The Power Struggle Child

In July, I wrote a piece on attention getting children. Another type of child which can cause parental fits is the child who has the goal of engaging in and winning power struggles.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between attention getters and power struggle kids. After all, the best way to hold a parent’s attention is to engage in in a power struggle. When I speak of attention getting or power struggle kids, I’m talking about their presumed goal… not their outward behavior. The power struggle kid has come to decide that no matter the consequence of the battle, it is critical that they demonstrate to their parents that they cannot be controlled… or at least controlled easily. If you have a power struggle child, you may well win the power struggle, but you will know you’ve been in a fight.

One of the biggest signals that your child is a power struggle kid is that you will be angry. You may come to see their behavior as a personal attack or a direct challenge to authority. You becoming angry is not just a sign of power struggle, it is often the child’s goal. Children instinctively know that anger is a sign that you are losing. After all, no one gets angry because things are going their way. An angry adult is an out of control adult… likely with a child who is controlling the situation.

There are lots of reasons why a child becomes a power struggle kid. They may learn from their early environment that the only way to survive is to be in control. This is particularly common with children who spent time in foster care or were adopted. Children learn an amazing amount of things even when they are infants and an experience with a neglectful or abusive caregiver can ensure that the child sees staying in control as being critical to survival. Some children may learn that being in control is critical through observing parent interactions, or interactions between older siblings. It’s possible that some kids are just wired that way.

Having a power struggle child does not mean you have done anything wrong. But it may indicate that you are prone to being the sort of parent who engages in power struggles with the child. After all… two to tango and all that. In other words, it’s difficult for a child to engage in a power struggle with an adult who refuses to engage in one.

As I mentioned the piece on attention getting children, a great parenting resource is Children: The Challenge by Rudolf Dreikurs. Another is Parents’ Handbook: Systematic Training for Effective Parenting. But if you don’t feel like reading those books, here a couple guidelines for dealing with that power struggle child.

  • Don’t engage the child when you are angry. Speak in a monotone or almost bored voice. I call it the “Burger King voice”… the same tone that the cashier at Burger King uses when they ask you if you “want fries or onion rings with that.” In other words, act like the situation is no big deal and you don’t care enough to get anger about it. Go to the bathroom to cool down if needed.
  • Offer the child two choices. Some sales trainers refer to this as the Benjamin Close or the Preference Close. The assumption is that the child will do what you are telling them to do… the focus is on how they are going to choose to do it. For example, “Do you want to do your homework now or 15 minutes?” Make sure you are OK with either choice.
  • When giving 2 choices (and only 2 please), interpret any other choice which they have you have not offered as one of the original two choices. So for example, “You may eat your dinner or wait until breakfast to eat, even if you are hungry.” If the child starts playing with their food but not actually eating it, say “oh ok… you want to wait until breakfast” and then excuse them from the table.
  • Make the child’s choice stick. In the previous example, don’t return the food if the child “changes their mind” as soon as they see you are serious. Simply remind the child that they made the decision and move on.
  • Remember not to unnecessarily take children’s problems from them. If the child refused to eat and is now hungry all night, then it is their problem… not yours. You can say “Oh. That’s a drag that you’re hungry….oh well… good night” or “I know… I hate it when I decide not to eat and am hungry all night”.
  • Minimize talking about the subject of the power struggle. Get them to decide on one of two options you present and move on. For the power struggle child, the consequence will be effective only if they do not see it as a way to martyr themselves and demonstrate how much they are willing to suffer in order to challenge your authority.