The Dreaded Power Struggle... Why We Should NEVER Try To Win!

A short and seemingly unsignificant exchange with my 10 year birthed the topic of today’s post. 
On the surface, the refusal to get out of bed – an occurrence which has directed the start of most days since school resumed- is a non-event; just one of a multitude of familiar episodes that risk sabotaging any intentions that any parent may have to be ‘gentle’ or ‘peaceful’.

While I managed to resist raising my voice, I did resort to threatening to pull the quilt off him, and in that moment, the relationship changed; we moved out of ‘You need to get up and ready for school’ space, and into ‘Who is going to win?’

Enter the age-old power struggle; always challenging, but sometimes seemingly impossible to avoid, not just for those of us who live with young people, but who work with them as well.

Despite the inevitable frustrations that power-struggles entail, it’s helpful to remember that all humans have ‘power needs‘; if we look through the lens of basic child development, an innate desire for control is the foundation for an infant becoming independent, from the day they’re born.

A developmental necessity it may be, but one that we often overlook in favour of the ‘I’m the adult so I’m in charge’ mindset.
Our need to be in control might be well placed, but that doesn’t mean that children’s own power-needs don’t diminish or disappear.
And when a child or adolescent is unable to get their power needs met in a healthy, productive way, the outcome is often power-struggle behaviours; figurative tug-of-wars that regularly go misunderstood because they get labelled – unhelpfully – as ‘manipulative‘ or ‘attention seeking‘ etc.

The truth is, it doesn’t matter who gets their ‘own way’; locking horns with the young people in our lives hijacks our time and attention – and theirs – and can quickly derail our plans, as well as undermine a healthy relationship with them.
In other words, nobody wins.

Thus, the ideal outcome is less to do with exerting our authority as the adult, but avoiding being drawn into power-struggles to begin with. Or at least extrapolating ourselves from them, without conflict.

Whether you are in, or just trying to resist the adult-child dynamic that feels like a power-battle, it can help to:

1) Recognise that these behaviours stem from the child’s basic need to feel safer and more secure in that moment – affirming to themselves that they can exercise influence and control.

2) Remember that these children are not your opponent… What does it look like to mentally ‘put your end of the rope down‘?

It doesn’t have to mean them ‘getting it their way’, nor you admitting defeat; in fact it shouldn’t.
Instead, the question to ask ourselves in these moments is “How do I partner with this person, so we work with, rather than against each other?”
Yes, that may mean compromise, but that’s usually still favourable to going into some kind of warfare with our kids, even if it isn’t the confrontational type.

But the solution isn’t just about meeting somewhere in the middle. Sometimes all it takes to change the game entirely is a few simple adjustments to the way we communicate.
Because, when a child – any human, in fact – feels heard and that their needs are still recognised and validated – even if they can’t get what they want – it’s much more difficult (and far less necessary) for them to embroil you in a power-battle.

So instead of:
I know you’re unhappy, but I can’t do anything about the situation.

I can’t do anything to change the situation, but I do understand why you’re unhappy.

Instead of:
I’m not being unfair; you know that’s the rules

That’s the rule (or condition), but I accept that it doesn’t feel fair.

Instead of:
You can say whatever you want, but it’s not going to change anything

I’m sorry things aren’t going to change today, but I’ve heard what you’ve got to say.

Instead of:
I know you’re angry, but that’s the consequences


That is the consequence, AND (not ‘but’) I know that makes you angry.

As is often the case, these – and other versions of them – are easier on paper than in practice.
For a start, you might have to work at not sounding sarcastic.
And it helps to pay attention to our own discomfort when using these kinds of phrases; for example, the impulse to add ‘Yes, but’ (or versions of). 
‘Yes, but’ may feel like the start of a valid explanation, but there’s always a ‘No’ hidden in ‘Yes, but‘, which can exacerbate, rather than ease the struggle.

Or, if you find yourself wanting to fill the silence that usually follows these types of exchanges, resist if you can.
Silence should never be used as a ‘power-weapon’, but sometimes it’s a necessary – albeit awkward – part of avoiding being drawn back in.

It can feel like relinquishing authority or admitting defeat, but when we can keep our ego in check, our real power is in sharing power.

Want insights like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up below…