A power struggle, where two people or groups are competing with each other for control of a situation, can be difficult in any context. Adults are especially likely to react with surprise or perhaps take it personally when there is a struggle between them and their child. We often consider ourselves to be the ones in the position of authority in the relationship but what seems to be a simple request can backfire into a confrontation if the child exercises their own need for control. “Tantrums” can also escalate at the most inconvenient points, like when trying to get somewhere on time, at the end of a long day when everyone is most impatient, or in public.
Children are not intentionally pushing our buttons and being difficult, but are attempting to create distance from their caregivers through conflict and testing boundaries to establish a sense of self and their own identity. They are in the process of learning to recognize others as separate individuals and it is not until around four years old that they begin to understand that others think and want differently than themselves.
While power struggle situations will most likely occur no matter how much you try, these suggestions can help prevent them:
Establish an atmosphere of consistency where rules are known and enforced. This gives children security and builds trust. Rules are designed to create order and safety in living together!
Engage children in the life of the home. They want to be included and do real things.
Give simple choices and involve children in decision making whenever possible. Let them experience the consequences without judging their choice.
Allow your child to gradually gain more freedoms by accepting more responsibility. The number of toys available for play could depend on what they are capable of cleaning up!
Make distinctions between acceptable behaviors in different places or settings. “At school you wear inside shoes and at home we take our shoes off when we come in.” Children can adapt to the routines in different places around two years old.
Accept there will be steps forward and back. Something that went smoothly yesterday may be difficult today.
During a Power Struggle
When a child’s emotions escalate and they reach the peak of a meltdown, it is impossible to reason with them in that moment. Instead:
Consider the child’s perspective: it is upsetting not to be heard or understood and scary to feel out of control.
Do your best to recognize and regulate your own feelings and behaviors before responding to your child.
Allow your child to work through their emotions and express discontent. Help name the feelings and provide a safe space to be.
Give a way back in to reconnect. “When you’re ready, find me and we can…”
Practice self-soothing techniques during calm moments so they will be at the ready when things get difficult. Breathing, singing, hugs, counting things you see/hear/feel/smell/taste, looking at books, creating art, throwing a ball, and running are all options. Think of others that fit your child and family!
Work toward a balance of meeting your needs and your child’s needs.
Many power struggles occur because we need to shift children to a different activity or location. Perhaps it is time to put a favorite toy away and go to school in the morning. Or leave the park and go home for lunch. Or wind down in the evening and get ready for bed. Transitions like this are changes that children are not initiating. They are in the middle of one thing and not ready to make a shift to something else yet. Because of this they may feel frustrated or angry on top of any other factors, like being hungry or tired. To ease the transition try one or more of the following:
Give a few warnings about what is coming, at 10, five, and two minutes before the change. “Start to finish your game, please. We are leaving in 10 minutes.”
When time is up, offer a choice to finalize the shift. “Would you like to give your friend a hug or a high five goodbye?”
Stick to the timeframe and guidelines you’ve made clear. If you say it is time to leave a gathering and then you talk to someone for 15 more minutes, your child may not take you seriously the next time.
Keep in mind your child’s temperament and schedule when making plans. If they get overstimulated after three hours of interaction, prepare for your exit before hitting that point. Or do not have guests stay right up until your child is typically in bed, and then try to skip their usual night routine.
If your child is really upset despite these efforts, explore with them what is making the transition so hard. Are they worried about losing the work put into an activity they were doing? Or missing out on a fun visit? Acknowledge there is difficulty with change. Try to come up with a solution instead of just trying to force moving forward. Could a puzzle be left out to finish tomorrow or a play date scheduled with a new friend they just met at the park?
Young children need a lot of practice and time in order to control their bodies, behavior, and emotions on their own. And still there will be steps back and mistakes made (this happens even as adults!). We can give children opportunities to work on building these skills while helping to be a container for them until they are able to do so themselves. Self-regulation begins with a healthy dependence on caregivers that grows into independence.
Remember that moments of learning happen during struggles. Enjoy the process even during those difficult times and not just the ones of happiness!