Rebecca Resnik, PsyD  
Bethesda, MD

Specialties: ADHD, dyslexia, developmental delays

Interests: Developmental Disabilities
Rebecca Resnik & Associates PC
Bethesda Office
Bethesda, MD
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Power Struggles

Jun 20, 2008 - 8 comments

child behavior


power struggles




Rebecca Resnik



     I do not know of any parent who does not dread power struggles. This is one of the most common problems that brings families into therapy. There is nothing like a battle with your own child to cause intense frustration and self-doubt. Not to mention that our kids seem particularly adept at picking times when we are late for work or when your mother in-law is there to see the whole thing.

     The only power struggles you truly win are those that you avoid. Once a child has engaged you in a negotiating, arguing, or tantruming battle, everybody loses. From the toddler who throws himself down and screams to the teen who becomes a prosecuting attorney, your best bet is to avoid ever being drawn into battling like an equal. It is very strange to think about it, but power struggles keep undesirable behavior going. Its not that they are pleasant for children, but during a 'battle' with you, your child is actually getting something he wants. When he can engage you, the child gets your full attention, ‘blows off steam’, and sometimes gets you to give in. Even if you are only loosing the occasional power struggle, that rare reinforcement of the unwanted behavior is enough to make it worse over time. Once your child learns that every now and then you will give in, it is just like he’s playing the slots in Vegas. He will keep going with more and more determination until the next big ‘pay off’ comes. Then the pattern becomes very difficult to break.

   So the real answer is to keep power struggles from happening as much as humanly possible. First off, you can be proactive. Watch out for situations that make a power struggle more likely. The big triggers include: video games, low blood sugar, fatigue, an anxiety provoking situation, having to share, going to/staying in bed, not enough opportunity to burn off energy, and transitioning from a preferred activity (watching TV) to an unwelcome activity (going to school).  We parents can anticipate most of these things coming and plan our strategy in advance by setting up expectations. Give lots of warnings and let the child know explicitly what to expect (“In 2 minutes, it will be time to turn off the TV and put on your coat”). If you are going to a trouble zone like a grocery store candy aisle, tell the child in advance what you will and will not be buying. Set a timer to tell your child when it is time to stop playing computer games. If you are going out, let the child know what behavior you expect to see, and what behaviors will lead to having to leave. Once you set an expectation, make sure to stick to it!

    The other two big ways to avoid the power struggle is giving choices and just plain empathizing. I am borrowing here from a terrific book called How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk, which I can not recommend enough. Your kids will be less likely to battle with you if you give them two things everyone wants, including choices and the feeling that you understand their perspective. While the ‘forced choice’ does not work every time, it can stave off many battles. Give kids lots of little choices whenever you have wiggle room. Choices are great for their sense of independence and for helping them learn to take responsibility for their own decisions. You can offer choices related to when the child will do something (now or in 5 minutes), how it will be done, and what the child would like (which cereal, which shirt, which homework assignment first etc.)

     If you can not give your child a choice, such as when its time to leave for school, let him know that you understand how he feels about it. We all feel so much better about unpleasant things when we feel that the important people in our lives care what we are thinking. This is NOT the same thing as giving in to our child’s demands! Empathizing is about helping your child tolerate the frustrations we all face in our day to day lives, not trying to make the frustration go away. We all have to do things like get shots and wait our turn, and kids need to learn to cope. However, we can help kids feel better with such simple statements like:  “You wish you could play that game all day instead of going to Grandma’s”, “You’re really disappointed about not being able to have more cake” or “Having to leave your teddy bear feels sad, you miss him when you’re at school.” By empathizing with our children and giving voice to their feelings, we can help them feel that we are on their side, and that we care about their experiences. For an older child or teen, tell them to write you a letter/email describing their grievances. A little empathy goes a long way towards making them feel willing to go along with our directions.

     Finally, the important thing in managing power struggles is to diffuse them if you can not prevent them. Keep in mind, it is always better to be proactive in managing behavior than reactive. When you have to be reactive, start by labeling the feeling (“You look frustrated” “I can see you are getting annoyed about this” or “This makes you very grumpy.”), and then state your expectation firmly (“And now we are going to have to leave for school” or “But I expect you touch the dog gently” or “Use words, not fists!”). If the child starts to calm down, you can offer a forced choice at this point (“Now, do you want to wear your coat or your jacket to school?”). If the child escalates with negotiating or a tantrum, it is time to get very firm and direct about what you are going to do (“If you do not choose, I will choose” or “We can discuss it later, right now it is time for school”, “If you need to calm down, I expect you to sit on the steps for two minutes.”). You’re your statements short. Then once you have told the child what you expect, it is time to ignore him until he complies. Some children will become very provocative trying to re-engage you, but ignore all behavior except something that puts your child or someone else in danger. Once the child complies or gets close enough towards acceptable behavior, praise and give attention again.

     Across the board, your goal is to give lots of attention, descriptive praise, and affection for desirable behavior, and as little as possible for unwanted behavior. In most families, we tend to pay little attention to the kids when they are doing what we want, and give then our undivided attention when they are being inappropriate. A power struggle is our children’s way of trying to get control over us, so keep in mind that once we are engaged in battling like equals, they have already won. Lastly, it is important to remember that our children do NOT really want to win power struggles. A child who wins power struggles is not a happy child, instead he becomes anxious, angry, and contemptuous (Remember Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?). What truly makes a child feel happy and calm is when he knows that his parents are in-control, protecting him even from his own worst impulses.

Dr. Rebecca Resnik
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Mindworks Clinical Psychology

NOTE: please do not comment by asking for medical assistance. I am a psychologist, and can not provide any medical advice or advice regarding your psychotropic medications. Seek medical attention or emergency room care for any medical issues or life threatening behavior. If you wish to ask a question, please do so in the Parenting or Learning Disabilities Forums.

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366811 tn?1217422672
by JSGeare, Jun 21, 2008
Dear Rebecca: As a step-father, I never had too much difficulty with the children's behavior in the routine, day-to-day encounters such as you have described above. That said, there comes a time, I think, when the choices a youngster makes are as reflective of a formative process as they are of the simple desire to "get ahead." In the minds of the parents, the choices may be poor ones or not in keeping with what we would wish for the child, but they are not entirely behavioral in nature. I'm talking about who people fall in love with, and how people discover and pursue their passions and avocations and even the nature of their personalities. One of my steps fell in love with a man who was in jail for selling drugs; they eventually married and had two sons, then divorced in later years. While Kiley was by no means a refined woman, her children, nonetheless, were the most polite, industrious and well-adjusted of all the grands. Kiley was an excellent mother and the values she demonstrated for her children stood them in good stead. We would have gained little, I believed, by attemptiong to make her "unlove" the man she married; the best we could do was support her and keep the lines of communication open. Her brother Matthew was a different story. Intelligent, polite, witty and musically talented, he nonetheless was never able to succeed as an adult in terms of supporting himself. Flunked out of college, married, three daughters, divorced and married again. Finally, he was diagnosed with "personality disorder" so as to receive some disability income and today, as a man in his 40's, he is a DJ at weddings, dances, etc. for "under the table" income and not much of it. For both kids, it seemed to me that at some point they will simply be who they are going to be; their life choices and orientations and traits are simply not strictly "behavioral" items.

Some years after Kiley and Matthew had entered their adult lives, I read a book by David Cohen called "Stranger in the Nest" which basically says that your kids will be who they will be. If very successful and happy, parents should not take too much credit and if miserable failures, parents should not take too much blame. I wonder if you have read this book, and if you have, can you comment on the material, and can you offer any opinion on how parents may distinquish between issues of socialization and behavior as opposed to expression of traits, interests, talents, etc.?

That leaves Roger; the third and oldest step. He is successful and content. After a long hiatus, he called me to join him for dinner the other night. His comment on those tumultuous years with his sibs in our home: "Looking back, I think the truth is that I got out just in the nic of time." We lifted our glasses in a toast.

Avatar universal
by lizziecee, Jun 23, 2008
What a brilliant, insightful and wonderful post, by someone, like me a step-parent, who has been there and done it. My 2nd husband (I have no children due to bi-cornuate womb)  had two kids - wife a very mentally abusive attitude to her 2 kids. Eldest, a son,  not very bright but compassionate, that I insisted come to live with us when he was 15 yrs, and younger daughter, emotionally dysfunctional, now a Consultant Radioligist, a nightmare. I can't figure out how two kids, brought up in the same environment, can turn out so differently.

Your step-kids are so very lucky to have such a caring step-father....you rock!

325405 tn?1262290178
by 888mom, Jun 25, 2008
Someone recently recommended to me a book called Boundaries by Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend.  She said it also helped her deal with behavioral issues with her children as well as setting boundaries up with adults.  I have not yet read it.  Does setting up boundaries and limits with children help behavioral difficulties?  (I have a 2 year old, so this is an important topic for me at the moment).

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by WEBBGURL, Jun 27, 2008
So, much great advice here.  I agree with JS. I try to remember that all I can do or am responsible is to provide a safe, loving, nuturing enviornment. I am not here to make the "happy." Happiness passes; contentment lasts. I am presently struggling with my almost 18 years old son, and sometimes it's hard when you try to help a hurting child, and they tell you that you don't care or that you hate them! But, I pray and press on. It helps when there is a safe place for them. My mother has been excellent as a help.

Avatar universal
by sandysandy, Jun 30, 2008
HMMM.... I think how a parent shows he/she cares in the most constructive way for their son/daughter requires that the parent be able to do what is needed.  It's easy to do that when they are young rather than when they are older and transitioning into adulthood.  Maybe I am old fashioned but I believe my child needs me to be their parent for the rest of their lives.   Our roles develop over time and change but ultimately we all need various dimensions to our lives and the well played role of a parent provides for some of that.  With that said, I do believe that teens know a parents loves them by the guidance they provide.

I think empathy plays a role with a teen and may take the form of a parent understanding how hard it is to resist peer pressure and then helping them with it by setting guidelines and developing strategies (EX: she may not stay at a gathering ... be it  1 - 50 others.... where there is drugs and/or alcohol... for there will be consequences.... and she can call me anytime, anywhere to be picked up, no questions asked... if that is desired).  

I find too many parents try to be so nice to their kids and empathize all the time with everything.  Some parents feel that if they supply the alcohol in their home and take away car keys, they are being a good parent.  Nope.. not quite.  They are providing fertile ground for alcoholism, drug use, condoning bad choices, providing a social role for their child to be "cool" and thus making it more difficult for them to develop into mature adults or resist peer pressure.  In my state it is illegal and can mandate a fine of $1000/head and a jail sentence.  But parents think this is providing structure and empathy... or being nice.  These parents are severely misguided and are taking the easy way out.

The contrast of these two situations are an extreme example but I see the same contrast of parenting styles on the daily smaller things in life.  I think the bottom line is that a teen needs the parents to be parents and that means a bit of distance, giving up of immediate gratification for one's parental efforts, and not taking any pushback personally (in fact, it is just a teen figuring out where their safety net is).  I think then the child/teen knows a parent loves them.

366811 tn?1217422672
by JSGeare, Jul 01, 2008
No question about it in my mind -the parent, AS a parent, should BE a parent. When our chillins are little ones, with a high degree of dependency, there is a kind of basic training in terms of social skills, primary values, priorities, etc: the "toolkit" of interactional skills that everyone needs to know. And little kids tend to mimic the adults, which is why they role-play among themselves. And they will specifically mimic our behaviors as examples of how they should be. Little wonder, then, that some of the most horrendous behaviors we see -are reflections of ourselves.

But in time, the unique set of circumstances that makes the kids unique, begins to manifest. Their adaptations reflect as much about their own make-up as they do the environment and situations they are in -which is why sibs take different approaches to the same issues. As kids move into these stages, we need to discern whether or not what we are seeing is the result of simple assertion of themselves -or the early evidence of their natures. Not an easy job.

The book on how to do it for any particular child has never been written.

Avatar universal
by DOCMJN, Sep 13, 2008
We, regularly, have power struggles with our oldest son over education and we have come to dread those discussions with him.   He is 5yo and seems to be falling behind in school.  He has a very short attention span and it is becoming very frustrating for my wife and I to teach him.  He has a tutor from the school come over once a week, but even she says that it is a problem to keep him focused for more than 10 min at a time.  She seems to only be playing games with him yet we see little progress.  He is bright, however, with an excellent vocabulary, imaginary thinking and is able to exptrapolate on ideas.  We had him tested by a child psychologist last year who said he had a strong memory and he scored in the 80th percentile, but he just gave us the diagnosis of ADHD and no recommendations.  Many tell us that it is just a phase and that he will out grow it.  My wife wants to hold him back a year to give him time to outgrow the problem and grow emotionally.  I feel that he justs needs more attention and some tutoring.
As Physicians, my wife and I don't want to "label' or self diagnose him yet we recognize the fact that he needs additional help  I see much of myself in him, especially at that age.  I was certainly a late bloomer and didn't really shine until the end of college and medical school.  My instincts are to say that I grew out of it and so will he, but logic dictates that there must be a better way... I just haven't found it yet.

Avatar universal
by DOCJHJ, Jan 06, 2009

I feel sure you would give up your life for your child, but thankfully this problem can be solved by just giving him "time".  I am not surprised he reminds you of yourself, we don't get apples from pears trees.  When you were starting school no one understood that children do not all become ready for school just because they have a birthday.  Starting school before they are ready just leads to frustration for children and parents.  We now know it will mean a uphill struggle, not to mention how it makes a child feel about himself.  If you give this some thought, perhaps you will try to give your son what you did not have.   How sad you did not "bloom" until college but how wonderful to have a chance  to make sure your son will have what you were not given---the gift of time.  Remember, with age comes wisdon, enjoy every minute you have with him, and don't blink---it will already be gone.  .

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