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Annie Keeling: Power struggle solutions

Power is a healthy need. We all have it. At the core of power struggles, children usually want an opportunity to feel some power and some control, just like adults do. 

Power Over

Parents are the natural authority. They have the life experience to create the family’s foundation of rules and guidelines as well as make the major decisions. And children are looking for someone to rightfully be in charge. They instinctively know that it shouldn’t be them! 



Some adults use an imbalance of power to get their children to cooperate. This “power over” can even involve the use of force. 

If children can experience some personal freedom within the powerful forces of the parent, they will grow and develop in positive relationship directions. 

Parental threats, aggression, yelling and physical discipline are inherent in the use of coercive power because these actions often get immediate results. Force as a parenting technique becomes ineffective pretty quickly, though — and can even be damaging. 



It is important to have discernment between the very rare use of physical force that keeps a child safe — like grabbing their arm as they run into the street — and force that instills fear or emotional distancing. 

Power With

Imagine how powerless a young child might feel. According to Tamara Tatum of the Fuller Life Family Therapy Institute, “Powerlessness and the anxiety that results undermine executive functioning (reasoning, attention control, task flexibility) which is critical to coping well in challenging situations.”

Kids are already compromised in those areas as that part of their brain is still very much developing. They need guidance to grow healthily into their will and learn how to make good choices. They need opportunities to take small steps toward decision-making, choice and personal power. This helps them to trust themselves and to experience relationships that are mutual and respectful. 

Here are three steps to help your child grow into their personal power:

Emotional Connection

Frequent and meaningful connection is one of the biggest factors in the health of a family. While there is currently so much togetherness, the interactions may not be focused, quality connections. 

Establish a time each day, even 15 minutes, where the parent and child can have quality time together that is not distracted by phones, chores or other family members. Pick an activity both will enjoy. Alternate who chooses the activity so that children can feel the power of choosing — and what it is like to consciously yield power to another. 

Name it. When you call it Special Time, it allows for conscious awareness that quality time has been spent together. When there is a title, it is easier for either person to ask for it of the other.

Distribution of Power

Each family member needs enough power to be able to protect their personal interests and get their needs met. It works best for everyone if the well-being of other family members are kept in mind as well as the health of the family as a whole.

Here are some examples of how to bring healthy power to family members.

Special Space: Many siblings clash because one took something from the other child. Have a Special Space like a shelf or a cabinet where each person’s most important possessions are not touchable by others. Since an item’s specialness may change daily, develop a system where certain toys can be changed out into shared space and others can be “special” for a short time. 

Bubble Space: It’s challenging when children are not able to control their bodies, either with objects that are off-limits or the bodies of others, especially parents or siblings. Teaching Bubble Space provides children a chance to practice impulse control and feel powerful over their own bodies. Have a practice time each day where the child plays in their Bubble Space (tape out a circle on the floor or use a Hula Hoop) for a short period (timed with a timer). Kids can practice moving through space around the house or outside, reaching all around as far as they can without touching anything. This is another great impulse control practice. Not only is this helpful at home, this is part of our society’s 6’ physical distancing rule that is all around us.

Family Meetings: In many families, rules are invisible yet pervasive and strong. Power struggles often encircle invisible rules. Regular family meetings allow for opportunities toward conscious awareness of the family’s rules. Bring in family values and do’s/don’ts. This gives everyone a chance to brainstorm and provide input. Take turns who leads the meeting. Even young children can direct a section of the meeting by leading a round of gratefuls, asking a question, or having a round of joke-telling. That’s a powerful feeling.

Match Resistance with ‘Can Do’

The “Can Do” concept is from Lauren Tamm and “The Language of Listening.”

If you see something you don’t like, name a “Can Do”. What is another option or choice that the child can do to meet his or her need for power? Think about what you want to have happen in the bigger picture of the family and list a few options that will work for you. 

You can also ask your child to name one. Kids are very creative and will often tell you how they want to meet their need. 

Say what you see — like a sportscaster announcing play-by-play — and add in the “Can Do” phrase: Tamm uses this example: “Of course you don’t want to go to school! You’d much rather stay home and watch TV. YOU LOVE TV! Hmmm…there must be something we can do about this!”

Then share an option within safe limits and boundaries that your family has established, or ask your child to share theirs. 

Even very small children revel in the opportunity to make a choice. The parent can provide two safe, healthy options and allow the child to choose.

If children can experience some personal freedom within the powerful forces of the parent, they will grow and develop in positive relationship directions. 

Annie Keeling, MFA, is the Parenting Specialist for Nevada County Superintendent of Schools. Currently, she is teaching parenting classes online. The next seminar starts September 15, 2020. Contact Annie for more information or parenting support: akeeling@nevco.org or 530-268-5086.


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