Parent to Parent – Avoid Power Struggles at All Costs


I am writing this article “Parent to Parent”. Power struggles with your child will turn your task of parenting into a nightmare if you do not learn how to avoid them.

Power struggles occur when two people each want a situation to work out their way at the exclusion of the other person’s desires. To put it differently, it is a situation in which each person attempts to exert power and control over the other person in order to get what they want.

For instance, you want Jill to go to bed right now, but Jill doesn’t want to. She wants to stay up and watch TV. But you need her to go to bed now. So you tell Jill again that it is time to go to bed and Jill becomes more defiant and refuses.

What we have here is the making of a power struggle.

In the normal course of everyday life with children, power struggles are usually a win-lose proposition. Usually someone wins because the other person backs down or relinquishes his or her control over the situation. One person gains power and one person loses power.

If you enter into a power struggle with your spouse, a parent-to-parent confrontation, then you come to a point where one of you must eventually give in. The person that gives in and ‘quits’ power struggling is often times the loser. Most of us can sympathize with this situation. But we are adults and we can come back to this later and in many circumstances make it right.

A parent to child power struggle is much the same, but the consequences can be devastating and far-reaching. You may be able to come back later and try to put things right with your child, but you will not be able to lessen the damage that has been done.

Let us look at the above example in which the parent wants Jill to go to bed. Jill refuses and decides to escalate the situation. Her refusal will generally lead to the power struggle. So the parent raises his or her voice and begins to issue demands and eternal consequences if Jill does not go to bed. Jill continues to refuse and begins to yell or scream.

The game is on!

This situation may continue for a time. Many parents will decide that they are pushing too hard and will back down, especially if their child has had a history of obstinacy. As soon as the parent gives in and allows their child to stay up longer, then the parent has lost. The child, however, has not only won this battle, but her defiant behavior has been reinforced!

By having this behavior reinforced, the parent has assured the likelihood that there will be another power struggle. The next time, the child will be emboldened and will ‘up the ante’ even further in order to secure her advantage and control. This child’s negative behavior (defiance and whatever else) has been reinforced as a result of ‘winning’ the power struggle. Reinforced behaviors are likely to continue. Negative behaviors that receive reinforcement are very difficult to extinguish.

This is the reason that parents should avoid power struggles at all costs. A spirited child will often push the parent too far – to a point where the parent either backs down or does something regrettable. If the child wins and the parent backs down, then the negative behavior will continue. (It will likely get worse the next time!) If the parent wins, then it usually comes at the cost of the child losing respect for the parent because the parent has needed to exert physical or mental control.

As a ‘seasoned’ parent speaking ‘parent to parent’, please do yourself a favor. Avoid power struggles at all costs! You will always regret a power struggle with your child.

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