I can remember angrily looking at my determined, strong-willed child, thinking something like, “Oh, no you don’t! You’re not going to win this one!” and the power struggle was game-on! The final score was usually 0-0, lose-lose, even if I managed to overpower my child.
I appreciate the wise words of Jane Nelsen, PhD, “I have never seen a power drunk child without a power drunk adult real close by.” (That would have described me at times…) Of course there are some kids (even with easy-going parents) who are more prone to engage in power struggles than other kids.
But, it does take two to tango. If you’re in that repeated, well-choreographed “dance” of conflict with your child, read on. We’ll start with insight into the dynamics and some spiritual perspective, and then move on to practical tools and age-varied stories from parents like you. You can move from power struggles to problem solving!
We’ve written lots about connection, empathy, playfulness, and choices. These things can all decrease power struggles and grow cooperation. But in this blog post we’re going to give you a specific tool that Connected Families’ coaching clients have been learning for years – how to shift from being stuck in power struggles toward problem-solving solutions with your child. You can retain your God-given parental authority, and respond in a kind but firm way as you delegate some “healthy power” to your child. Your child doesn’t have to be your opponent in power struggles. Invite them to be your teammate in problem solving!
And in the process, you’ll communicate the powerful message to your child – “You are called and capable!… of solving problems with those you love.”
Let’s start by understanding the dynamics and messages of a typical power struggle.
Typical Power Struggle
- You and your child have opposing goals.
- You both experience strong anger from your blocked goals.
- Your conflict, though hurtful, often involves predictable, intense attention, and emotion. This can become a habitual way to “bond” because it meets a child’s valid need for intense connection.
- “You get the most connection when you fight with me.”
- “What’s important to you is unimportant. Only what I want is important or valid.”
- Your child might infer, “You are unimportant.” “You are a problem.” “You are in control of my emotions.”
- “Jesus is uninvolved in our conflict, and just expects us to figure it out.”
Team Problem Solving
- Children and parents agree on a shared goal of solving the problem in an honoring way.
- Negative emotions give way to connection and unity.
- At some point (before, during or after) parents can explain God’s role in helping us work through problems.
- “What’s important to each person is important.”
- “You are capable of and responsible to solve problems you have with people.”
- “Christ is full of compassion, and present to help and give wisdom.”
Helpful questions could include:
- How does everybody feel about this situation?
- How would we each like to feel about it?
- What’s important to each person?
- When this issue goes better, how does that happen?
- How could we find a solution that honors what is important to each person?
Helpful tip: If your child gets overwhelmed by questions, just choose one or two to ask. You can also give your best shot at answering additional questions you think are important.
What the research says
This is a vital process to bring more peace and unity to your home! “Challenging kids are lacking the skills of flexibility, adaptability, frustration tolerance, and problem solving, skills most of us take for granted.” Dr. Ross Greene, researcher and author of The Explosive Child.
Researchers also recognize that problem-solving skills are important for kids to do well in life, “…problem-solving skills have a role in one’s success in the work environment, community environment, and family environment.” In fact, “Boosting activity in brain areas related to thinking and problem-solving may also buffer against worsening anxiety, suggests a new study by Duke University researchers.”
But the value of solving problems together is deeper than that.
Problem solving conflict has deep spiritual significance
Seventy times it’s recorded in the Old Testament that God’s people cast lots to solve conflicts or discern what to do. Proverbs 18:18 says, “Casting lots settles arguments. It keeps the two sides from fighting.” It’s how Joshua divided up the Promised Land. And it’s how Jesus’ 11 remaining disciples decided on who should replace Judas.
But, when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, believers no longer cast lots to get guidance or solve problems. Instead, we can partner with God to solve conflict and reconcile. Acts 15:28 says, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (to find a particular solution to conflict between Gentiles and Jews).
During a calm moment you can help your kids understand the role of Holy Spirit guidance in solving problems with others, maybe even with the biblical history lesson mentioned above. 😉
The key take-away of this synopsis is that, in so many different ways, God is a God of reconciliation, and really wants to help us solve problems with other people! If you and your kids have trusted Christ personally, don’t miss this! It’s part of your inheritance to have the Holy Spirit’s guidance when power struggles or conflicts threaten your family connection and unity.
And it’s part of your identity! Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” It’s an identifying mark of believers to bring true peace to conflict. No smooth-it-over, insincere, pretend peace. No one-person-gets-their-way, intimidated “peace.” True peace that honors all!
This process will give your child more and more confidence in their ability to solve problems with others. You might even find a little less sibling conflict happening in your home… But for sure you will raise kids more equipped to have relationships in life that reflect the unity and love that God has for them!
“But how do I do this?!”
Now that you’re inspired and encouraged, you may be thinking, “But how do I do this?!” Read on! We are excited to equip you with practical ideas.
If you have a persistent power struggle with your child, wait for a peaceful, connected moment and ask God to give you wisdom. You can start with connection and humility. It might look like this:
“I want to confess that sometimes I’m selfish, and I just want you to do what I want so my life is easier. But I love you, and I really do want to solve this problem in a way that honors both of us, so let’s ask God to help us solve this well together.”
Refer to the diagram (available in a PDF) for the list of questions to choose from. You could even draw out the two diagrams for your child.
Have fun with it! Even laugh at yourself. (What does your face look like when you’re all cranky?!)
And it’s not important to get “the perfect solution” the first time. Celebrate whatever went better! Then tweak your ideas and try again. As you do, you’ll grow this identity in your child:
“You are called to, and capable of, solving problems with the important people in your life!”
While power struggles can come at any time, often they seem to come at bedtime. Below are some examples for you of applying this problem-solving tool with kids of three different ages. You can learn something from each, or you can click ahead to the section that applies to you: a preschool example, elementary age, and teen examples.
What does this look like in preschool-aged kids?
Power struggles can come at any time, but bedtime is a classic time of conflict. Ellen, mom to 5-year-old Harry, 2-year-old Trevor, and an infant, shared their bedtime challenges:
Harry and I had frequent power struggles at bedtime. In Harry’s words, he had big energy and a really hard time settling his body down for the bedtime routine. I talked through some of the questions in the problem solving tool with him to find a solution together. We decided Harry and Trevor could run laps in the basement for ten minutes to a timer and music before brushing their teeth. When Harry went to bed that night he said, ‘I could sleep a thousand miles after all those laps!’ and quickly fell asleep.
But… our success was short-lived. Unexpected events threw our schedule off the next night and Harry led his little brother in some lively mayhem at bedtime – including crashing through a fort and calling me the Toothbrush Monster! Argh! We worked through our conflict and the next day I tried again.
This time, before starting the bedtime routine, I sat Harry and Trevor down in the kitchen with a sugar-free popsicle. (I had learned that kids can stay calm and interact better if there is something cold in their mouth, or if they are sucking or chewing something. And it helps if the experience is, in general, more delightful!)
While they had their popsicles, Harry and I talked through the problem solving questions again and read Philippians 2:3-4 and Hebrews 4:16. We talked about the importance of caring for others instead of just for ourselves, and the promise that when we ask God for help, He will help us! Harry said he still felt the issue was that he needed to get all his energy out, and that he would like to try the plan again. I could see he really wanted to do the right thing, and wanted us to have a peaceful bedtime.
As I continued to work on this new routine, it helped to ask Harry, ‘How do you want bedtime to go?‘ and ‘What do you need to do to make that happen?‘ Harry said, ‘I want to do what I did last night! When the timer goes off, I go in the bathroom. And then I do lotion and pajamas, and it goes so fast, and I get ready for sleep.’ It felt like an accomplishment to him.
We had also previously talked about how power struggles can be like opposing magnets. Harry and Trevor love Magna-Tiles and they really understand the frustration of magnets repelling each other! So when things worked well during the bedtime routine, Harry said, “This is so good! Our magnets are working!”
Ellen went beyond a rigid expectation of immediate obedience from her active five-year-old. She equipped him with a sense of partnership with God and others to solve problems in ways that honor all, and strengthen relationships.
What does this look like in elementary-aged kids?
“It was a Monday afternoon, 5pm. Monday nights were swim team nights at our house, and it was typically a battle getting my girls, ages 9 and 7, out the door on time. They much preferred lounging on the couch to watch their favorite 30-minute TV show. I looked at my watch, did some quick math, and realized this had the potential to be a battle. Memories of shouting, nagging, and dragging two reluctant girls to the van flooded my mind, and I knew I didn’t want it to end this way. I took a deep breath. I knew another way but it would take some careful thought and consideration.
I put aside those dreaded thoughts and paid attention to what was going on inside of me. I knew we had to leave in 20 minutes, which would be 10 minutes before their show was over. My girls didn’t even have their swimsuits on, much less their towels, flip flops, and goggles ready. I asked Jesus to guide me to help these girls build wisdom, and lead me as mom to love them well.
As I considered what it was like to be them, I thought about their exhaustion from the day. Mondays were always difficult for them. This show provided them 30 minutes of rest, something their bodies were probably craving. The thought of swimming must feel impossible, as they were already tired.
I took a deep breath, calmed my anxiety, and entered the room in peace. I sat down beside them and commented on what a great, funny show it was, and how I loved seeing them laugh along with it. I then asked them to pause the show.
‘Hey, so again, great show. I’m wondering, do you remember what today is?’
‘Hmmmmmm…….awwwwww Mammaaaaa it’s swim team day! We’re tired!’ they protested.
‘I know. And I get it. This show is really great and it feels really good to enjoy this together. I love watching you enjoy things you love. However, we did make a commitment. Do you remember what we agreed to?’
(With eyes rolling) ‘We said we would go to practice.’
‘Yeah, we did, didn’t we? What happens if we go to practices?’
‘We get stronger, and faster.’
‘Yep, that’s right. Now, I know you love this show. But we only have 20 minutes before we need to leave. I can see it’s really important to you that you finish this show. And it’s really important to me that we are on time. What can we do to make sure we both get what is important to us?’
We talked about that for a bit and threw out suggestions, but in the end landed on this: they would get ready quickly and then watch the show until it was time to leave, and then we’d pause it. Instead of making them shower right away when we got back, I would let them finish their show and then shower. We celebrated that we figured out a way, and they got ready very quickly. In the car we talked about how good it felt to be on time and to not argue about it!
There were no power struggles that day! And I believe we all grew in wisdom.“
Taylor started the transition to the car on a whole different trajectory when she paused to consider what was going on in her, and what it was like to be her tired girls.
What does this look like in teenagers?
Denise shared her story about her teenagers:
“My three kids had a pretty well established bedtime routine, but gradually my two teens began to gravitate toward late nights (that perfect time to chat about everything 😉 ) and then sleeping in. When I finally woke them up they were crabby and the whole morning routine was thrown off.
My youngest was still an energetic early riser, so this did NOT make for a pleasant morning! I wanted to honor my teens’ changing habits and growing independence, but also everyone’s need for sleep and structure to function well. So one night when we were just hanging out I asked some questions: ‘How have nights been going? Mornings? How do things go when we all stay up late and then start school late? How did you feel when we had a more consistent routine?’
There was a fair amount of grumbling at first, but I was careful to keep the questions light-hearted and conversational. Eventually my older teen said, ‘I know I have been irresponsible in getting up on time. And it’s actually been really stressful. My anxiety and ADHD were easier to manage when I stuck with a morning and evening routine, but it’s so easy to get off track!’ Both teens agreed there could be improvement. They came up with a new routine that accommodated some of their needs in the evening, but also allowed everyone to get to bed at a decent hour.
The next several nights one of my teenagers actually began reminding everyone else of what time we needed to be ready for our nightly reading and praying together! My teenagers are forming habits as they grow toward adulthood that feel like their own values, not just mine. I don’t anticipate that this will always go smoothly, because that is just life. But we came up with a good solution, and they will probably be receptive if I graciously refer back to that conversation.“
Denise was sensitive to her teens’ growing need for independence and ownership in order to truly embrace wise values and habits.
A world where kids learn to problem solve
Imagine, in our troubled world, if all kids learned to solve problems with others in honoring ways, by drawing on God’s wisdom! When you’re in a conflict with your child, receive the mercy and empathy of Jesus, and then seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance to turn the power struggle into a problem solved.
Download our FREE in-depth ebook Helping Kids With Anger. It will provide thoughtful insights and creative ideas to help your struggling child.