Dealing with power struggles and setting limits

by Lois Haultain and Karan Simms

“No, I won’t and you can’t make me!” That’s what a toddler’s folded arms and defiant looks seem to say. It’s an invitation to a power struggle, which is the main misbehaviour from childhood we take through to adulthood. It often takes a new parent by surprise, stirring up feelings of anger and resentment , and a desire to “make that child” do whatever it is we’re asking.

Most parents first experience their child’s attempts at autonomy at about age two. They feel challenged and often a battle of wills begins that lasts throughout childhood and the teen years. Parents can turn these trying times into a rewarding growth period for them and their children by shifting their perspective concerning the child’s behaviour and by becoming clever and creative in responding to the child’s perceived “headstrong, rebellious, stubborn, frustrating, negative” behaviour.

Empowering not Overpowering

Instead of viewing children’s wilful behaviour as “bad” and reacting in a way that overpowers the child, parents can view this behaviour as a healthy positive sign of their child’s development and find ways to empower the child. From about the age of two, and at differing intervals in the developmental process, children are individuating from their parents and the world around them.

This includes making decisions for themselves, exerting their power and will on persons and situations, getting their own way, and declaring ownership and authority. Parents need to respond with understanding to this developmental phase by being loving and firm about appropriate boundaries.

When parents react by overpowering children, they cause them to feel powerless. Since all humans strive to feel powerful, the overpowered child may react to his or her feelings of powerlessness by either fight or flight – either giving in and letting others make all the decisions and maintain all control or fighting to seek power through rebellious and destructive behaviours.

Parents can shift to finding useful ways for the child to feel powerful and valuable and can deal with power struggles in ways that reduce fighting. This can create cooperative relationships that empower both the child and the parents.

Children do need to have clear boundaries, however, to feel secure and so that they can learn to recognise and respect other people’s limits. It is appropriate for parents to be clear on what behaviour they will or won’t tolerate. Some things are not negotiable, and parents need to be assertive and clear in communicating their expectations, while remaining respectful and loving. (More on limits below)

The First Step is to 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 pick up the other end of the rope. Since there is inherent joy for the child in “opposing” whether she wins or loses, it can surprise her and defuse a potentially explosive situation when her parent refuses to engage in the battle.

A mum asked her two-year-old if she was ready for a nap. “NO” replied the child. Feeling challenged, the mum replied, “Do you want to walk to your bed or do you want me to carry you?” “I want you to carry me upside down and tickle me as we go.”

The mother realised that the “no” was an invitation to join a power struggle and by side-stepping it (neither fighting nor giving in) the mother created an ending that was happy, nurturing and loving rather than hateful and painful as nap time can often be.

By side-stepping the power struggle, you send your 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.”

Choices, Not Orders

After side-stepping the power struggle, the next step is to give choices, not orders. A dad, trying to change an 18-month-old‚s nappy, against the wishes of the child, offered the child a choice of which room to have the change made. The child chose a room, but once in the room, baulked again at the nappy change. The dad continued with his plan to empower the child and asked, “Which bed?” The child pointed to a bed, the nappy was changed and the ongoing power struggle about nappy changes was ended.

When giving children choices, parents must be sure that all choices are acceptable. Don’t give your child the choice of either sitting down quietly or leaving the restaurant if you have no intention of leaving. You have to follow through.
Also be sure you don’t give too many “autocratic” choices. Autocratic choices are choices that are so narrow the child senses no freedom at all. Young children benefit from having some choices narrowed. A 2-year-old needs you to give concrete, specific choices:

Instead of “What would you like to wear today?” (too overwhelming and general)
try “Would you like to wear your red T-shirt or your Bob the builder T-shirt?”

Remember, a 2-year-old is beginning to understand that choosing one means not choosing the other option, and isn’t always going to be happy about that, so stay firm and loving, and stick to the limits.

Choices should not represent a punishment as one alternative. For example, telling a child in a threatening voice “You may either pick up the toys or go to time-out” creates fear and intimidation instead of empowerment.

Sometimes choices with consequences are appropriate, especially when setting a limit on behaviour, for example,

“You can stay close to the shopping trolley or you can ride inside it”
or “We can stay at playgroup while you play gently. If you hurt anyone we will go home.”

Use an Appropriate Tone

Do you remember a teacher for whom all the kids mucked up and who had no class control? And another who only had to walk in and say “Good morning” to get everyone’s attention? Some people seem to have a “presence” which is respected. It’s a good idea to cultivate a confident authoritative tone of voice when expressing boundaries.

An authoritative person doesn’t ask tentatively, with an implied or explicit apology, eg “Sweetheart, do you think you’d mind putting away your backpack please?” It’d be more like “Backpack away please!”

This principle takes some discernment on your part. You’ll need to determine what is negotiable and what isn’t. Save your “I mean business” tone for things that are absolutely not open to discussion. But keep in mind that an authoritative tone doesn’t have to be harsh, or even loud. Even a whisper can convey authority when you use it effectively. Use statements not the kind of polite questions to which your spirited child will probably answer NO!

Instead of ” Sweetie, do you want to have your bath now?”
try “Bathtime!”

Find Useful Ways for your Child to be Powerful

Whenever you find yourself in the middle of a power struggle with your child, ask yourself, “How can I give my child more power in this situation?” One mother asked herself this question concerning an endless battle she was having with her son about buckling his seat belt. Her solution was that she made him boss of the seat belts – it became his job to see that everyone was safely secured before the engine started up. The power struggle ended.

Do the Unexpected

One parent side-steps power struggles by announcing “let’s go out to the park” when she feels the situation is headed for a showdown. Her purpose is not to “reward” bad behaviour, but to reestablish her relationship with her children and keep her end goal of a close, loving and cooperative atmosphere in mind. Remember, rules without relationship create rebellion.

Getting to Win-Win

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. Parents can assist their children by responding to a child’s demands,

“That sounds like a good way for you to be happy. And I want you to be happy. But I want to be happy, too. Can you think of a solution that works for both of us?”

This is not suitable for toddlers who are testing non-negotiable boundaries and who need you to be lovingly firm. It is a parenting tool that is invaluable when you have teenagers, and wish to prepare them for confident adult life.

Handling “NO”

Parents often have the attitude that children should not say NO to or question authority. This reflects an older social style of parenting which does not actually train children to participate in our democratic society by valuing their input. It is best to hear a child’s NO as a disagreement rather than defiance.

Teach children to say NO, or disagree, respectfully and appropriately, in a normal tone of voice. Keep in mind that you want them to say NO when faced with peer pressure and inappropriate situations. You do not want them to become the kind of people who can’t be assertive or self-protective.

Powerlessness Creates Revenge

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 behaviour that ultimately hurts themselves. Revenge at age two and three might be talking back and messy food spills. Revenge at age 16 or 17 might be drug and alcohol abuse, pregnancy, failure, running away and even suicide. Setting clear boundaries and giving your child the opportunity to feel powerful in appropriate ways from an early age helps her feel loved, secure and valued.

When children act out in power struggles and revengeful behaviour, they are most often feeling powerless and discouraged about a positive way to contribute and know that their actions count. Most parents‚ goals are to raise a child who becomes a self-reliant adult, can make good decisions and has the confidence to be whatever he or she chooses.

Your child will see that future more clearly if you allow him or her to practise at being powerful in useful and appropriate ways while giving them the security of clear boundaries.
This material was adapted from the Redirecting Children’s Behaviour Handbook, by Kathryn Kvols. I f you would like a copy of the book, or wish to inquire about the RCB Course please contact us