3 ways to avoid a power struggle with your kids

From the moment they are born, children reach for ever-greater independence. As they grow, they walk a tightrope between needing us and wanting every bit of our attention, and pushing us away.

Part of this growing independence is telling us “no.” A lot.

That doesn’t have to be a bad thing though. Just because a child is testing the limits, refusing to comply, saying “no,” does not mean you have to be caught in an exhausting cycle of constant power struggles.

Unlike many challenges of having young children (tantrums, tears, ever-changing sleep patterns, and more), power struggles are something that can largely be prevented for one simple reason: A child cannot have a power struggle on his own. It takes two people.

This does not mean it’s your fault if you’re experiencing power struggles with your child, but it does mean that there are things you can do to break the cycle.

Power struggles happen for many reasons. We want to raise well-behaved children and immediately picture our child being the class trouble-maker every time he defiantly tells us “no."

We want—and deserve—to feel respected. We work so hard to give our little ones beautiful childhoods and it can seem like going along with our simple request is the least they can do in return.

We were raised with an authoritarian parenting style and can’t imagine speaking to our own parents the way our children sometimes speak to us. Then again, we likely don’t remember being three…

We want to reason with our children, which seems well, reasonable, when we are so clearly right.😉 It’s hard not to insist on your point of view that socks go on feet, washing hands is important, milk tastes better without crackers dipped in it….

For all of these reasons, and so many more, it is easy to get sucked into a power struggle. Here are three things to avoid next time you feel the dreaded familiar pull:

1. Don’t back him into a corner

Let your child save face. You can get what you want without making him feel like he’s lost a battle.

Young children are sensitive about their independence. If they feel backed into a corner in a direct confrontation, they will generally not back down. If you find yourself staring down your child, repeating your request in an increasingly tense voice, take a breath and find a way to let him save face while still doing what you asked.

My favorite way to do this is to walk away, letting him comply while I’m not watching.

If I’ve asked a child at school to put something away and he is either stalling or flat out refusing, I’ll say something like, “I’m going to go sharpen these pencils. When I come back, I will help you put that away if you’re still having trouble.”

The child almost always complies as soon as I turn my back. He’s looking for a way out just as much as I am—he just can’t bring himself to give in. He needs to maintain his autonomy.

Walking away takes away the tension. It takes away the power of his “no,” and gives him a chance to do the right thing without feeling like he’s been overpowered.

2. Don’t try to reason

Surely if your child knows you only want her to put on shoes so you can take her to get ice cream she’ll comply, right? If only it were that easy.

You can’t reason with someone that’s coming from an emotional, impulsive place, and trying can often make things worse. Taking the time to explain your thought process and why your request is reasonable often drags things out and causes tensions to escalate.

Instead, be ready to follow through immediately if your child refuses and you feel a power struggle coming on.

Compare these two scenarios:

Scenario 1

You ask your child to put his blocks away. He yells “no!” and keeps playing.

You calmly explain to him that he really needs to put them away now so that you can be on time to a playdate with his best friend. He yells “no!” again and smiles at you.

You’re starting to feel annoyed that he’s making this so difficult when you’ve gone through the effort to set up a fun playdate for him. You ask again, with an edge to your voice.

He continues to refuse and you are stuck.

Scenario 2

You ask your child to put his blocks away. He yells “no!” and keeps playing.

You calmly walk over to him and say, “It’s time to put them away. I can help. I’ll put away the blue blocks. Which color will you start with?”

Through stepping in right away and making it clear that “no” is not a choice, you take away the power of his refusal. You end the conflict before it even begins. It is so much easier to be lighthearted and helpful if you don’t allow things to escalate to the point where you feel angry.

Taking action right away prevents you from getting dragged into a power struggle. You do not have to join the fight every time your child initiates it.

3. Don’t give the behavior power

For things you truly can’t control, try to let it go.

Some of the toughest power struggles are over the things you cannot physically stop your child from doing. This often includes whining, using a bad word, yelling or repeatedly making a sound that drives you crazy.

These behaviors lead to power struggles because your child sees that you don’t like them, and knows that you cannot stop them.

It’s not that children are being “bad” when they push our buttons. They are programmed to test limits and they find our big reactions to things like words or sounds so interesting. Wow, a little word can have so much power—that’s a discovery that seems worth looking into.

If possible, try to control your reaction when your child does something annoying. By minimizing your reaction, you avoid giving it power. If you don’t react, it’s not interesting, and your child will quickly move on.

Power struggles can be really difficult and can put a strain on your relationship. You don’t want to dread asking your child to get dressed out of fear of his reaction.

Remember that some degree of defiance is normal and healthy and try to stay light-hearted about it.

Just because your child is resisting, does not mean he is poorly behaved or rude or rebellious. It just means that he is figuring out how to be his own person, how to make decisions for himself, how to find his place in the world.

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Christina is a Montessori teacher for 3-6 year olds, certified by the American Montessori Society. She currently stays home to take care of her son, James. She lives in Austin, Texas, and writes a blog,, chronicling her journey through motherhood the Montessori way.

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