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How To End Power Struggles With Your Child

Bonnie Harris


When my daughter Molly was five, I was exhausted. I couldn’t see a way out of our daily power struggles. She was pushing all my buttons, and I was reacting with hostility. But it was the mental notes playing in my head that got me the most. I was worried we would fight always. Fortunately I was wrong.

One morning, the same whiny, angry face approached—but something was different. Every other morning when I saw this face, I thought to myself, “She’s out to get me.” This particular morning I thought, “Wait a minute, she’s not out to get me. She’s miserable.” Suddenly I saw her differently. Instead of a resistant, defiant—okay I’ll say it—brat, I saw a very upset little girl who didn’t want to separate from me. I was battling her and she was anticipating the battle. It was all she could do to get me to understand her, and I wasn’t cooperating.

My shift in perception—she wasn’t being a problem, she was having a problem—changed our relationship. My emotions switched from anger to compassion. Once I got there, I didn’t have to fight her anymore. We never had another power struggle because I didn’t engage.

A power struggle is a fight to the finish when you and your child are both out to win. Most parents believe they are right because, after all, they’re the parent. But consider this, if you win, your child must lose. Your fear fuels your need to win. Your child shows defiance and you think you’re a terrible parent and your child will be a terrible person. However, in the moment of the defiance, you do have a choice even if you feel trapped. You can fight back or not.

There is no power struggle if you choose not to engage. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

Let’s start with the Don’ts:

  • Don’t try to reason with an upset child. Rational thought is impossible when the system is stressed.
  • Don’t resist resistance.
  • Don’t punish, threaten or coerce.
  • Don’t give in or try to fix it. If you feel responsible for your child’s feelings, you will try to make him happy (which is not within your power), you will inevitably lose, and then you’ll feel like a failure.
  • Don’t take it personally. It’s not about you. Your child is expressing upset in the only way he knows how right now.
  • Don’t ask questions.
  • Don’t worry, jump to conclusions or catastrophize into the future.

Here’s what you can Do instead:

  • Detach. This is your child’s problem, not yours.
  • Observe and listen. Allow child’s feelings to come out until they dissipate.
  • Maintain a “holding” attitude. See the hurt she is feeling and empathize.
  • Hold her as soon as she will let you.
  • Acknowledge feelings and intention. “You really don’t want to go to school today. I bet you wish you could stay home and play with me.”
  • Give in fantasy what can’t happen in reality. “Wouldn’t it be fun if you had a magic wand. What would be the first thing you would change?”
  • Honor desires. “How do you think you could make that happen?”
  • Offer a choice. “Do you want to put your clothes on or would you like me to today?” “You don’t have a choice about going to school but you do have a choice about how you will feel about it. You can be grumpy or you can be open to what happens. It’s your choice.”
  • Be an intentional parent. Plan, anticipate, give warnings, set predictable expectations and be firm and clear with limits.

When your child feels accepted for his desires, he is more likely to cooperate even when he can’t have what he wants. His resistance is telling you that he doesn’t like being pushed around. Don’t try to change him but do let him know that you understand even when he has to do it your way. Attempting to stop the child’s behavior with a power struggle shows disrespect for the child’s intention and asks the child to be the grown-up first.

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Bonnie Harris

Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed. is the director of Connective Parenting and is an international speaker and parent educator. She has taught groups and coached parents privately for thirty years. Bonnie is the author of two books, "When Your Kids Push Your Buttons" and "Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With”. You can learn more about her work at or follow her on Facebook