Dissolving Power Struggles

by Samuel Osherson, Ph.D.

We all know that it's best to avoid getting into control struggles with our kids -- battles over going to bed on time, cleaning up rooms, getting homework done, completing college applications when they're due. Yet power struggles are not so easy to avoid. What parent doesn't at times feel locked in a battle in which no one wins and no one surrenders? Rules, routines, responsibilities, and limits are parts of life, yet some of the most special moments for both kids and parents happen when we, consciously or not, find a way to dissolve, even if only for a while, the impossible stalemates of parenting. We become more playful, make a new connection with our kids, taking a new exciting avenue rather than treading down that same dead-end street.

Sometimes we find we've done the right thing without even planning to. Sometimes our kids will tell us how to do it.

Hidden Wisdom You Can Use

  • You don't always have to win as a parent.

  • Never underestimate the importance of saving face for kids of all ages. Try to find ways for children to go along with what you want without leaving them feeling humiliated or too exposed.

  • Being attentive to the connective yearning of your child underneath the provocative behavior can defuse tension. Sometimes a child's unwillingness to be quiet or settle down has to do with his or her wish to sit in your lap, or have your attention for a while, a friendly hand on his shoulder, a word of encouragement. Sometimes, too, it's because she feels unsafe or frightened in some way.

  • We often get into control battles with our kids when we are rushing or distracted. Stepping back, taking a deep breath, and devoting some time to listening to your child for a few moments may actually save you time in the long run.

  • Think about your image of authority as a parent. Is it hierarchical or more egalitarian, or a mixture of both? Is it an all-knowing Robert Young in Father Knows Best? Is it Bill Cosby, who manages to have just the right mix of humor and authority? Maybe it's King Solomon, who gives edicts that are always obeyed. Can you think of relationships with authority figures -- at home, in school, at work -- that left you feeling good about yourself? What did you hope for authority figures as a child? These memories are often helpful guides to what our children want and need from us.

  • Time-outs can be as helpful for parents as for kids -- counting to ten, taking a deep breath before speaking (or yelling), making a phone call to a friend. Remember, you have the more difficult task -- you're the parent, not them! We need to be calm ourselves during tense moments with our kids.

  • Breaking rigid internal sets or gestalts is very important when you feel in a power struggle. When you are stuck, try to come at things from a new angle.

  • Humor and playfulness that is not seen as mocking or shaming can be very helpful during control struggles.

This article was excerpted from

"The Hidden Wisdom of Parents"
by Samuel Osherson.
Info/Order this book.

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About The Author

SAMUEL OSHERSON, Ph.D., is a psychologist and writer. He has written for Newsday, Boston magazine, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, and Cosmopolitan, and offers regular Stories for Parents seminars in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Houston, and other major cities. This article was excerpted with permission from his book, "The Hidden Wisdom of Parents", 1999, published by Adams Media Corporation.


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