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Power struggle savvy

How do you handle power struggles?

When you and your kids are struggling for control, how do you handle the situation? Do you hold on? Negotiate? Compromise or offer choices? Or do you let go?

Here are four typical parent-child conflicts. How would you solve these issues? Check below to see which technique you’re using.

1. Four-year-old Jeremy and his mother Julie fought all day long: getting dressed, fastening the seat belt, going in and out of the store. Julie’s exhausted—and bewildered. Why isn’t Jeremy as compliant as she was as a child? How should she resolve their constant struggle?

  1. Force Jeremy to be compliant.
  2. Let Jeremy make a simple decision like choosing what he wants for breakfast.
  3. Quit arguing insignificant points: if Jeremy doesn’t want to get dressed, let him wear pajamas to preschool.

2. Joe’s daughter, Carrie, is only 9, but she likes to talk on the telephone nonstop and do her homework in front of the television. The new rule: No TV or phone between 7 and 8 p.m. on weekdays. Carrie’s response: “You’re not fair. My favorite programs are on between 7 and 8. My friends can’t talk after 8. This new rule is stupid. You’re mean!” What should Joe do?

  1. Consistently enforce this new rule.
  2. Let Carrie watch TV or talk on the phone while she does her homework, but not both.
  3. Let Carrie do what she wants, and re-evalute his decision when semester grades come out.

3. Five-year-old James dawdles when it’s time to pick up his toys. His parents yell at him, refusing to let him eat dinner until all the toys are put away. James continues to poke through clean-up, and dinner is delayed until his parents finally throw the toys in the toybox. What should James’s parents do?

  1. Not let James have dinner until the toys are picked up.
  2. Put away the toy cars, if James puts away the markers and blocks.
  3. Ignore the situation and let James have a messy room.

4. Nine-year-old Ryan is not allowed to ride his bike around the block, despite begging his mother, “Please, please, around the block just once.” Mary is afraid that if she lets him go around the block one day, he’ll be begging to ride to the park next, and then before long to ride to the mall. She is also afraid of what might happen when she can’t see him. Mary believes she has three options—which do you believe she should choose?

  1. Mary believes that safety is an issue and does not allow Ryan out of her sight.
  2. Mary stipulates that Ryan can ride around the block when he has a friend along.
  3. Mary determines that her fear is irrational, explains this to Ryan, and lets him go.


If you consistently circled (a) as your response, the technique you most typically use to respond to a power struggle is: Hold on, what Jan Faull calls remaining committed to a decision and sticking with it.

If you consistently circled (b) as your response, the technique you most typically use is: Negotiate, compromise, offer choices. Faull recommends this when a parent would like to turn some power over to the child in the resolution process.

If you most often chose (c), the technique you most typically use is: Let go. This, says Faull, is an option when controlling a child is inappropriate, based on an irrational fear, or the timing isn’t good for solving the problem.

To diffuse a power struggle, it may take a combination of all three techniques. If the technique you are using is not getting the response you want, try one of the other techniques. For more advice, see Unplugging Power Struggles: Resolving Emotional Battles with Your Kids by Jan Faull, M.Ed.

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Last updated May 05, 2008