Dealing With Power Struggles

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– by Karan Sims

Most parents first experience their child’s attempts at autonomy at about age two. It’s the power struggle. They feel challenged and often a battle of wills begins that lasts throughout childhood and the teen years. Parents can turn these trying times into a rewarding growth period for them and their children by shifting their perspective concerning the child’s behavior and by becoming clever and creative in responding to the child’s perceived “headstrong, rebellious, stubborn, frustrating, negative” behavior.

Empowering not Overpowering

Instead of viewing children’s willful behavior as “bad” and reacting in a way that overpowers the child, parents can view this behavior as a healthy positive sign of their child’s development and find ways to empower the child. From about the age of two, and at differing intervals in the developmental process, children are individuating from their parents and the world around them. This includes making decisions for themselves, exerting their power and will on persons and situations, getting their own way, declaring ownership and authority.

When parents react by overpowering children, they cause them to feel powerless. Since all humans strive to feel powerful, the overpowered child may react to his or her feelings of powerlessness by either fight or flight – either giving in and letting others make all the decisions and maintain all control or fighting to seek power through rebellious and destructive behaviors. Parents who can shift to seeing their child’s struggle for power as a positive sign can find useful ways for the child to feel powerful and valuable and deal with power struggles in ways that reduce fighting and create cooperative relationships that empower both the child and the parents.

The First Step is to Side-Step

The first step to effectively and positively deal with power struggles is to side-step the power struggle – in other words, refuse to pick up the other end of the rope. A mother asked her two-year-old if she was ready for a nap. “NO” replied the child. Feeling challenged, the mother replied, “Do you want to walk to your bed or do you want me to carry you?” “I want you to carry me upside down and tickle me as we go.”

The mother realized that the “no” was an invitation to join a power struggle and by side-stepping it (neither fighting nor giving in) the mother created an ending that was happy, nurturing and loving rather than hateful and painful as nap time can often be. By side-stepping the power struggle, you send your child the message “I am not going to fight with you. I am not going to hurt you. I am not going to overpower you and I’m not going to give in, either.”

Choices, Not Orders

After side-stepping the power struggle, the next step is to give choices, not orders. A father, trying to change an 18-month-olds diaper, against the wishes of the child, offered the child a choice of which room to have the change made. The child choose a room, but once in the room, balked again at the diaper change. The father continued with his plan to empower the child and asked, “Which bed?” The child pointed to a bed, the diaper was changed and the ongoing power struggle about diaper changes was ended.

When giving children choices, parents must be sure that all choices are acceptable. Don’t give your child the choice of either sitting down quietly or leaving the restaurant if you have no intention of leaving.

Also be sure you don’t give too many “autocratic” choices. Autocratic choices are choices are choices that are so narrow the child senses no freedom at all. Young children benefit from having some choices narrowed, but try to give broad and open-ended choices whenever possible.

Choices should not represent a punishment as one alternative. For example, telling a child “You may either pick up the toys or take a time-out” creates fear and intimidation instead of empowerment.

Find Useful Ways for your Child to be Powerful

Whenever you find yourself in the middle of a power struggle with your child, ask yourself, “How can I give my child more power in this situation?” One mother asked herself this question concerning an endless battle she was having with her son about buckling his seat belt. Her solution was that she made him boss of the seat belts – it became his job to see that everyone was safely secured. The power struggle ended.

Do the Unexpected

One parent side-steps power struggles by announcing “let’s go out for a treat” when she feels the situation is headed for a showdown. Her purpose is not to “reward” bad behavior, but to reestablish her relationship with her children and keep her end goal of a close, loving and cooperative atmosphere in mind.

Getting to Win-Win

Power struggles often feel like someone has to win and someone has to lose. A win-win solution is where each party comes away feeling like they got what they wanted. Getting to win-win takes negotiation. Parents can assist their children by responding to a child’s demands, “That sounds like a good way for you to win. And I want you to win. But I want to win, too. Can you think of a solution that works for both of us?”

Handling “NO”

Parents often have the attitude that children should not say NO to or question authority. However, it is interesting that most of us parents buy into the media campaign of “Just Say No.” It is best to hear a child’s NO as a disagreement rather than a disrespectful response. Teach children to say NO, or disagree, respectfully and appropriately. Keep in mind that you want them to say NO when faced with peer pressure and inappropriate situations.

Powerlessness Creates Revenge

Children who are overpowered, or who feel powerless, will often seek to gain power through revenge. They will seek to hurt others as they feel hurt and will often engage in behavior that ultimately hurts themselves. Revenge at age two and three looks like talking back and messy food spills. Revenge at age 16 or 17 looks like drug and alcohol abuse, pregnancy, failure, running away and suicide.

When children act out in power struggles and revengeful behavior, they are most often feeling powerless and discouraged about a positive way to contribute and know that their actions count. Most parents’ goals are to raise a child who becomes a self-reliant adult, can make good decisions and has the confidence to be whatever he or she chooses. Your child will see the future that future more clearly if you allow him or her to practice at being powerful in useful and appropriate ways.

Karan Sims is a Redirecting Children’s Behavior instructor for the International Network for Children and Families.



Do you need better attendance at your parent education programs? I split my time between The Hudson Valley, NY, So. California and Louisville, KY. If you are interested in parenting classes & workshops in a 3 hour radius of either, there are no travel fees. Please contact me for topics & rates. I love to travel & have an 8-week proposal for parenting workshops, intensive classes & instructor training in your area of the world. Please email me for details.


  1. Andre Says Reply

    Hi, I work for social services and have taken the positive parenting course. A lot of my clients can benefit from going through the program but want some extra help when I am not around to help them. I would like to be able to refer them to this page of the website but it falls short in giving examples of how to implement what was taught. The reasoning for the technique is offered, but there aren’t many examples of practical application. In the section titled “Find Useful Ways for your Child to be Powerful”, it talks about how the concept works but then it also gives an example of how to put it into practice “One mother asked herself this question concerning an endless battle she was having with her son about buckling his seat belt. Her solution was that she made him boss of the seat belts – it became his job to see that everyone was safely secured. The power struggle ended.”. This is really useful and I would like to see this type of example for each section. Thanks

  2. Shefali Says Reply

    Dear Karen,
    I found your article on dealing with power struggles very helpful, I have a ten year old son who every other morning makes a fuss to go to school. he normally leaves for school in a bad mood and I often feel like a real loser as we have heated arguments before he leaves. I wonder if giving him a choice that will turn the focus of his attention to a more positive aspect of school will help matters.
    It will be wonderful to hear from you.


    • ahaaha Says

      allow me to say.
      There are times you dont give your child a choice.
      Daddy/mommy knows best can be an appropriate and final answer
      for the child.
      But it is important to be in touch with the child’s school environment.
      There could be bullys or misbehaving teachers. So just do your
      parenting work.

  3. Understanding Power Struggles - Positive Parenting Says Reply

    […] So glad you asked!  It’s really very simple.  Every time your child misbehaves in a specific way, you need to decide how to respond, and use that exact same response every single time your child misbehaves in that same way.  In the example above, I would look at my child and decide to myself, “Hmmm…what is the best response for this age, stage, and behavior?  At six months old, she is really too young for lectures or explanations.  The best discipline for little ones is distraction or repetition.  So what I will do is pick her up gently, and murmur, “Michelle will learn to stay away from the glass if she wants to play in the living room” while walking her calmly out of the room”. I have to respond that way every single time she goes to the glass.  I cannot raise my voice, say it louder, hold her firmer, or in any way escalate my emotional response, or I lose my parental power.  I must respond like a broken record over and over again.  At six months old, I may need to repeat 20, 30, 50 times before she learns, but she eventually will learn.  The best thing about this response is that she won’t learn to have the power to “cause” me to lose control (where she thinks she won).  You may think I am not sane, however this is true and this works.  You can begin this idea at any age and stage to get your power (I.e. influence) back as the parent.  Once you have learned how to stop causing the connection between their misbehavior making them feel powerful, then you can be much more successful in redirecting power struggles. […]

  4. Spitting out gum on lid of trashcan - Positive Parenting Says Reply

    […] This is a tool for avoiding power struggles. […]

  5. Kids Fighting - "What Do I Do?" - Positive Parenting Says Reply

    […] Bill Cosby once said, “You aren’t really a parent until you’ve had your second child.” Parents of one child won’t really understand this. Parents of two or more children will relate to this statement immediately. He was referring to the seemingly constant bickering and fighting between brothers and sisters.  Kids fighting is the #2 parent complaint, a close second only to #1 – power struggles. […]

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  7. Steve R Says Reply

    Thanks for this great article. It was really helpful. We can never be reminded enough how precious our children are. I needed to be reminded so thank you. I particularly love the comment, “Instead of viewing children’s willful behavior as “bad” and reacting in a way that overpowers the child, parents can view this behavior as a healthy positive sign of their child’s development and find ways to empower the child. ” This is so true but difficult in the moment. Thanks again.

  8. Tamati Ihaka Says Reply

    This is a great article, often I have been drawn into one of these situations and reacted in a way that made me and my kids feel miserable. Reading this helped me realise I can do more things that are fun and respectful, instead of yelling from the lounge for my girls to go to sleep at the end of the day. Thank you.

  9. margarita Says Reply

    What about dangerous situations? My 3 little girls 6, 2 and 1 are very daring and love to climb everything in the house. I explain how dangerous and unsafe it is but the temptation makes them want to do it more. What side step alternative can I make to stop the dangerous behaviors?

  10. ahaaha Says Reply

    i think it comes automatically.
    I wanted to rest in a restaurant. My daughter said she didnt want us to take tea.
    “The tea is for me. not you” i informed her.
    Separating my wishes from my 5 year old daughters wishes has been helpful in being with my daughter.
    She really can have her separate choices.
    Because she is prone to the child’s sulking and inddispline, i basically allow her to taste consequences of her
    choices. If she wont ask me properly and politely for a soda i am not her maid to bring it to her and because
    she can do without it i am all good. and even save some coins. And i take the time to let her know she just
    have to ask nicely next time.

    Why do i do this? because i have a nightmare. That if my daughter wont learn politeness and manners, the world
    out there is just too hostile for undisciplined people. Myself i am hostile to disrespectful people.

    I would hate to see her meandering all over because nice loving people cannot tolerate her.

    • Nicholas Hurst Says

      Positive attitude has a lot to do with the way your child will react to your behaviour as well. If a parents attitude is already negative when they need the child to cooperate what else do you expect. It’s no different as adults getting called into the office by a manager and already feeling as if we are in trouble due to the managers attitude. Yes we are in charge of kids butt kids are not drones. Walking into a room with your kids there and being very relaxed and not over powering makes the kids feel as if they’re not already in trouble. I started a mortgage brokerage about a year ago and have made it very successful due to the fact that I tell myself every day I can do this. Kids are a huge part of the way their parents act and I’m not being judgmental as I have a child that was very ODD. He would fight me on everything down to what socks he wanted to wear. I am also a hard-headed individual. After taking a quick look at my behaviour, I realize my son was not only acting out due to my overpowering but also was walking in my footsteps. I’m not saying any of these parents are bad people or don’t know how to parent but I do realize it’s very difficult to admit that we may be wrong. Keep positive attitudes and watch amazing kids grow to be positive individuals. Parents these days need realize that these individual kids are going to be on their own and won’t have a parent always there to support them. That’s our job as a parent is not to make our kids feel powerless but to empower them to take on life.

  11. Angel Says Reply

    HI, your first example is absolutely flawed. As if a disobedient child would willingly provide a positive middle ground alternative to a power struggle. When they say no, they mean no. You can offer options that lead to the same conclusion but for smart children who see through that, you’re still going to get a NO. There is no way to side step that.

    • ArmyWife22 Says

      Unfortunately Angel what is flawed is your negative attitude towards an absolutely perfect and reasonable solution to a very common behavior from a child. This is called “Positive Parenting” for a reason, you need to be positive about what you are doing and how you do it. And having this negative attitude going into it, and that it will not work because your child is to smart or disobedient has caused you to be defeated from the get go. Believe it or not any child, even teenagers, will respond to this solution. IF you go into it with a positive attitude, a reasonable expectation, and of course 2 options that allow for the feelings you both are looking to get out of the situation. There is ALWAYS a way to side step with a child, heck you can even do it with another adult, but it all begins with a POSITIVE ATTITUDE!!!!!!!! NOT your NEGATIVE, it will never work attitude!!!
      And Marie if you can get it to work with clothes, there is NO reason why you cannot get it to work with other situations, other than you have the same NEGATIVE~
      “I can’t attitude” as Angel. Believe it or not, some of the most successful business people in the world all say the same thing when it comes to why they are so successful…. they all say, it begins and ends with “PMA~ POSITIVE MENTAL ATTITUDE”.

  12. Marie Says Reply

    So much of this was wonderful but Angel I understand what you are saying. My child is six and I will say “do you want to do this or this?” (trying to come up with a can do solution) and they still say, “No, I want to do this.” (something they wanted in the beginning which we can’t do.) They have outgrown the choices thing sometimes I think. I do think it works for clothes asking them do you want to wear this or this.

    • Erin Says

      Hi Marie,

      I wonder if this might fall under the quality of choices discussed in the article. Maybe your daughter is wanting more responsibility (planning meals, organizing clothing storage, choices in cloths that are acquired? – just throwing out ideas here 🙂 ). In a positive parenting class we took, our coach stressed the importance of the language used… “do you want this or this” is really a Yes/No question, where “your choices are this or this” makes it more clear that action X will be taken but there’s power within the action for the child. Just my thoughts on it. Best of luck to you! (And all of us!!)

    • Madison Says

      Angel Says,

      I agree with you. I have a ten year old that is very negative and when he says no. He means it. I don’t care what options I give him, he is not budging from his choice and decision . He wants to control the situation and the people. He wants everybody listening to him and doing what he says. it is has taught him not to be responsible for his actions. Kids are always going to test boundaries, but being positive and side stepping the problems does not work. What about discipline when they should be discipline? I mean we all have consequences to our actions as adults? I cannot remember getting options at work or any where in life outside of my home? Isn’t this dangerous thinking to teach our children? Being polite and having manners should be given for every child and adult, but honestly what is this teaching them? That they will always have choices if they do not like something?

  13. Martha Welsh Says Reply

    My little girl is only 8 months and it seems like a constant power struggle. I’m going to sign up to your course it looks amazing and just from reading a few of your articles I can tell you’re a real expert in the field, I’ve learned a lot so far.

    One of my main problems is possessiveness of toys. I won my girl a stuffed animal and she refuses to share with her older brother. She throws violent tantrums that scare me I wonder where she gets it from.

    Anyway, I look forward to getting some help 🙂

    Thanks so much!

  14. How To Stop Kids From Talking Back | Stuffies Blog Says Reply

    […] voice is much more effective than screaming. Yelling will only escalate the situation and cause a power struggle between you and your child. If you’re struggling to maintain control, count to 10 and take some […]

    • Michelle Says

      We have what we call “special toy rule.” When a child receives a you they get exclusive use for one week. Then it must be shared. Often a good 24hrs is all that is needed!

  15. Says Reply

    Ze gerationaliseerd door te zeggen dat hij de bescherming
    zijn hand , terwijl het in werkelijkheid wat hij deed draaien zijn beste koppel in een bluf .

  16. Natalie soon Says Reply

    What about when we empower them but they chose to play before complete their work?

  17. Erico Says Reply

    Hello , I enjoyed the congratulations post!
    you have other articles on the subject ?

    🙂 : )

  18. Tiffany Says Reply

    Hi I have a 11yr old and I’m going through this right now. He dad let’s her do whatever she won’t, so when I ask her too do something it’s like pulling teeth

    • Deborah Godfrey Says

      I have a book I recommend that really helped me. The best thing it did for me was make me realize that my ex could not undermine me unless I allowed him to. It helped me be every bit the parent I wanted to be, no matter how differently he parented. And you can save $5 by entering code 5Off at checkout.
      Mom’s house, Dad’s House

  19. Power Struggles Between Parents and Children - Says Reply

    […] Revenge – In her article online, Karin Sims, defines revenge as, “Revenge at age two and three looks like talking back and messy […]

  20. Listen Says Reply

    Who’s really being parented? Who’s really making the decisions? Some of these are perfect examples of positive parenting with power struggle. Ladies what you must remember is that you birthed this child. They didn’t birth you. It’s not about power. You don’t compete for that with a child. You are the authoritative figure, you are their PARENT. Not their competition. Don’t let your kids walk over you, and don’t belittle them, instead set a positive example, and remain in control at all times. Your kids have plenty of time and learning opportunities to make decisions, don’t treat it as a game. It is part of life and we must raise children carefully and diligently. The best source to go to when it comes to parenting is either your parents, or God. I don’t know who believes what, but the Bible gives specific instructions on raising your child. For example, punishment is a MUST. Again, its not about power, but how else will your child learn to obey, it’s for their own good. I know you’ve taken psychology… use the young child touching the hot stove scenario. Think about a choice then…. Just use your brains and go with your own mommy instincts. The child doesn’t realize it yet but mommy knows best.

    • Richard Aguirre Says

      Not about power? It’s the definition of power. You’re trying to control the behavior of another human being. There is so much sugar coating and ‘happy think going on here. Reality shows your ‘attitude’ is not going to solve it, or affect them. What affects them is your actions. You have two options for using your power: negotiation or overwhelming force (ie., imposed consequences. When your kid digs in on something and negotiation fails, they’re just telling you they think they are powerful enough to get what they want from you. Your choices are either to concede… sometimes you can afford to and they win – good for them, but let them win on your terms… or go to the mat. You have to be 100% ready to apply effective consequences at any moment. Progressive increases work best so you don’t run out of creative options too soon (but it’s only a matter of time – you just have to last 18 years). Sure you should use kind language and hugs and all that to defuse the emotions but ultimately you have to understand your child’s wants and needs, and assert your parental authority while your child strives to improve their personal situation based on what they care about. All normal adult rules of negotiation and power struggles apply, just in a kid context. You have to use every advantage you have available, fortunately one of which is their natural dependence and desire to follow the rules and please you, but you can’t depend On that. It’s best if you dictate the time and place of battles so you can control the outcomes, and stay one step ahead of them by anticipating their wants while aligning those with your plans. Motivation is the key ingredient to gaining compliance. Everything you can do to motivate them, within reason, you should be prepared to do. Everything in your life that impedes your ability to effectively manage that child you need to be prepared to drop as required or it will create a weak point your child can use to wear you down. Can’t take time to apply consequences when your child throws things at you? Think again and re-schedule that appointment or you will lose. Not good at planning your week around child motivators? Get prepared for them to throw a wrench in your schedule. Afraid your child will be negatively impacted by too many rules and repeated application of consequences? Toughen up buttercup. Like a dog ona leash they will pull until it actually hurts. It’s your
      Job to get them to heel, or else you’ll be the one playing fetch. Consistency, preparedness (including your own energy levels) and clear instructions are the key to success. Sound like a manual for military drill instructors? Well, guess where they get it from – most new recruits are basically children. No need to sugar coat the reality, it’s no secret.

  21. Elena Says Reply

    I love this positive parenting approach. However, i need some help and ideas on how to use it on my 2y9m son with the following problem:
    He is hitting everyone. He hits me, his dad, kids in the park, grandparents. Literally, no one gets away without a slap or a foot kick.
    I can say we have tried lots of attitudes: explaining nicely no hurting others, keeping his hands not to fight, time off, no talking to him, cutting back on cartoons, making him appologize, saying he better hug us instead if hitting. Nothing functioned. He just keeps in hitting. Even if you stand 2 feet away from and say something he strongly disagrees, he would intentionally come close to you to slap.
    So please give us some ideas on how to enforce this side stepping into this issue we have. Thanks a lot.

  22. The Best Tip to get your Children to Clean Up - Parenting From The Heart Says Reply

    […] do it for them. However, by stopping what you are doing, remaining calm, and gently helping them, power struggles dissipate and the cleaning gets […]

  23. Al Forno pizza delivery Dublin 6 Says Reply

    Your child will see the future that future more clearly if you allow him or her to practice at being powerful in useful and appropriate ways.

  24. ginnie Says Reply

    Hello. My girl is 9 years old and has a huge explosive temper. When it came to clothing struggles, I just gave up and let her choose whatever she wanted to wear, keeping in mind that I would never have anything in the closet that was inappropriate so that no inappropriate choice could ever be made. Power struggle over and now she chooses clothing that is appropriate because it is up to her and she wants to look nice. Our biggest struggle is with food. She is the pickiest eater, opting instead to go days without any food rather than eat anything that you put in front of her. She would rather eat cookies and chips than eat meals so I started to not let her have anything that she could fill up on instead of eating dinner. She still refuses to eat things. The problem is that when she doesn’t eat, her sugar levels go low and she morphs into the incredible Hulk. Then she can really go crazy over anything and everything, it doesn’t matter what. At that point there is no power struggle anymore, just a kid looking for a fight. I always talk to her calmly, but it doesn’t seem to matter. She gets more and more destructive the calmer I get. I think it angers her the most because she can’t get a rise out of me. Lately, because I still respond calmly, she has resorted to kicking the doors in. It is then that I put her in her room and tell her to stay there to calm down. She won’t stay. She comes out thrashing and screaming. I then have to go into my own room and close the door to remove myself from the situation. She tries to kick my door down. I stay as calm as possible, she gets worse and worse trying her hardest to get any sort of rise from me. What am I doing wrong?

    • Anna Says

      Wow you have one hell of a struggle on your hands. We too have a power struggle with our 4 yr old (4th child), we thought our kids were all stubborn until our youngest came along. No matter what choices I give her (even if I don’t like the choice myself) she will just dig in her heels more on her 1st choice. I must admit I do not always stay calm when you’re trying to get 4 kids out for school and she is delaying everyone because she wants to wear that same top she wore for the last two days and to bed with food stains. (Just because her friend wears the same top to school).

      In your case though what’s screaming out at me is she’s definitely out of control and I commend you staying calm in that situation. I once saw a programme on tv with out of control teenagers and I always remember a young boy who was just like your girl and what was recommended was to find an opportunity to just hold them and love them, like a big hug. I do believe there is so much power in a meaningful hug taking away all her emotions. Hope that may help, you may need to do this daily to show her you’re on her side . Hope it all works out for you. Anna

  25. Determination vs Determination Who Will Win? | Ask a Parent or Teacher Says Reply

    […] is a classic example of a POWER STUGGLE – parent and child each trying to get what they want. Parenting would be so much easier if […]

  26. How To Prepare Your Child For A Successful Adult Life | A Lifestyle Blog by Mommy Iris Says Reply

    […] a parent can sometimes be a power struggle, and as children get older, that struggle can get worse. If you want to produce children who will […]

  27. Traditional Revival Says Reply

    A mother asked her two-year-old if she was ready for a nap. “NO” replied the child. Feeling challenged, the mother replied, “Do you want to walk to your bed or do you want me to carry you?” “I want you to carry me upside down and tickle me as we go.”

    I’ve been down this road and it still ends bad. I can get the child to make some progress by making things fun, as the example shows. But then a new problem develops: The child expects every unpalatable thing to be made fun! And if you can’t make something fun, then you get rage for that failure PLUS she still doesn’t want to do the thing.

    Other times, you could make something fun, but it’s become a major annoyance. She’s seven, and putting her foot down about any slightly new food. She wants an elaborate airplane flying food into the mouth with different voices and each bite can be refused several times before eating and that has to be part of the show too. It’s too much.

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