Power Struggles Rob Parents of Power

Power Struggles Rob Parents of Power

Power struggles seem to pervade all aspects of life. At the macro level, groups of people have fought each other for control of resources throughout history, and it continues to this day. At the national level groups fight for control of resources, money, and votes. The same is true at the state and community levels. At the level of the family the same process occurs, where individuals–whether they be spouses, parents and children, or brothers and sisters–fight each other for control. Even within individuals, at the microscopic level, unseen and unknown wars are constantly being fought between cells for dominance within the person, which result in life or death for both those cells and their host.

I wish to focus on the family level. Power struggles in many families are almost endless, with spouses trying to control each other’s behavior and with parents trying to control children’s behavior while children try to control parental behavior. The process of these power struggles is often damaging, perhaps even life threatening, just as it is in power struggles at all the other levels. The outcome of the parent-child power struggles is too often serious harm to the parent-child relationship

I define power as the ability to make something happen. In parent-child power struggles, each person tries to impose his will or resist the other’s will, and make the other behave in a certain way. These tussles usually do not have a happy ending. In fact, they often spawn resentment and lay the groundwork for future power struggles which replicate earlier ones, with similar negative results.

Unfortunately, neither parent nor child wins a power struggle unless one of them gives in and lets the other one win. What good is that? Does it help or hurt the parent-child relationship? It’s a win-lose proposition that often generates anger, hurt, and resentment. A power struggle is hardly the way to nurture a loving, harmonious relationship. So how should a parent approach the problem of parent-child power struggles?

Four Things the Parent Should Do.

First, a parent ought to deplore that that–power struggles–is what is going on. “I’m involved in power struggles with my child, and they’re not a good thing. I want to stop having them.”

Second, the parent should take ownership of the power struggles. Who really is responsible for them? I think any reasonable person would say that, while both parent and child are equally involved in the struggle, the parent is the more responsible party. After all, the parent is far more experienced than the child in handling conflict, is probably more skilled in self-control and self-discipline, and carries enormous power and authority over the child in terms of controlling resources the child needs.

Third, once these two facts are acknowledged by the parent (that power struggles are occurring and the parent bears more responsibility for them), the parent should also accept responsibility for putting an end to them. I often say, and this is a good place to repeat it, that in negative parent-child interactions, the parent must change first. This might require a bit of an attitude adjustment as well as the willingness to try some different techniques other than yelling, attacking, criticizing, and arguing when power struggles begin to flare up. Both attitude and technique are addressed in the following statements the parent could say to him/herself the moment tension begins to rise. I call this kind of self-talk mental gymnastics. With a little presence of mind, a lot of determination to rise above the fray, and repeated practice in the crucial moments, any parent can silently repeat one or more of these ten short statements before saying anything to the child.

  • “Here we go again. I’m not going to let this happen.”
  • “I’m not going to stoop to his (her) level!”
  • “This is all about ego.”
  • “It’s not worth it.”
  • “This is my responsibility.”
  • “I’m going to rise above this.”
  • “Time to show respect!”
  • “I’ll teach him (her) with love!”
  • “Great! Another chance to listen!”
  • “This is a test!”

Let’s reflect on a couple of those ideas. The most obvious is that in engaging in an argumentative battle with a child, the parent is stooping to the child’s level of immaturity. Immature, primitive, and assaultive forms of engagement are not the way humans best resolve problems. The best way to resolve problems is with dialogue.

What about ego? Ego, or what Eckhart Tolle calls “the little me,” insists on looking good, being right, dominating, and having its own way. On the other hand, the Higher Self can step back and see this unfolding drama as a movie. It can observe the parent’s ego about to get the best of him/her just as the child’s ego is about to get the best of the child. Seeing it about to happen, the parent’s Higher Self, the Observer, can step up and intervene–not by trying to control the child, but by actively taking the parent’s ego by the throat and putting it in its place.

It always takes two to argue. One person can prevent an argument by simply saying, “I don’t argue.” Love and Logic has a cute phrase many parents like to use: “I love you too much to argue.” By not stooping to the child’s level, the parent effectively models the higher road, a more loving, more respectful way to treat another person when differences arise. And guess what! The child will soon start imitating the parent who consistently takes this higher road–the road that leads to harmony, mutual respect, and a loving relationship.

Power struggles are essentially a disrespectful way to treat a child–as if s/he were a pet, slave, or underling. They are demeaning to the parent, too, and most parents feel bad after allowing themselves to be pulled into one. The battle, really, is not between the parent and child, but between the parent’s ego and Higher Self. The result of that battle predicts a positive or negative outcome between the parent and child in a tense situation.

Unfortunately, many parenting experts and authors talk about techniques “working” when parents gain control of child behavior. They often teach what I call “advanced warfare” methods to gain control such as by giving it up, by quickly and consistently imposing punishments, and by following through on threats. I call these approaches to discipline “Old School.” While not all Old School methods are wrong or bad, many are disrespectful and ineffective–such as winning power struggles.

My Recommendation

So what do I recommend? I recommend that in the heat of the moment, after the parent has alertly stopped him/herself from an angry, knee-jerk response, the parent listen first, talk second. This is my number one rule of thumb for parents in all situations where tensions are rising. I’ve described in detail the ways to do this in other places in this book.

Briefly, the model is this. Listen first means inviting the child to share his/her ideas by using the three listening techniques of acknowledging, questions, and reflecting. Subsequently, talk second means using the three illustrating techniques of modeling, honest and open communication, and using I-messages. Finally, this dialogue, which replaces the power struggle, results in some kind of agreement between parent and child.

Transformation of Conflict

I come at this whole thing from a different perspective than that held by Old Schoolers. Techniques “work” if they inspire a child to be cooperative and responsible, rather than merely obedient. Parents do not try to do the impossible–control their child’s behavior, thoughts, or feelings–but rather use techniques that demonstrate respect and invite a child’s cooperation. The parent uses personal power (ability to make things happen) cooperatively with the child, who thus learns to use power respectfully by copying the parent. This is nothing less than transformation of conflict into harmony.


3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book  that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model.  Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.

     Learn more.    Buy Now.   Table of Contents & Intro