Vol. 12, No. 2 • June 2008

Getting Out of a Power Struggle

Most parents have experienced a power struggle at one time or another: you ask a child to do something, they refuse or are openly defiant, and you engage in a back-and-forth struggle to get the child to comply. In other words, you get sucked into it.

The first step to getting out of a power struggle is recognizing when you are in one. Most power struggles occur after a stressful event for a child, and generally happen because his feelings are keeping him from moving toward his “real” goal. He becomes focused on proving he is right (which is impossible since his behavior is driven by irrational beliefs) rather than being focused on “getting what he wants.”

If they are not careful, parents likewise can become focused on “winning the argument” rather than on getting what they want. No matter how hard we focus and try to avoid power struggles, there will still be times we find ourselves being pulled into one or right in the middle of one. Here are some suggestions if you find yourself in the thick of it.

  • Exit and Wait. Remove yourself from the confrontation—don’t be an audience for your child. Your attention and presence can be a powerful reinforcement. You might calmly say, “Yelling and talking to me in that tone of voice is not respectful, so I am going to leave right now and talk to you later.”

  • Regain your composure before addressing the situation. You are more effective when you’re calm and collected.

  • Don’t confuse this with a “teachable moment.” Trying to teach or implement an intervention during a power struggle is seldom effective.

  • Keep it short and to the point. Say something neutral. Lecturing only fuels the fire.

  • Avoid arguing. Arguing with a young person about their failure to follow your instructions maintains the struggle. It doesn’t help kids to listen and mind.

  • Know when your buttons are being pushed. Adolescents often attempt to push your buttons to keep you in the conflict. Don’t get pulled in!

  • Misbehavior is not a personal attack on you. Rather, it’s the child’s attempt to regain or maintain control.

  • Plan ahead and pre-teach! Think about how you will handle potentially tough situations in advance. Talk with your child about expectations and consequences.

  • Energize and recharge! Take time to relax and relieve stress. Don’t spend that time thinking about the problem.

Once the power struggle is resolved, focus on restoring the relationship. Don’t dwell on the past by bringing it up again: let everyone move forward.

As a foster parent, you need to take care of yourself. Stressful events such as power struggles can leave even the most seasoned parent feeling exhausted. That is why it is essential for you to develop strategies that help you to energize and recharge.

Adapted from NCDSS. (2007). Becoming a therapeutic foster parent: A pre-service curriculum. Raleigh, NC: Family Support and Child Welfare Services Statewide Training Partnership.

Copyright 2008 Jordan Institute for Families