Any adult who has taken care of young children is likely to have experienced power struggles - moments when the adult and child are competing for control, often with frustrating and unpleasant outcomes. By using strategies to prevent and de-escalate power struggles, both adults and children can benefit from reduced stress, more enjoyable interactions, and easier transitions. In addition, such strategies can increase children’s initiative and independence.
In order to successfully implement strategies to address power struggles, it is important to consider certain premises about conflict, control, and human learning.
• Conflict is a learning opportunity and not something to be avoided at all costs. Children need to experience conflicts in order to learn how to resolve them peacefully and respectfully.
• Children and adults can share control. Adults often want to be (and are) in charge, which can lead children to seek out their own ways of expressing power. Allowing the power to be shared between the adult and child reduces the child’s need to seek control.
• Resolving conflicts builds children’s confidence, independence, self-awareness, empathy, and language skills.
• The more children experience the successful resolution of conflicts, the more they will come to see themselves as capable problem solvers.
• The more children and caregivers resolve disagreements together, the easier this process becomes.
• Adults are also capable of learning new skills!
Strategy #1: Give a Heads Up
When there is a change or transition about to happen, give the child a warning so they know what to expect. For example, “In five minutes it will be time to put your shoes on so we can leave for school” or “Let’s build one more tower together before we start cleaning up the blocks.”
Strategy #2: Find a Way to Say YES!
Finding a way to say yes often involves considering the child’s perspective and thinking about what needs they are trying to meet when they engage in a certain behavior. Adults often provide direction to children with negative or prohibitive language, which tells the child what they can’t do, but not what they can. Pivoting from a “no” to a “yes” - even if the general message stays the same - is beneficial because it lets the child know what is acceptable and it honors the child’s point of view.
Strategy #3: Reframe
Requests from adults can come across as commands to children. Power struggles often arise because children do not feel interested or motivated to perform the task being asked of them. Adults can reframe the situation by making it fun, interesting, and intrinsically motivating!
Strategy #4: Empathize
Perhaps one of the most important things you can do during a disagreement or conflict is to acknowledge and validate the child’s emotions and point of view. This is especially true when the child can’t control the outcome of the situation.
Strategy #5: Identify and Anticipate
• Try to become aware of what may trigger power struggles. Do you notice any patterns?
• Think about how you feel when you sense a power struggle coming on. How do your feelings affect the way you approach the problem?
• Anticipate how your feelings, body language, and tone of voice might affect the interaction. If necessary, give yourself time to take a deep breath and rehearse your strategy. You can have a great deal of influence over a situation by preparing yourself for it mentally and emotionally.
• Remember, your feelings are valid! You may not be able to control how you feel in the moment, but you can control how you express your feelings.
Strategy #6: Be Consistent
Once you have set a limit or guideline, stick to it! Children will learn to push boundaries and not take you seriously if you frequently waver between “no,” “maybe,” and “okay, just this once.” If you do need to change your mind for some reason, make sure to provide the child with a valid explanation for the change.
Strategy #7: Give a Reason
A conflict can be avoided if you help the child understand your reasoning.
• Providing a sensible reason teaches the child that your request is thoughtful and not arbitrary.
• “Because I said so” and “Because I asked you to” are not adequate reasons. In fact, statements like these are likely to exacerbate power struggles.
Strategy #8: Share Control
As mentioned previously, sharing control with children reduces their need to seek power in ways the adult might find undesirable. Allow the child to have as much autonomy as they can handle. Children can be given increasing autonomy as they grow older and develop a higher level of responsibility and ability.
Consider letting children make decisions and observe the natural consequences. Offer them your guess at the consequence rather than forbidding the action. For example, if it’s cold out and your child insists that she doesn’t need a hat, consider the following response: “I can see that you really don’t want your hat even though it’s cold out. I think you might get uncomfortable and your ears might get too cold without a hat, but it’s your choice.” This approach goes hand-in-hand with the final strategy.
Strategy #9: Let the Child Make Mistakes
You may have a tendency to want to protect your child from discomfort and disappointment. Keep in mind, however, that children learn best through their own experiences.
Allowing your child to make mistakes helps them learn and practice important life skills in a supportive context. When children’s choices have naturally unpleasant consequences, this provides an opportunity for reflection and growth. Consider the cold weather scenario from Strategy #8. If the child experiences an unpleasant outcome, you can help the child reflect on what happened, make a plan for next time, and remind them of the experience should the situation arise again.
Remember, the motivation to make different choices is much stronger when it comes from the child’s own experiential learning rather than being told what to do.
Applying the Strategies to Your Own Experience
Write down a description of a power struggle you have experienced or witnessed. Revisit each of the nine strategies and consider how they might apply to the situation you’ve thought of.
Strategy #1: Heads Up. What kind of warning or heads up could you apply to the situation?
Strategy #2: Say yes. How can you find a way to say yes?
Strategy #3: Reframe. How can you create a fun, interesting, and motivating situation for the child?
Strategy #4: Empathize. What can you say or do to let the child know that you understand their feelings and perspective?
Strategy #5: Identify and Anticipate. What might trigger the situation? What emotions do you bring to the situation? What can you do to regulate your own emotions, body language, tone, etc. in order to influence the outcome?
Strategy #6: Be Consistent. What can you do to set and follow clear limits or guidelines in this situation?
Strategy #7: Give a Reason. What can you say to help the child understand?
Strategy #8: Share Control. What can the child be in charge of? What decisions can they make for themselves in this situation (or in general)?
Strategy #9: Let the Child Make Mistakes. What might the child learn by making a mistake in this situation?
You may find that some strategies apply particularly well to your situation, while others might not. No matter the situation, you will almost always find that an approach incorporating multiple strategies is the most effective.
Remember that conflicts and disagreements are important learning opportunities for both children and adults. These strategies may not come easily to you at first, but keep in mind that the more you practice them, the more confident and capable you will become. You can do it!