Responses That Invite Cooperation, Not Power Struggles

by , M. Ed., Priceless Parenting (sign up for monthly parenting newsletter and receive 20+ printable charts for kids and parents)

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Power struggle tug-of-war

Do simple requests you make to your kids sometimes turn into power struggles? For example, you’ve asked your child to put on her shoes before you leave the house. Instead of cooperating she stamps her feet saying “No, I don’t want to wear shoes!”

Although you’ve made a reasonable request, your child is not complying. How frustrating! Any time you try to control your child’s behavior, you set yourself up for a possible power struggle.

Increasing the Odds Your Child Will Cooperate

One way to invite cooperation is to give your child some control in the situation. Instead of telling your child to get her shoes on, you could ask “Do you want to put on your red tennis shoes or your brown sandals?” If there is only one appropriate pair of shoes, you could give her a choice of whether to put them on in the house or in the car.

Another way to increase cooperation is to announce what you are going to do, not what she has to do. Saying something like “I’m going to put on my shoes and then I’ll wait for you in the car. Come when you’re ready.” This works well if you’re not in a rush and can relax in the car with a good book or music.

Avoiding Control Battles

You have influence over your children’s behavior, but you do not control it. Your kids quickly sense when you are trying to control them. They are likely to resist being controlled.

Being certain about what you control helps you focus your energy wisely. Below are some examples of what kids control versus parents.

Kids Parents
What they do with their digital devices What devices they have, when, where and how they use them
What they eat The food that is purchased at the grocery store
How much effort they put into school What school they attend – public, private, home school
Tone and volume of their voice Tone and volume of your voice
Their behavior How you respond to their behavior
How much they practice a sport or musical instrument   Money that is spent on lessons or equipment

A mom realized she set up a power struggle with her daughter when she commanded, “Don't give me that look.” Her daughter appeared unfazed by the threat. Mom changed her approach saying “I’m going for a walk. I’ll be happy to talk to you when you are being respectful.” By focusing on what she does control, she was able to set a boundary and enforce it.

Sticking with Your Answer Without Arguing

Let’s consider another situation where your son has asked you if he can have a cookie. You’ve told him that dinner is soon and he can have a cookie after dinner but not right now. He complained “You never let me have anything I want!”

The responses below will fuel a power struggle because they encourage him to further discuss why he should be allowed to have a cookie.

  • You say, “That’s not true. I bought you an ice cream cone yesterday when we were at the store.” He might reply, “Yes and I ate all my dinner afterwards so can’t I have a cookie now?”
  • You say, “If you have a cookie now, you won’t be hungry for your dinner.” He might reply, “I promise I’ll eat all my dinner!”
  • You say, “If you’re so hungry, then have a carrot.” He might reply, “I already had a carrot for lunch. Can’t I please just have one little cookie?”
Choosing one of these responses can help avoid an argument:

  • “I can see how you might feel that way.”
  • “When did I say you could have a cookie?”
  • “Hmmm …”
These types of replies work because you acknowledge your child’s complaint without responding to the content of what your child said. Your response doesn’t provide any fuel for an argument.

How might this same approach work if your teen asks you if she can watch an R rated movie? You’ve told her she needs to be 17 before you’ll allow it and she protested “That’s not fair! All my friends have already seen it.”

If you choose any of these responses, you are setting yourself up for a fight because you’re challenging what she said:

  • “I’m not being unfair. Kids should not be allowed to see R rate movies before they’re 17.”
  • “I doubt all your friends have seen it and even if they have, that’s no reason for you to see it.”
  • “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, I suppose you would too!”
Using one of these responses instead will help you avoid an argument:

  • “It’s probably not fair.”
  • “Probably so.”
  • “Regardless, you won’t be able to watch it.”
These are non-emotional, neutral responses. You’ve acknowledged what she said without giving her something to further argue about.

You can avoid power struggles by changing your approach. Whenever possible, give your children choices over how they get something done. If you’ve made a decision and your child is protesting, use a neutral response. Save yourself energy by not arguing!

About Kathy Slattengren

Kathy Slattengren

Parenting expert Kathy Slattengren, M. Ed., is dedicated to supporting parents in doing their best parenting. She helps families create homes where everyone feels accepted, heard, respected and appreciated.

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