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Parent-Child Power Struggles

Parent-Child Power StrugglesTo point out the absurdity of parent–child power struggles, one of my teachers used to ask us to imagine a prizefight. The announcer booms . . .

“In this corner, in the red trunks, weighing 190 pounds, Pow-er-ful P-op!”

The crowd roars!

“And in this corner, in the yellow trunks, and weighing 40 pounds, we have Kan-tan-ker-ous K-id!”

The crowd goes wild! Both combatants raise their gloved hands over their heads and acknowledge the cheers from the crowd. The referee stays carefully between them, underlining how likely they both are to erupt any moment. . .

The situation becomes all the more absurd as “The Kid” wins more than a few rounds.

Why do some kids push so hard to make it clear that they will not tolerate parental control? Why do some parents engage in verbal and sometimes even physical battles with their kids almost daily?

Kantankerous Kid’s Side

Gaining a sense of personal power is a normal developmental stage. Every 2-year-old figures out the power of a simple “No.” If the first “no” doesn’t succeed, they try out a loud “NO!” or a repeated “No. No. No. No!” – much to the distress of parents who are just trying to civilize them or at least keep them safe. This is normal stuff. Learning where parents leave off and we begin is crucial to developing an individual identity. Learning that we have some say in what happens to us in life is part of becoming less dependent. Learning how to use our ability to be in control in the right circumstances is practice for taking charge and being responsible.

But some kids don’t seem to know when to quit. Dr. Rudolf Dreikurs, a mid-20th century psychologist, used to tell those in his parent education classes that such children become “power drunk.” Telling the big people “No I won’t. You can’t make me” is intoxicating stuff. Some kids can’t seem to get enough of it. Indeed, these children often do act with the bravado and bluff of the drunk. What would they do with the power if they actually got it? What would it do to their sense of security and their ability to trust that their parents could care for them if they consistently won every battle?

For some kids, the normal pushback of the 2-year-old becomes their primary response to others. By being in control, refusing to be cooperative, and fighting with others, they develop an identity that is grounded in a mistaken need for power. It’s as if the only way they know for sure that they will be noticed, that their needs will be met, that others will see them as important is to keep engaging in fights and winning as many of them as they can. It’s not a happy way to live but the tension and release of a good fight makes them feel alive. Engaging in skirmishes and battles means that people are involved with them – even if they don’t like them.

How does it happen? Kids in power struggles have learned either by observation or by experience that throwing their weight around gets them what they want or gets them out of things they don’t want to do. Every time they “win,” the lesson gets stronger. Even though you and I know they ultimately lose – friendships, others’ true respect, or even a sense of their own worth when not flexing their verbal or physical muscles – the temporary victory is preferable to feeling powerless or bossed.

Powerful Pop

Powerful? Not really. Pops, and Moms, who get on the other end of battles with kids, especially with little kids, already are bankrupt and the kids know it. Deep inside, the grownups know it too. “Because I said so” works only as long as the parent is bigger (and maybe scarier) than the kids. Parents who get caught up in power struggles desperately are trying to hold onto a sense of authority, even as they know in their hearts that that they don’t have much. As soon as the kids get big enough to have other places to go, they do exactly that – with a few choice words and a slam of the door.

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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 September 25, 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.