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by Naomi Drew, M.A.

“A problem is like a pebble. Hold it too close to your eye and it fills the whole world and puts everything out of focus. Hold it at a proper distance and it can be examined and properly classified. Throw it at your feet and it can be seen in its true setting, just one more tiny bump on the pathway to life.” - Celia Luce

One problem that seems to drive parents crazy is power struggles. Parents from every walk of life are often driven to distraction by power struggles with their kids, be they 2, 12, or 20. What a familiar ring all their stories have! Each time I hear one I remember the power struggles that went on in my own home, but I also recall the solutions that helped quell them. Power struggles can feel like huge boulders, but when we find viable solutions, those same power struggles can shrink to the size of bumps on the pathway of life. Sure, we may trip when we hit a bump, but we can avoid falling down if we have the right tools. Read on to discover a some really good ones.

1. If you want your child to behave differently, your behavior needs to change first.

Ask yourself if there’s something you might be doing that’s reinforcing power struggles. No guilt here, just, ask yourself the question objectively. One mom I talked to noticed that whenever her son dug his heels in, she dug her heels in too. As he got more stubborn, she got more stubborn. That’s how the power struggle was kept in place and inevitably grew.

If you find yourself digging in each time your child is obstinate, try this instead: step back, take a deep breath, and for just a split second, ask your “wise self” what to do. The answer might be to back off a little, or to offer a different choice, or maybe to give a consequence. As William James once said, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”

Sometimes we dig in our heals strictly from habit, and what we end up struggling over isn’t worth the energy. For example, maybe it really isn’t such a big deal if little Susie wears her favorite slippers to the store. Or if 15 year-old Tommy wants to wear baggy pants that are three sizes too big. Will these things really make a difference in the quality of their lives or yours? In the long-run, is it really worth fighting over? We need to ask ourselves these questions each time we dig in our heels. That way we can save our energy for the big issues and avoid turning less important issues into giant power struggles.

2. Use the following four criteria to help you decide if something is worth engaging in a struggle over:

  • Will allowing it negatively affect the health, safety or well-being of my child?
  • Will allowing it negatively affect his/ her moral or ethical development?
  • Will allowing it undermine or strengthen my role as a parent and my relationship with my child?
  • Can I authentically agree to this without giving in to something I know I should stand firm on?

By taking a step back, breathing, and tuning in to the wisest part of ourselves, it becomes easier to discern. Trust your gut.

3. Have several (not more than four) clear, consistent standards and limits and stick by them under all circumstances.

Here are the ones we had in our house :

  • No physical fighting.
  • We listen to mom and dad when they tell us to do something.
  • We speak with respect even when angry.
  • We tell the truth.

That was it. The rest could be negotiable, depending on the circumstances. Too many rules set us up for power struggles. Several solid consistent standards form the foundation of a peaceful home. This, along with fair consequences give our kids solid ground to walk on. The key here, is that we need to honor our own standards if we expect our kids to do so. For example, if physical fighting is not acceptable in our house, it’s not acceptable even when someone has a great excuse, or when Mom and Dad are too tired to give a consequence. Our most important standards must be golden.

4. Find places where you CAN compromise.

Rule of thumb: anything that relates to the safety or moral development of your children is not the place to compromise, but other areas like clothing, shape of their room, when to do homework and chores, are areas you might want to consider. Make every “no” more powerful by balancing it out with a “yes.” When we find ways to compromise on the not so big things, we save our clout for when it really counts. Most important thing to remember: only compromise when YOU are comfortable doing so, not when your child has worn you down. (This is another place where deep breathing really helps.)

5. Be creative.

One of my favorite ways to prevent power struggles comes to me from Meg Cox, author of The Book of New Family Traditions:

Have a YES jar. When your child asks you to do something (within reason) and you need to say no, have her write down her request and put it in the YES jar. If your child is to young to write it herself, you can do this for her. Allow the slips of paper to accumulate, then, once a month or so, have a YES day where you allow your child to choose a few slips from the jar and you say yes to all of them. So, if Katie wants to wear her Cinderella costume all day long, on YES day she gets to do it. Or if Henry wants chocolate ice cream for breakfast, on YES day he gets to have them.

This takes the edge off the times we have to say no, and allows our children the delicious feeling of looking forward to eventually being granted their wishes.

6. Offer alternatives.

Here are some examples:

  • For a child who’s resisting doing his homework, say: “You can either do your homework in the kitchen or in your room. Which do you prefer?”
  • If your child resists going to bed, try saying this: “You can either go to bed in 10 minutes or 15.” Then set the timer. When the timer goes off, bedtime. If your child is unhappy, blame the timer.
  • If your teen resists picking up after himself, try offering an alternative that allows some leeway, like this (if you can live with it): “You can leave your room however you want, but you need to pick up after yourself in the rest of the house. Just keep your door closed.”

When we back a child into a corner, we can leave him with no place to go but against us. Alternatives give kids a way out without losing face. They also foster a healthy sense of autonomy and self-determination. Providing alternatives helps remove the need to assert through acting out.

7. Include your children in family decisions; listen to their needs and feelings and encourage them to listen each other.

Have family meetings where you discuss plans, problems, and areas of conflict. Get input from your children on how they think problems can be addressed. Arrive at solutions together and write them down. Post agreements you’ve made together as a reminder and revisit them at future meetings. Kids who have a voice in the workings of the family tend to behave better.

Also, ask your children to suggest reasonable consequences. Come up with a few together. Children are far more apt to honor rules and accept consequences they have had a part in determining.

8. Acknowledge good behavior.

This is the gold standard for reinforcing the positive, especially with children for whom consequences seem to have little impact. Speak to the high self in your child. Expect him to behave well, and then sincerely compliment him when he does.

Sticking to your standards and compromising where you can, combined with sincerely acknowledging your child’s good behavior is worth a thousand reprimands.

Naomi Drew is the author of Peaceful Parents, Peaceful Kids and five other books. For more information or to schedule a workshop, go to



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