The Power Struggle

As parents, we tend to have astronomical aspirations for our children - becoming the next Bill Gates or president of the United States often make the list. At the very least, we want our children to grow up to become responsible adults and trustworthy citizens. As we struggle to keep our children on the path to success, we often experience ourselves fighting for their success more than they do… And sometimes we just plain fight with our children. The good news is that you love your children enough to fight for them, and sometimes even fight with them. The bad news is that this fighting puts you in prime position for an epic power struggle.

As a marriage and family therapist who specializes in parenting training, I constantly have to remind my parent clients that they cannot control their children; they can only control their own actions or reactions. I’m not saying that as parents, we should stop caring about what our children can become, but I am saying that there is probably a lot more “wiggle room” than parents think.

Parents are not potters who mold their clay children into what they want, but are more like teachers who are responsible for trying their best to teach them certain principles and life skills that will make them successful in life. The sooner we fully grasp that concept as parents, the easier it becomes to focus on what we do if they do not comply with what we are asking of them.

Power struggles often happen when we, as parents, have a fixed idea of what we want for our children and see no other option as an equally viable one, but our children feel differently. When our children realize, “Hey, wait a minute, you can’t FORCE me to do _____” they muster up enough courage to engage in a rebellion that initiates the power struggle. Sometimes children will do this intentionally to see how far they can push us, or out of anger if they feel we wronged them in some way. Other times, they may initiate a power struggle quite unintentional. What matters is the emotional escalation that occurs and the psychological aftermath of the power struggle. I would like to share with you that there is another way…

Here are a few steps to keep in mind to avoid some of those power struggles. They are broken up into 2 sections, Assess and Act, which can help you organize your strategy:


First asses the situation before deciding how you are going to handle it. After assessing your child, you assess yourself. Then you can assess the situation and weigh out your options.

1. Assess the state of your child - are they tired, sick or hungry?

Do you know how you get when you are tired, sick or hungry? If not, just ask your spouse; they will know. The point is, these situations can greatly impact our power to reason, or react to situations in the best way possible. Remember that your children are little “you’s”. They can get just as cranky, irritable or “hangry” as you. But also realize that your child’s pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain that is in charge of reason and sound judgement) is not fully formed. As a matter of fact, scientists have discovered that the pre-frontal cortex doesn’t become fully formed until your early 20’s. This may help you to be more empathic to your children when they are in a state that limits their already limited pre-frontal cortex functioning.

2. Assess the state of yourself emotionally- are you tired, sick, hungry or emotionally hampered in any way?

For the same reasons described above, it becomes paramount for parents to understand their own emotional wherewithal and emotional energy to deal with the power struggle. If you are low in your emotional capacity to deal with the situation, you can skip down to step 4 and give yourself a break. Remember that it is not your job to control, but to teach, and remember that lessons take time and repetition to learn, so if you don’t get it right this time, you will have plenty more opportunities to teach them. If you are “okay” enough emotionally, then continue onto step 3.

3. Assess the situation by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Do I really NEED them to do what I am asking them to do? (make sure to differentiate between need and want)

  • What would happen if they do not do what I am asking them to do?

  • What would be the worse thing that would happen if I let them do what they are wanting to do?

Many times, when you stop to ask this first question, you will realize that you are only WANTING them to do what you are asking, not necessarily NEEDING them to. Most ‘need’ situations can be limited to those that involve safety. Anytime there is a safety issue, you can’t afford to fight with your children, and in some cases, you might even need to force- such as grabbing your child to move them away from danger, or taking away an object that can cause serious harm.

If it is a ‘want’ situation, you can then ask the other 2 questions. Sometimes you’re trying to save your child from ridicule or from less grievous consequences. Other times, you might realize that you’re jumping to conclusions that you need not jump to. By asking yourself the last question, you can either put your mind at ease and realize that it might not be as “bad” as you think it is, or might understand that it is more about you than them. If you realize that it won’t be the end of the world if they do not do what you are asking, you can just let the issue go and save your emotional energy for the next battle. If you still feel that your wishes or what you’re asking your child to do is justifiable, then you can move to the next section of your 2 pronged plan (Assess and Act).

Act, Don’t React.

Acting and reacting are two very different things. When you react, you have probably already lost, even if you end up winning. But if you act, you should know that you will have won even if you think you lost. I will explain this in more detail towards the end.

4. Give them choices.

With this step, you reiterate what you are asking them and attach a consequence if they do not obey. Remember that natural consequences are the best options to help children learn and that “grounding them for life” is not a viable consequence. The other important thing is to use consequences that will actually matter to them (usually taking away electronics of some sort) and to use consequences that you, yourself, are willing to follow through with. Don’t forget that you can also use rewards as a consequence for their good behavior or for choosing to obey; this is sometimes more effective than giving them a punishment.

5. Let them choose.

This might seem redundant, but not to the parent who has control issues. Sometimes it’s helpful to reiterate their consequence as they are choosing. One of the most important lessons you are responsible for teaching your children is that there are consequences to every action- you can even go scientific on them and teach them using Newton’s third law of physics, which states that “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”. Meaning a consequence will follow whether we like it or not.

6. Follow through.

This is one of the most important steps to all of this. If you do not follow through, then you are teaching them that it’s okay to disobey you, and that their actions do not need consequences. This is what I meant when I said that “you will have won if you decide to act, instead of react - even if you think you lost”. Many parents who engage in power struggles only see a lose-lose situation, but by using this method, you will have changed it to a win-win situation. Specifically, if they obey, you win; and if they choose not to obey, you still win. You win the opportunity to teach them the valuable lesson of consequences.

Behavioral scientists have established time and time again that behavior will change with this kind of “punishment” and “reward” pattern or system. Just trust human nature to teach them that when they disobey they have an adverse reaction and since it is aversive they will not want to continue to disobey. Remember that it takes time to learn this process, so don’t give up after one shot at this.

This almost sounds too simple … but that is the point- to make this whole discipline thing less stressful and reduce the amount of power struggles you experience. There is only a fight when there are 2 opposing forces; you don’t need to be an opposing force in the power struggle as long as you follow the steps outlined above. You are always in control of your own actions, but you are NOT in control of your child’s actions- you never can be, nor should you try. Once you realize this, start believing it and putting it into action, you will see the amount of stress expended on discipline diminish, leaving you more time to love, play and interact with your children.

Roubicek & Thacker Counseling is Fresno’s premier provider of individual, couples, family, and group therapy. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.