Monday, June 20, 2011

Power Struggles

I can just foresee my child one day having a power struggle with me.   It is inevitable I know, but so not looking forward to it.  So far, her beginning 'baby' power struggles have started with a whine and cry when she can't have what she wants.

Here is what it looks like:

I am feeding her lunch... she is Miss Independent and likes to eat her own finger foods and not be fed by me except for her yogurt.... So I start feeding her yogurt with a spoon and she wants the spoon....ugh.....What do you think she will do with the spoon?...... Fling it, swirl it around her high chair tray, throw it over the edge of her chair, sometimes she puts it in her mouth, but the worse case scenario would be for her to poke her eye out.

And if I decide not to give it to her, what does she do?......  She has a look that seems to say, "Give me that spoon, I want it now, how dare you not give it to me!".......  I know that to her it's something new, exciting and she wants to explore it- put it in her mouth, touch it, figure out what the heck it is and hopefully use it correctly soon, but she is just not quite there yet.

So she whines....cries.......and moves her head back and forth........Of course I am there setting limits, expressing her needs and wishes, empathizing as play therapists do so well, but since she's still a baby (almost toddler), she's just not there yet....So I usually let her explore with it for a bit at the end of the meal, and then tell her that it is time to put the spoon up (some limit setting here) and get cleaned up...(repeat if needed)...she usually stops fussing at this point..and we get up to wash her hands.

Ok, so what about real power struggles with toddlers, preschoolers and school aged kids?

Remember my post awhile back on the Goals of Misbehavior? Basically, the theory goes that children act out because they are doing it for 1 of 4 reasons: attention, power, revenge or feelings of hopeless (in-adequateness).  They don't necessarily have a conscience goal in mind as they act out, it's more of a underlying feeling.

And when the goal is power, a power struggle will definitely be in progress.  I have seen them before in my experiences as a nanny.  A good example was when I was feeding a child once and asked her to eat her broccoli. What did she do?

Preschooler: "No, you can't make me!"

Me: "Please, please have just one bite"

Preschooler: "No!"and kicked me as she ran off (oh my!!)

And this dialogue can go on back and forth. It will then escalate into the young child hitting, biting, running off, or throwing self on the floor and having a full on temper tantrum.

Why does a child have their goal as 'Power'? They want to be the boss; They operate on the faulty thinking that, "I only count if you do what I ask you to do" or "If you don't do what I want, that means you don't like me."

What does the goal of Power look like? The more 'active' type displays temper tantrums, argues, lies, refuses to do what they are told and is sometimes openly disobedient.  The 'passive' power seeker will not do their chores, homework and looks more lazy or they 'forget', they become stubborn and passively disobedient.

How does an adult feel when the child is exerting power? You know you have a child with power as their goal when a parent feels threatened thinking, "who is the parent here, me or them?" and thinks, "She can't get away with that!" But an adult's efforts to control a power child can be futile and the child will win 99% of the time when bantering back and forth with them.  And the more this goes on, the more the child will think that power has value. Yikes!

What to do?  Don't get into a power struggle in the first place.

-First try to empathize with them: "I know how frustrated you are, and you don't want to clean your room."

-Try to limit set and appeal for their help: "It's time to clean up your room, and I know I can't make you do it, but I could really use your help"

-Then try to do something silly to break the power: Laugh and say, "I just know your little Mickey Mouse wants to help too!" and start having their stuffed Mickey pick up the room, while still giggling.  In this example, you can also give little baby chores like just asking them to put the blocks up or the books up instead of the entire room.  Hopefully this will break the ice.

I remember learning about power struggles while working at the Easter Seals preschool during college. The teacher and the aides were very strict in our classroom. They kept enforcing all of the rules over and over, such as making them sit down during story time and any time one of the 3 year olds stood up, they would immediately make them sit down.

My first week there I kind of fell into this pattern too, but soon realized that so many power struggles would begin if I followed the teacher's leads. Especially with this population of kids because most of these children either had autism, severe ADHD, etc. and the staff felt the kids needed that strict structure.  But by the middle of my first week, I realized that it was much better to act silly and fun to get them to do what they wanted.  I would laugh with them and just be goofy such as telling them the tickle monster would get them if they did not put up their art paints.

Let me tell ya, it was amazing how things changed. These kids actually started to like me and some of the moms started telling me that their child would come home and I was all they would talk about, and adored me.  What a great feeling that was!!!

Now of course as parents you still have to make sure to not reinforce negative behaviors, set your limits and be consistent, consistent, consistent. But I think being fun and silly will bring your children much more happiness, and they will be more willing to listen to you and do what you say. Plus, you will create many more happy memories for your child. You want them to look back and remember you as a fun mom, not the strict, rule-oriented one :)


  1. Thanks for the tips, I have a newborn now but dreading this stage.

  2. Yeah, it is tough but giving choices helps avoid most power struggles. Let me know how it goes when you get to that stage :)