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Erica Reischer Ph.D.

7 Simple Strategies to Avoid Power Struggles

Try these proven tips to avoid conflict (Part 1 of 2)

How to avoid power struggles

(This is Part 1 of a two-part article. Read Part 2 here.)

How to avoid power struggles

(This is Part 1 of a two-part article. Read Part 2 here.)

Every parent has been there: what starts as a simple request to your child (e.g., put on your shoes, get ready for bed, get your things so we can leave, start your homework, etc.) is met with resistance or simply ignored.

Then you repeat yourself and start feeling frustrated, and from there the situation escalates into a full-blown power struggle.

What to do? Here are 7 simple strategies for avoiding power struggles:

1. Pivot.

Pivoting is the art of saying yes instead of no, and meaning the same thing.

So instead of saying: “No, we can’t go to the park until after you have a nap,” pivot and say: “Yes, we can go to the park as soon as you’re done with your nap.” Or: "Yes, you can borrow the car as soon as you finish your homework."

The message is the same, but the tone is completely different, and saying “yes” gives kids a lot less to argue with.

2. Reframe.

Reframing is engaging kids’ imagination and sense of play in order to create the behavior you would like to see. A fascinating study of four-year-olds shows the power of this strategy.

In the study, the researchers first asked the kids to stand still for as long as they could. The kids didn’t last very long: usually less than a minute. Then the researchers asked the kids to pretend that they were guards at a factory. Now, the kids were able to stand still almost four times as long. Why? Because they were imaginatively engaged in the activity.

You will also see reframing at work in many preschools, when they sing the “clean-up song” while the kids put away toys and organize the room.

Reframing is also good practice for adults because it engages our own creativity to reframe our request (“stand still”) as a more imaginative activity (“pretend you are guarding a factory”).

What are the activities in your kids’ life that often meet with resistance and how can you reframe them more imaginatively?

3. Share your power.

Skillfull parents share their power with kids in age- and development-appropriate ways, with more power and autonomy accruing to children as they demonstrate both ability and responsibility.

In contrast, controlling parents give kids little autonomy to make their own choices, often with the well-intentioned goal of protecting their kids from mistakes or discomfort.

But this approach has hidden perils of its own, since kids in those situations often turn to emotional manipulation to get what they want, such as tantrums and “I hate you’s.” Or they pretend to comply with the controlling parent’s wishes, and then covertly do it their own way.

So if you find yourself dictating to your child how she should do something that she is capable of deciding for herself, back off and let her try. She will learn by trying, making mistakes, and trying again. (See strategy #4).

For example, if it’s raining outside and your daughter insists on wearing her sandals instead of her rain boots, consider letting her.* Rather than get into a power struggle about the sandals (or whatever the issue is), give your daughter a matter-of-fact “preview” (your best guess about what’s going to happen: cold and wet feet) and also make it clear that she can make the choice. This is a magical combination.

Here's how this could sound in practice: “Sweetie, I can see that you really want to wear your sandals today even though it’s raining outside (empathy). I think if you do that, your feet will get cold and wet so I don’t recommend it (preview), but it’s up to you (power sharing). Please decide and let’s get ready to go.”

If she doesn’t like the experience of cold and wet feet, she will likely not make the same choice again. (Note that her not liking having cold and wet feet is not the same thing as you not liking it for her.)

Go to Part Two to read strategies 4 - 7, plus a wrap-up.

Copyright 2014, Erica Reischer, Ph.D.

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*Unless you live in a cold-climate, it's wintertime, and said choice may lead to frostbite or worse. This is an important exception to this principle: if your child's choice may pose a risk to health or safety, then it's not an option. Go straight to strategies 5 and 6. Be authoritative, give a reason, and go straight to empathy (and possibly distraction, which is most effective with younger kids).


About the Author

Erica Reischer, Ph.D., is a psychologist, parent coach, and author. She teaches at University of California Berkeley, UCSF, and other institutions.