daughter a lot during her toddler and preschool years. Now I realize that I was basing my definition of “not appropriate” on what my Mom and Dad would have considered inappropriate when I was growing up — which, of course, would have been based on what their parents would have considered inappropriate. It took Ty and Linda Hatfield's Parenting from the Heart class to realize that I was wrong: What my daughter was doing was perfectly appropriate. I was the one who needed to learn my place.
Children need to feel POWERFUL. It's the "P" in children's seven SPECIAL emotional needs. (Others are Smile, Explore, Connection, Importance, Attention and Love). And when kids don't feel that they have power, in any given moment, they will try to grab it. Power struggles are one way they do it. The problem is that when we struggle back, we essentially take even more power from them — leaving them feeling less powerful than before. The result is MORE frustration, MORE challenges to our authority, MORE power struggles.
Because I said so.
Don’t talk back.
Do as I say.
Go to your room!
All of these are classic power phrases. They rob our kids of power like nothing else, and they just don’t work. It goes back to that locked door. With no key, hard times await. So what does the right key look like? In our view, there are five primary “notches” on the key to eliminate power struggles.
1. Don't struggle back.
When your child initiates a power struggle — whether she's saying "No" or "Yes" or "Stop it!" or "I won't do it!" or "You can't make me!" — put yourself on Pause. Stop what you’re doing. Make no sudden moves. Make no demands. Make no threats. The door is locked, and you can't just crash your way through it. You've got to give yourself time to locate the right key.
Try picturing yourself alongside your child, holding a paper heart. The goal is to keep the heart intact, but every time you or your kid struggles, you take a step back from each other. The heart can only take so much tension before it tears.
2. Stay with the child.
Get on her level, so you're eye to eye. Crouch down if you need to. Hold her hand or touch her back, if you think that might help. Maintain the connection.
Walking away from a power struggle is often a sign of permissive parenting. To say, “Fine, have it your way” is to let go of the heart. Your child’s heart isn’t “broken,” so to speak, but the relationship has been severed, for the moment at least.
3. Ask questions about and show empathy.
How is the child feeling? Where is the power struggle coming from? Name it to tame it. “It sounds like you are angry that I asked you to do the dishes.” And then — and this is hard in the heat of the moment — listen to the response without passing judgment. “I’ve done the dishes every single day for my whole life” is patently untrue and completely beside the point. Remember, you’re showing empathy for a feeling, not opining about whether the statement is justified.
Picture yourself following in the child’s footsteps. She is trying very hard to walk away from you — this is a struggle, after all! — but you are walking right behind her, no matter which way the child turns, keeping the heart intact, (And, yes, clearly I missed my calling as an artist.)
4. Keep your cool.
Remember, the child may continue to struggle even if you've stopped. This can be triggering. Remain calm. Give it time. If the child has been holding back a lot of frustrations — whether it’s leftover stress from a sibling fight, a challenge at school, or just the hardships of being a kid — she might need more airtime. The space you give to let her voice her grievances can help clear the air. Just don’t let yourself get drawn into the fury. To the extent possible, be an observer. Try to think how you would have felt as a kid (or an adult!) in the same situation.
5. Find a win-win.
Once the struggle dies down, and your child is feeling heard, ask, “How can we make this a win-win?” A win-win (or “happy-happy” for the toddler set) is a solution that works for both of you equally. There is always a win-win to be had. And it’s the perfect way to end a heated power struggle because kids need to stop the struggle in order to put on their thinking caps and tell their parents what they would like to do to resolve the struggle.*
And that's the point.
In a power struggle, the point is not to prevail, but to resolve.
Before Ty and Linda Hatfield, it had never occurred to me to just stay with Maxine, rather than pull away. But once I started, I found that it worked! Sometimes, it meant I needed to dig deep and find my patience. Sometimes it meant waiting a little longer to get what I wanted. But I was often able to find my way through the door with relative ease.
Now that Maxine is 14, I still approach disagreements the same general way: by slowing down, showing empathy, finding the win-win. It doesn't always follow a formula, of course. Sometimes, "slowing down" means sitting with Max while we both figure out a path forward. Sometimes "showing empathy" means backing off and letting her be by herself in her room for a while. We've been down this road so many times now, though, that we very rarely get in serious arguments — and, when we do, they never last long.
For us, power struggles are a thing of the past. Because when a child knows her power, there is no need to struggle.
* In case you feel I left you hanging, let’s take a quick example of a resolution. Let’s say the fight was over whether your child was going to do the dishes. A possible resolution might be that she does the dishes after she watches her TV show, or after a game of ping pong, or while she’s listening to music. Or maybe you and your child are willing to swap the dishes for sweeping the floors or some other chore. Or maybe the solution is that the dishes get done now but the issues of chores gets discussed/revisited at a family meeting tomorrow. It doesn't matter how it's resolved at this point, as long as both parent and child think it's fair.