Parent-child power struggles

Parenting expert Dr Martha Erickson offers tips on how to avoid conflict with a child who has well and truly dug their heels in

How to deal with power struggles with children?

Whether it’s a preschooler refusing to pick up toys, a 10 year old pushing to stay up late, or a teenager trying to avoid household chores, a child’s resistance can make a parent’s hair stand on end.

Why are my kids so stubborn?

"When I tell our kids to do anything like clean up their room, help with the dishes or stop playing and get ready for bed, they grumble and fuss – or blankly refuse to do what I ask. I feel like I’m spending every evening in a battle trying to get the kids to co-operate. How can I break this cycle?"

Dr Erickson says…

When kids say no, it’s easy to rise to the bait and turn even a minor challenge into a major power struggle – but that ends up being miserable for everyone. Instead, there are steps you can take to prevent or defuse a conflict and help your children learn valuable lessons about respect and cooperation.

1 Be reasonable

Make sure that what you’re asking of your child is reasonable. For example, a preschooler might feel overwhelmed by being asked to clean up a room independently. But if you say “let’s do this together” and offer encouragement along the way, it’s a do-able task.

2 Forewarn your child

A lot of grumbling can be prevented if you give children a five or ten-minute heads-up notice that they need to finish what they’re doing and prepare themselves to get ready for bed, come to the table for dinner or leave the house.

3 Acknowledge your child’s feelings

When kids grumble, they often just want to be heard. So simply say something like “yeah, I know doing dishes isn’t much fun. But it will feel good when they’re all done and you can go play”.

4 Offer choices

As much as possible, offer your child choices. For example, you can’t waver from the expectation that your children will complete their homework every evening. But you can offer choices as to exactly when and where they do the work.

5 Clarify consequences

If your child refuses to do what you’ve asked, calmly state what the consequence will be if he doesn’t comply within a stated time (usually 5-15 minutes, depending on the child’s age and the situation). Without getting carried away by anger, make sure the stated consequence fits the situation. For example, if a child doesn’t help with the dishes when asked, he might lose his TV privileges for the evening.

6 Give them time to comply

When kids are resistant, too often we parents move in closer and increase the volume and intensity of our demands. Then our child matches that intensity by increasing his or her resistance. By stepping back instead, we allow our child to save face and ‘choose’ to cooperate.

7 Follow through

If your child still doesn’t do as you ask, impose the promised consequence swiftly and matter-of-factly. Shouting or bombarding a child with angry words does no good at this point. He or she needs to see that you meant what you said. Period.

8 Move on

Once the consequence has been imposed, move on without bearing a grudge. Let your clearly-stated expectations and carefully-chosen consequences speak for themselves and allow your child see that he or she can start fresh the next time.

Finally, don’t forget to ‘catch your children being good’. Let them know you appreciate it when they follow directions, especially when they do so cheerfully. It’s important to understand that all children are uncooperative at times. And at certain ages, especially during the toddler period and early adolescence, resistance and defiance are especially common as kids struggle to prove their independence. However, professional help is in order if defiance is very intense, lasts for many months, cuts across many situations and interferes with a child’s ability to have warm, supportive relationships with family, teachers or friends.


Developmental psychologist Martha Farrell Erickson, PhD, is a senior fellow with the Children, Youth and Family Consortium at the University of Minnesota. The author of numerous scholarly publications, Dr Erickson also writes a syndicated parenting column and appears regularly as the parenting expert for KARE-TV.

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