Decrease Power Struggles and Increase Connection with These Steps

As we head into week four of the quarantine, many parents, myself included, are starting to fall apart.

Even under the best circumstances, being at home with our kids 24/7, without any breaks and with very few outlets other than taking walks/scooter rides/ bike rides around the neighborhood, does not bode well for a calm and connected household.

Add in the unprecedented level of societal fear and anxiety that we're all shouldering and the likelihood of an increase in power struggles, meltdowns and tantrums (your kids' and your own!) is a foregone conclusion.

At least it has been in my household!

We were doing pretty well for the first two weeks, but this past week, things went downhill. Let's just say that when it came to meltdowns, I don't know whose were more impressive, my boys' or mine!


By the end of the week, I had to sit down and literally write out the strategies I was going to use to stay cool, calm and collected and post them up on our fridge- giving myself mental reminders wasn't cutting it.

Since the decrease in my patience was directly correlated to the increase in power struggles, the steps to diffusing one were at the top of my list of strategies for restoring my sanity.

Before we get to that, let's do a quick power struggle review...

The definition of a power struggle is when two or more people compete for control. Your kid wants to do something one way, you want him to do it a different way. Your kid doesn't want to do something, you say he has to. You both dig your heels in and it becomes a battle of wills. A losing battle, that is!

The good news is that power struggles are a completely normal and expected part of childhood development (yay! my kids are not sociopaths!).

The bad news is that they typically begin around 2-years-old, really start to ramp up aroung 3-years-old, continue throughout childhood and adolescence and then ramp up again during the teenage years (Lord, help us!).

In order to get a handle on this extremely challenging (read: annoying) aspect of our child's development, first we have to understand the underlying reasons kids engage in power struggles:

  1. They're asserting autonomy and looking for independence
  2. They have a strong desire to be heard
  3. They're testing limits to see where you end and where they begin
  4. They're trying to get their needs/wants met
  5. They're feeling powerless and looking for a way to assert control

Second, we have to understand this crucial piece of information: it's OUR emotional response that causes a power struggle, not our kids'.

Yep, that's right, it take two to tango. A child cannot have a power struggle on his own. The more angry, irritated, annoyed and demanding we are, the more power we inadvertantly give our kids and the more defiant they become.

The key to decreasing power struggles is to manage OUR OWN emotions. This requires good self-regulation, which is predicated on good self-care.

With that in mind, we need to develop both offensive strategies to decrease our child's proclivity for power struggles as well as defensive strategies for when we find ourselves in the eye of the storm.

Offensive strategies to decrease the liklihood of a power struggle:

1. Give choices as often as possible. Do you want pretzels or crackers? Do you want to climb in the car by yourself or for mommy to lift you? Do you want to do your ipad time now or after lunch? Do you want to get your pj's on now or after your brush your teeth?

Give two options - any more can get confusing and defeat the purpose. It's not going to "work" all the time, but when you get in the habit of doing this, it will make a difference over time.

2. "Catch" your child "being good." Use specific, concrete praise as often as possible when your child is cooperating, listening, being helpful. Connect what you're "catching" to a character trait- he likes to be a helper, he's kind, he's generous, he's curious, he's caring. This will reinforce positive behavior.

3. Schedule daily "Special Time." This is the number one, biggest bang-for-your-buck behavioral intervention. Daily one-on-one time with your child during which he's in charge and has your full, undivided attention is basically a magical cure-all for any behavioral issue.

4. Give your child "the plan." Get in the habit of giving your child "the plan" throughout the day. "Here's our plan this morning. After breakfast, we're going to go upstairs, brush your teeth and get dressed. They you'll have time to play before we leave for school."

Letting him know what to expect will help minimize protesting. Bonus points for using the Time Timer which gives both a visual and auditory cue for transitions.

5. Minimize transitions. Speaking of transitions, too many are a recipe for increased power struggles. Simplify your schedule as much as possible to keep them at bay.

Now for the defense. You've worked your offense, but your child is not having it. The battle of the wills has begun! Here's what to do:

1. Disengage. Your child says something defiant, refuses to cooperate, screams NOOOOO in your face. DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT take the bait! Take a deep breath, channel your inner Buddah, and stay centered (easier said than done, I know! This is where your self-care comes in).

2. Mirror and Validate. Empathically reflect back what your child is trying to communicate (remember: power struggles are often about the need to be heard). "I see you don't want to take a bath." "You really want to do screen time right now." "You'd rather do your Legos than your homework."

Key word here is "empathically." It won't work if you are seething and respond in an angry, sarcastic and/or annoyed tone.

Phrases to use:

  • I see...
  • I hear...
  • I understand you...
  • I notice...
  • I feel...
  • I wonder...
  • You have an idea, I have a different idea, how can we work together?

Phrases to Avoid:

  • If you don't, then I will...
  • You better...
  • I'm in charge here!
  • You're not in charge!
  • Because I'm the parent and I said so!
  • You are going to be in BIG trouble!
  • Don't you dare disobey me!

3. Give a Choice NOT an Order. "You can either take a bath or a shower, which do you prefer?" "You can do ten minutes of screen time now and twenty after breakfast or you can wait until after breakfast and do all thirty, which do you prefer?" "Your homework has to get done. You can either finish it now or after baseball practice, which do you prefer?"

Make is short and sweet. No lectures or lengthy explanations trying to persuade him to see your point of view. Think: less talk, more action!

4. Repeat Choice Once, then Follow Through. You: It's time for a bath. Child: I DONT WANT TO TAKE A BATH!!!! You: Oh man, you really don't want to stop playing to go up for bath AND it's time to get ready for bed. Would you like to take a bath or a shower? Child: NEITHER!!! You: You can either take a bath or a shower, which would you like to do? Child: I TOLD YOU, NEITHER!!! You (on the verge of losing it, but remembering to take a deep breath and stay grounded): Walk over, pick up child and carry him to the shower or bath without saying anything (especially if he's screaming!). Turn on bath and place him in it. Do you want your boat to play with or your bath crayons?

Older kid example: Child chose to finish homework after baseball practice and he just got home. He grabs his iPad and sits down on the couch. You: It's time to do turn off your iPad and start your homework. Child: I don't feel like doing my homework. Come on, just let me use the iPad for ten more minutes! You: You chose to do iPad time before baseball, now it's time for homework. Child: NO! I'm too tired. I don't want to. You: Take iPad away. You can have the iPad as soon as you're done with your homework.

Additional Tips:

  • Ask yourself: how can I give my child more power in this situation?
  • Be kind AND firm
  • Follow through and stay away from threats
  • Collaborate and involve your child
  • Really listen to your child's side
  • Avoid reasoning

Our goal is to tolerate, allow for and suspend judgment of our kids' big and unpleasant feelings while simultaneously upholding loving and firm boundaries. This is no easy task! In fact, I personally think it's one of the most difficult things in the world to do consistently.

BUT, when we understand that it's OUR emotional response which causes a power struggle, when we take steps to take care of OURSELVES and make sure that we're not running on empty and when we become intentional about using these tools, we CAN make progress towards this goal.

CLICK HERE for a Power Struggle SOS PDF.

If things are falling apart in your household, know that you're NOT alone and that things WILL get better.

In the meantime, and especially now more than ever, go easy on yourself, cut yourself and your kids some slack, choose your battles and hang in there.

I'd love to hear from you. Please leave any comments or questions below. And if you need extra support, I'm offering free sessions through April. Schedule one here.


Who has the time to read dozens of books on SPD?

Download my FREE 25 page PDF guide to Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder.

Hi! I'm Cameron, mom of two incredible, "differently-wired" boys who have sensory processing challenges, wife of a nerdy surfer, mindfulness practitioner and Parenting Coach with master's degrees in education and psychology.