Power struggles are times when an adult and a child come into conflict, often occurring when a child does not do what the adult says immediately or if they respond to a request with “no”. Power struggles create distance and hostility instead of closeness and trust. Distance and hostility create resentment, resistance, rebellion (or compliance with lowered self-esteem). Closeness and trust create a safe, secure learning environment. You have a positive influence only in an atmosphere of closeness and trust where there is no fear of blame, shame or pain. Adults need to remove themselves from the power struggle without winning or giving in. Instead of viewing children’s willful behavior as “bad” and reacting in a way that overpowers the child, adults can view this behavior as a healthy positive sign of the child’s development and find ways to empower the child.
Step 1: Side Step
The first step to effectively and positively deal with power struggles is to side-step the power struggle – in other words, refuse to enter conflict with the child. “No” coming from a child is often an invitation to join a power struggle and by side-stepping it (neither fighting nor giving in) you can create an ending that is happy, nurturing and loving rather than hateful and painful. By side-stepping the power struggle, you send the child the message “I am not going to fight with you. I am not going to hurt you. I am not going to overpower you and I’m not going to give in, either.”
Example: If your child is refusing to put their shoes on to go to school, you could say “Do you want to put your shoes on by yourself or do you want me to help you put your shoes on?
Step 2: Choices, Not Orders
After side-stepping the power struggle, the next step is to give choices, not orders. When giving children choices, you must be sure that all choices are acceptable. Don’t give the child the choice of either putting their shoes on or leaving them at home while you go to work since you cannot leave them at home alone. Also avoid giving choices that are so narrow the child senses no freedom at all. Young children benefit from having some choices narrowed, but try to give broad choices whenever possible. Choices should not represent a punishment as one alternative. For example, telling a child “You may either pick up the toys or take a break” creates fear and intimidation instead of empowerment.
Example: If a child is refusing to sit down at the table for dinner, you can ask them, “Which chair would you like to sit in?” or “Do you want to sit by mom or grandpa?”
Step 3: Finding Ways for Everyone to Win
Find acceptable ways for the child to feel powerful. Whenever you find yourself in the middle of a power struggle with your child, ask yourself, “How can I give the child more power in this situation in a way that I can accept?” Think about if the child can be in charge of it some way or have a job associated with the choice. Can they be the “floor inspector” to check and make sure the floor is clean? Can they be the “librarian” that makes sure the books are safe on the bookshelf?
Work to create a win-win situation. Power struggles often feel like someone has to win and someone has to lose. A win-win solution is where each party comes away feeling like they got what they wanted. Getting to win-win takes negotiation. Adults can assist children by responding to a child’s demands, “That sounds like a good way for you to win. And I want you to win. But I want to win, too. Can you think of a solution that works for both of us?”
Powerlessness often results in children trying to gain power in other ways. Children who are overpowered, or who feel powerless, will often seek to gain power through revenge. They will seek to hurt others as they feel hurt and will often engage in behavior that ultimately hurts themselves. Revenge at age two and three looks like talking back and messy food spills. When children act out in power struggles and revengeful behavior, they are most often feeling powerless and discouraged about a positive way to contribute and know that their actions count. As educators are goal is to help children become self-reliant adults who can make good decisions and have the confidence to be whatever he or she chooses. Children will also see that future that way more clearly if you allow them to practice being powerful in useful and appropriate ways.