The Art of Avoiding Power Struggles

Tips for creating win-win situations for everyone.

“That’s mine!” 

“Leave my stuff alone!” 


Does this sound familiar? If you are a parent, you probably have heard these words at some point. Power struggles are bound to happen in a family, especially if you have a child with special needs who becomes easily upset when their routine is out of whack. If you have found yourself in the midst of a power struggle more times than you care to count, don’t lose hope! 

Samuel Moya, vice president of children’s residential services at Damar Services in Indianapolis, offers parents strategies for de-escalating situations that may cause arguments, and in some instances, may help to prevent them from even happening in the first place. 

“There is a saying I have heard before and I agree with: It’s not the child, it’s not the parent, it’s the pattern,” Moya says. “It is the pattern we need to change.” To change the pattern, parents should:

  • Identify the child’s needs and wants.

    For example: Is the child refusing to take a bath? Why? What are the conditions we can put in place to help the child like the bath instead of assuming that the child is being defiant? 

  • Recognize the child’s emotions.

    What are the emotions associated with that particular incident? How can we teach alternative, less intense emotions to avoid a power struggle? Build a working emotional connection with the child to help them identify their emotions and calm down through co-regulation. The child must be able to know that the parent is reliable and honest in their emotional response. Parents should be assertive and not aggressive, proactive and not reactive.

  • Come alongside the child, not at the child.

    This will minimize pushback and resistance. Parents are more likely to see power struggles as disobedience. Instead, they should be seen as opportunities to teach about emotions and connect. 

  • Be observant about the child’s cues.

    When parents are observant, they adjust their own behavior and ensure their responses are developmentally appropriate and contextually relevant. 

  • Regulate your own emotions.

    You can’t help a child regulate emotions if you can’t regulate your own. Parents should remain calm, avoid getting impatient and angry, refrain from coercive escalation, avoid impulsive behavior such as threatening, yelling, shouting, hitting, overreacting, shaming and verbally abusing. 

  • Give choices, if possible.

    Explore alternative activities and resume the activity or task later. Remember, it is not about you or the child. It’s about breaking the pattern. 

  • Compromise on occasion and offer help.

    This doesn’t mean you complete the task, but initiating guidance reassures that the task can be done, and is also a good way to model the desired behavior. 

  • Space out requests.

    If you make multiple demands back to back, the child may become frustrated, lash out or say they are tired. 

  • Use positive reinforcement strategies.

    For instance, after the child takes a bath, reward them with something fun. 

  • Create a structured routine and clearly spell-out expectations.

    Children should have their day mapped out. This allows them to know what is coming next. 

Patterns don’t form overnight, and they won’t be broken overnight. Hopefully, as you begin to implement some of these strategies, you will be able to recognize the struggles before they begin and help to de-escalate them quickly.

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