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QCC's Children's School Blog - The Power Struggle Is Real!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018
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Parent Question

We sailed through the “terrible twos” in my house without incident, but since my son has turned three he has become a monster!  It feels like every little part of the day becomes a power struggle. This is especially true if we have to get out of the house to be somewhere, or at times like meals and bed times! I just don’t get it.  He needs to learn that sometimes he has to do things he doesn’t want to! Help!

Educator Response

How frustrating!  I feel your pain.  As a parent and an educator, I understand that the power struggle is a real thing!  As teachers, we hear so often that the “terrible twos” didn’t happen until three! I think that you will find that a lot of parents share your experience and your frustration. 

Once a power struggle has begun, it can be very hard to get out of!  Isn’t it amazing how well young children can dig their heels in?!  To your point, yes, I agree that children do need to learn that sometimes in life we all need to do things that we might not want to do.  Let’s stop for a minute however, and look at how much gets decided for children.  The root of most power struggles comes from a lack of choice.  As adults, we make most decisions for children throughout the day!  This is often necessary for health and safety reasons. We (adults) have lived longer and experienced more.  We know what is healthy for children to eat.  We know that if he doesn’t use the bathroom before he leaves the house, he will probably have to go 5 minutes into that 30 minute car ride.  We understand the concept of time and that certain things have to be done at certain times.  We know that if a child falls off of a high tree limb, he will most likely get hurt.  SO for these reasons we need to make a lot of choices for our children.  This, however, can leave a child feeling powerless and that is when he decides that he needs to take matters into his own hands and gain some power!  Thus begins a power struggle over something as trivial as wiping buggers off of his covered face!

Once you are on opposite sides of a situation, it is very rare that a young child will see reason and agree with you.  So, the best bet is to avoid power struggles all together.  Since we know that most struggle comes from a desire to make a decision for himself, why not give him a choice whenever possible?  These choices can be simple. I’m not saying your child should decide whether or not you make that appointment or what his own bed time should be.  There is a way to give a choice even when there really isn’t one to be had!  For example, when bedtime is coming, you might ask, “Do you want to get in your pajamas first or brush your teeth?”  Bedtime isn’t a choice.  He has things that he needs to get done so that he can go to bed and get rest for his (and your) health.  Does it matter what order he does these things in as long as they all get done?  The same thing can be done when getting ready to go out for the day.  Pick out two shirts. “Do you want to wear this one or that one?  Would you like to put on your jacket first or your shoes?  Do you want me to help you get on that coat or do you want to try on your own?”  You’re still telling him what needs to get done, but you are leaving him some measure of choice or power.

Also, try to frame things in a positive way.  None of us like to hear “No, stop or don’t”.  Whenever possible, try telling your son what he CAN do rather than what he can’t.  If he is running around the house like a maniac try, “You can walk, or march through the house” or “You can walk over to the door and run when we go outside.”  Saying, “don’t run” doesn’t let him know the behavior he should replace that running with.  You’d be amazed how often this works!  (Little known secret, this actually works really well with adults as well.)

All that being said, I know that there will be times when a child needs to be told, “No”.  Thus is life. There will be power struggles that cannot be avoided.  When they do crop up, stay firm, calm and consistent.  Losing your temper means that the child is winning.  Getting tired out and changing your answer shows that he can wear you down and he will continue to test that.  I know it is exhausting!  Lean on your friends and your child’s other caregivers for support and hang in there!

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