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Parent-Child Power Struggles

The root of power-drunk behavior on the parents’ part usually comes from observation when they were kids or from the sense that the only way to have say-so in life is to demand it. The more benign root of excessive control comes from desperation. Lacking good role models or a good source of information about how to manage the normal chaos of family life, some parents resort to displays of power – simply because they don’t know what else to do.

Getting Out of the Struggle

As with most things, it falls on us as adults to take the initiative in changing family interactions that are painful and ultimately useless. If we wait for “The Kid” to apologize, to see the light, to cave in or give in forevermore, we’re truly bankrupt. Kids who are locked into power truly don’t see alternatives. It’s up to us.

Tips for Transforming Power Struggles

  1. Admit to yourself that it isn’t working. Take a look at where this started in your own life. Did you have a parent who ruled by puffing up, out-yelling, or outmaneuvering everyone else? Remind yourself that just because it’s what was done to you doesn’t mean that it’s effective. Are you so unsure of your own parenting that you resort to yelling and bossing because you don’t know what else to do? Remind yourself that you don’t have to pretend you know what to do when there is plenty of helpful information available to help you learn alternatives.
  2. Accept that power plays only work while kids are small and dependent. As soon as the kids are teens, most will call your bluff one way or another. You need to learn a better way. Even if your own parents managed you by authoritarian edicts, chances are the same tactics won’t impress today’s kids. They are more savvy and more sure of themselves than you and I ever were.
  3. Join a parent education class or pick up some parent education books. Learn how to manage kids with clear limits and consistent consequences instead of threats and anger. You’re smart. You love your kids. With a little effort you can learn new methods for teaching them respect for the rules of life and respect for other people (including us grownups). There are many models for managing kids. ( lists over 8,000 books on child discipline!) It really doesn’t matter which one you choose as long as you choose one and stick to it. Jumping from method to method will only confuse everyone. Choose the one that makes the most sense to you and give it at least three months of honest effort.
  4. Try to enlist the cooperation of the child’s other parent and other adults who are significant in the child’s life. When the most important adults in a child’s life make consistent demands and follow through with consistent consequences, there is less room for argument and more potential for learning the rules.
  5. Changing the rules? It’s only fair to tell the kids. Explain to them that you now understand that just being bossy and yelling a lot doesn’t help them learn. Explain what you are going to do instead. Chances are they won’t believe it. Chances are they will test you – bigtime. Chances are that you will want to throw in the towel. But if you can take off the gloves and get out of the ring for those first few months, chances are that you will make a major and important change in how your kids – and you – act and how your whole family feels.
Parent-Child Power Struggles

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Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Parent-Child Power Struggles. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 13, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.