Give lots and lots of acceptable choices. Power struggles often start because kids feel out of control. As kids get older, they increasingly feel the need for autonomy and independence. They want it, they need it, but they’re not sure how to go about getting it. Power struggles are often the result of kids trying to exert their power at the wrong time or in the wrong way. An easy way to avoid this is to give your child lots of choices throughout the day. This doesn’t mean asking an open-ended question and hoping your child will make the right choice. That’s just asking for trouble. It’s not a good idea to ask “Would you like to wear your coat to school today?” when it’s 30 degrees and snowing outside. You know you won’t let him go to school without a coat. Instead, ask “Would you like to wear your down coat or your fleece coat today?” You know you’ll be happy with either of those choices, and this gives your child some real decision-making power while allowing you to stay in charge of the big picture. It’s a win-win situation.
Develop and live by routines. Lots of power struggles can be avoided by simply avoiding the question at the center of the struggle. Those questions often come up around routines. Sit down with your child and develop routines around the issues that cause the most problems. That may be the before school, homework or bedtime routine. By agreeing on how something will be handled ahead of time, you can avoid getting into a back and forth about what you want and what your child wants. The routine is in charge. When your child asks if he can get dressed after breakfast, you simply ask what the routine says. He may not like it, but he’s much less likely to fight over it because it’s something he’s already agreed to. It’s essential that you engage children in the decision-making process when you’re coming up with routines. Simply stating what you feel should happen and imposing it on your child won’t help lessen power struggles. Your child has to have real input into the process and buy into the final result. Once you’ve decided on a routine, take some time and create a chart that outlines it step by step. Using pictures is a great way for pre-reading children to get on board.
Don’t take it personally. This might be the hardest thing to do because it feels so personal. When your child ignores you, tells you no or does the complete opposite of what you ask, it feels like he’s directly defying your authority. This behavior pushes all kinds of buttons. But when children do those things, it can mean a lot of different things. Often it’s developmentally appropriate, meaning it’s a stage that your child is going through because of his age, not because of any feelings towards you. Or it might be a habit. It might be how you and he have resolved problems for a long time and he doesn’t know how to do it differently. Or he may still be learning how to do things differently. Every child master tasks at different stages and using different, more effective tools for getting what he wants may not be something he’s mastered yet. So while there may be lots of reasons your child is doing what he’s doing, it’s usually more about him than you.
Say no to getting involved. It takes two people to be involved in a power struggle. Your child can’t do it alone. Once you’ve started taking other steps to empower your child, stop engaging in the power struggle with him. Offer him choices and stick with those. Develop routines together and follow them throughout the day. When you refuse to engage with your child, the power struggle no longer is a tool that helps him get what he wants or needs, so he’ll turn to the more productive tools you’ve offered. Don’t be surprised if disengaging is hard for you. This tug of war often becomes a habit for both kids and parents and can be hard to break.