How to Stop a Power Struggle With Kids

Key Takeaways:

  • Kids don’t enjoy power struggles either.
  • You and your child are not enemies.
  • Focus on building the relationship.

You can feel the power struggle forming. Your daughter’s homework is out, dinner is almost ready, and dad will be home soon. “You need to finish that page before you eat,” you say, but her body language says, “no,” just like it has all afternoon. Here are your two options: Be the boss and overpower her, if she doesn’t want to finish it then she doesn’t eat. Or, let her get away with not doing it.

Those are the options our culture tells us are available. You either discipline them or you don’t. So you’re stuck being either an authoritarian or a permissive parent. That doesn’t feel good either. During a power struggle you need to help you and your child discover the middle ground, that’s where your rules remain and your child learns self-discipline.

Why Won’t My Kid Do What I say?

The power struggle exists because you both want something the other doesn’t want. That’s not a good formula for finding common ground. There are a lot of reasons why a child may not want to do something, school work in this instance. She may not understand it or see the value in it. She may be hungry or tired. Maybe she simply doesn’t care for the teacher or she’s mad at you for some reason.

The fact is, a power struggle isn’t good for either of you.

  1. You try to force her to do it and she fights back. You both end up in a nightlong dispute over her responsibilities in school.
  2. She skips dinner and the homework and shuts herself in her room.
  3. You serve her dinner anyway but you skip because of how upset you are.

No one is closer to each other in any of those circumstances. Furthermore, unless you live in a pretty odd district, homework isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. One study suggests that students do more than an hour of homework every single night. If you’re in the midst of a power struggle over homework, you are looking at more like 2.5 hours every night, not to mention the amount of frustration you’ll both be experiencing. It’s a good thing to get on the same page about. How though?

Ending a power struggle like this starts with one question.

“Is this power struggle helping or hurting the relationship?”

The way you are talking to her, the things your body language is saying, is it helping the relationship become what you want it to become?

Take a nice deep breath and think about it. Try to forget about the power struggle itself for a moment.

The things she does that get you smiling and laughing, those are the best moments you’ve had together and those are the things that will build up a relationship. But, nagging, criticizing, blaming, complaining, and punishing can all put a lot of tension on a relationship.

Does this mean one errant power struggle is going to bury your relationship into the ground? Of course not, but I know you would avoid some of those unnecessary power struggles if you could.

Here are a few things that can at least help you remain calm and not enter into a full-blown power struggle.

Slow down

You can say, “You know what? I was wrong. Why don’t you put the homework away for now. I don’t want you to feel like you have to rush through. You and I can look at it together after dinner if you think you want some help.”

You might get less done as a result but at least the experience will be a positive one. Then, you just keep building on that.

Take a few breaths

“I’m feeling frustrated about this. Can we wait to talk about this in a few minutes?” You’ll be giving yourself time to calm down but more importantly, you’ll be teaching your daughter that it’s okay to calm down before speaking. You’ll be modeling the kind of self-control you want her to have.

Let your anger and frustration cool for a moment. You’ll be glad you did.

Leave the room

Sometimes you can feel the situation getting out of hand. You can stop yourself and say, “I need to step away for a few minutes.” After you come back you can always explain a little more like, “I was getting really angry about our argument and I didn’t want to say something that might hurt you.” This honesty and vulnerability is really helpful to our children. It teaches them about appropriate and productive ways of expressing our emotions.

If you stay with them you’re like a wild animal backed into a corner; there’s no telling what you’ll do. One time our son wouldn’t come in from outside to get ready for bed. I was getting so frustrated, so I paused, watched him continue to walk away. After a moment, I decided to get some space so I turned and put my hands in my pockets and walked inside. After a few minutes, he came in as well. (There have been a few times he didn’t follow me and I decided to go out and physically carry him inside but I always calm down first.)

Avoid criticism

“I know homework is a difficult conversation for us. It causes a lot of arguments between us. I think you have very valid reasons for not wanting to do it. After dinner, let’s talk about ways I can to help.”

You’re going to feel like saying some rough things. Stick with saying the things that are supportive. There is no amount of criticism that will make do something. Michael Jordan famously tells the story of how his high school basketball told him he’d never be a basketball player. You’d be tempted to think, “sometimes criticism works!” How may good players you think gave up because someone they care about didn’t believe in them? I’m sure it’s a lot! You might enjoy doing some more reading on what the parents of successful people do.

If You Have to “Hold Your Ground”

Some situations call for strict boundaries, but you can still maintain that objective and informative posture. The video here is a great example of it in action.

Did the police officer disarm the would-be attacker? Yes.

Did the officer use shame or punishment? No.

Furthermore, do you think the would-be attacker’s relationship with the law is better than when it started? Absolutely!

If a police officer can respond to a complete stranger with this kind of grace and resolve, surely we can show similar grace to our own children.

Struggle Doesn’t Mean Loss

We all make mistakes. We’re going to say things we regret or do things we regret. We’re even going to not do things we regret.

There’s too much pressure on parents to be perfect. It’s not even possible. Seems like every year some new study comes out that proves what we were doing last year was wrong. Likewise, we see other peoples’ children doing “better” so we feel we must be doing something wrong.

If you’re going to have more grace with your children, show yourself some too. Show yourself a lot of grace.

Philip Mott

I've been working with families for two decades now. I write about topics pertaining to parents of children ages 4-12.

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