Avoiding Power Struggles With
Defiant Children Part 2: Declaring Victory Is Easier Than You Think
How do you
know if you're entering into a power struggle with your child? Any time you're
asking your child to do something and he's refusing to comply-when you find him
pushing back against the request you've given or the rules you've set
down-you're in a struggle. If the push for power is appropriate, you should be
able to sit down with your child and talk about it in a fairly reasonable way.
If it escalates into an argument or fight, you are in a defiant power
struggle-and make no mistake about it, parents need effective ways to dial that
In my opinion, defiant power struggles between parents and children have become
more common in recent years. I believe this is a direct result of the
glorification of power we see all around us: on television, in music, in
politics, in the movies. In our culture, kids are taught from early on that
power-and brute force-will get them what they want. As a result, we see a lot of
kids who don't know how to solve social or functional problems constructively. A
social problem is "How do I get along with others?" And a functional problem is,
"How do I meet my responsibilities without getting into trouble?" So if your
child has not learned to solve these types of problems, he'll refuse to do his
chores by throwing a tantrum. Or when he gets older, he'll say mean things to
you and tell you it's none of your business when you ask him to comply with a
family rule. If the defiance becomes more entrenched, he might try to intimidate
you physically to get you to "back off."
If your child is trying to draw you into these kinds of defiant power struggles,
realize that he needs to develop more appropriate problem solving skills as soon
as possible. Kids who use this type of behavior to get their way are headed down
a dangerous path that only leads to serious difficulties later in life.
The good news is, there are real and effective things you can do besides going
to war with your child.
Avoid the Fight:Don't Attend Every Fight You're Invited to
A key skill I teach parents to use when they are confronted with a child who
wants to drag them into a fight is the technique of "Avoidance". Think of it
this way: when you engage in an argument with your child, you're just giving
them more power. In effect, you're increasing your child's perception that they
have the power to challenge you. Even if that perception is false it still
carries a lot of weight. Why is that? Because your child often doesn't realize
that this empowerment they're feeling is not real. The danger here is that the
more powerful they think they are-and the more defiant behavior gets them what
they want-the more they will use it as a shortcut to solve their problems.
Make no bones about it, parents have to make every effort to learn how to manage
this type of behavior in their kids. I'm not saying this is easy-in fact, I
believe it's one of the most difficult lessons parents have to learn. And the
lesson is, "How can I let my child mature, individuate and become appropriately
empowered with the least amount of fights possible?" Remember that genuine
empowerment comes from the development of appropriate life skills, such as
communication and learning how to meet responsibilities-- and developing
age-appropriate problem-solving skills.
As a parent, it's easy to slip into a fight with your child over small and large
issues: power struggles can occur over everything from refusal to pick up dirty
laundry to how late your child is allowed to stay out on the weekends. But I
tell parents they don't have attend every fight they're invited to. That's my
way of saying that you don't have to get involved with every fight each time
your child begins to escalate. You can just declare victory and walk away.
So next time your child tries to draw you into a defiant power struggle over
something either minor or major, just say, "We've discussed what is going to
happen. I don't want to talk about it anymore," and leave the room. When you
leave, you take all the power with you-you just suck it out of the room, and
your child is left yelling at a blank wall. Know that the more you engage your
child in an argument, the more power you're giving him. So again, just walk away
and declare victory.
Give Your Child a Choice
I recommend that parents give kids some choices around their responsibilities
when possible. So if there's an issue around doing chores or homework, for
example, a good way to avoid a power struggle is to offer some options. During
summer, you might say, "You can start your chores when you get home from day
camp or other activities, or you can wait till I get home. You can text message
all you want between 3:30 and 5:30 and then do them when I get home. Or you can
do them between 3:30 and 5:30 and then text message during your free time at
night. So decide when you would rather be text messaging, talking on the cell
phone, or going on the computer: between 7:00 and 8:30 p.m. or between 3:30 and
5:00 p.m. Those are your choices."
That's when you put the responsibility on your child to make choices about how
they're going to spend their time. I think you have to learn how to present
these things in a way which makes it your child's responsibility to complete his
tasks. When the choice is, "When do you want to instant message? Now or later?"
you're establishing a structure and giving them some appropriate power. This
teaches your child good problem solving skills, because he's looking at his
choices and picking the best one. In my opinion, that skill is the most
important thing a child can learn as he develops; there is nothing more
positively empowering than learning problem solving skills.
The Key to Increasing Your Child's Autonomy Wisely (And the 4 Little Questions
You Should Always Ask)
Remember, with every increase in autonomy for your child, there should be an
increase in responsibility and accountability. For instance, let's say your
child wants to stay up till nine o'clock at night instead of eight o'clock. You
decide that staying up an hour later isn't going to interfere with your child's
need for sleep and that he's old enough to handle the later bedtime. So you both
reach a compromise of 8:30 p.m. to see how that goes.
Most parents will think the case is closed at this point-but if you leave it
there, I don't believe you've done enough to teach your kid how to solve
problems. You need to make clear to your child how you expect increased
responsibility with increased autonomy. So I think the end of any conversation
that centers around a change or an increase in power has to include these four
1. How will we know it's working?
We'll know staying up later is working if you still get up on time in the
2. How do we know it's not working?
If you have a hard time getting up on time and don't have energy during the day.
3. What will we do if it's not working?
We'll go back to the old time, 8:00 p.m.
4. What will we do if it is working?
We'll continue with this new bedtime.
Those four questions are really important, because what they say is, "If you
want to stay up later, how will we know that it's okay? Because you'll still
meet your responsibilities.? What's the accountability piece? What are we going
to do if it's not working? We're going to return to the earlier time."
By the way, if it's not working, parents should not give a consequence. Just
say, "It's not working because you've had a hard time getting up. No hard
feelings. We'll try it again in 30 days." The chance to increase autonomy
doesn't stop forever for your child, so he or she is still able to earn more
independence later. You can say, "We're going back to bedtime at eight o'clock
and then in 30 days, let's sit down and talk about it again. Meanwhile in those
30 days, get your rest, practice what you need to do and then we'll take another
shot at it."
That's how negotiations are supposed to go. They are carried out through the use
of proposals, compromises and ways of measuring outcomes to make sure everyone
is doing what they agreed to do. Understand that all these gradual gains in
power for your child are really rungs on a ladder that leads to independent
functioning, or adulthood. And what you want your child to know at the top of
the ladder is how to solve social problems and functional problems, how to get
along with other people and how to live the right values.
So remember, even though it's quite possibly the most difficult balance we have
to maintain as a parent, we don't want power struggles to go away. We don't want
limits and limit testing to go away. Rather, it's the way kids push that's
important. Think of it this way: If children don't get engaged in power
struggles with their parents, they won't learn how to advocate for themselves
later in life. So what we want to focus on are the techniques they should use.
And the appropriate techniques are ways to say, "Mom, I don't like this, can we
talk about it?" Or "Dad, I don't think you understand what I mean, can we talk
Obviously, the expectation is for parents to be willing to sit down with their
kids and talk about it. Nothing ensures a power struggle like your child's
belief that he can't talk to you reasonably about something. I think when times
are good, it's important for parents to sit down with children and say, "When
you don't agree with me, this is how we should handle it." Invite them to talk
to you about it. At the end of that conversation remember to say, "Whatever
decision is reached, it's going to have to be acceptable. I'm not going to keep
arguing with you. I'm just going to walk away."
This is a good way for you to establish the ground rules around challenges to
your authority, and to make sure that those challenges are appropriate. Plainly
and simply, if your child doesn't push boundaries or tests limits, they won't be
adept at living in the adult world. They won't develop the problem solving
skills of negotiation, compromise and sacrifice in a way that empowers them and
prepares them to solve real life problems. And I believe that's one of our main
goals as parents-to empower our kids appropriately so they're able to navigate
independently in the adult world.
("Avoiding Power Struggles
With Defiant Children" was reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents.)