Responding to Kids So That You Invite Cooperation, Not Power Struggles

by , M. Ed., Priceless Parenting (more parenting articles are available)

Why 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 take her to school. 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. 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 black dressy shoes?” 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.
Power struggle

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.

  • “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!”
  • “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?”
  • “Cookies aren’t healthy. If you’re so hungry you can’t wait for dinner, then have a carrot.” He might reply, “I already had a carrot for lunch and I’ll eat a lot of healthy things for dinner. 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 are acknowledging your child’s complaint without responding to the content of what your child just said. You don’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.”
By using a non-emotional, neutral response she does not have something to grab onto and argue about.

Removing Power Struggles Over Homework

Do your children struggle to get their homework done each day? Do they outright refuse to do it sometimes? If you are in the habit of struggling with your kids over homework, it’s no fun for anyone.

The good news is you can change these dynamics! One school counselor reported that she saw many kids who refused to do their homework. When she asked what they would do if their parents left homework up to them, almost all the kids replied they would do their homework. They explained they did not want to disappoint their teachers, miss their recess time or be embarrassed by not having it done.

When your kids focus on resisting you, they can’t feel these internal motivations. How can you remove your children’s resistance and increase the likelihood of their homework getting done?

Remove yourself from the equation by saying something like, “I realize that when I try to make you do your homework both of us end up feeling bad. From now on I’m going to leave your homework up to you. I have faith that you can work out any issues around getting your homework done with your teacher. I want you to be successful in school so you are welcome to use the TV or computer after your homework is done. However, it’s up to you to decide when and if you do your homework.”

Asking questions is another way to help your child think through the possible consequences.

  • How will you respond when your teacher asks you for your homework?
  • What does your teacher do when kids don’t have their homework done?
  • Does your homework have any effect on your grade? What grade would you like to have?
It’s critical to ask these questions with calm curiosity instead of in anger. By doing this you leave the responsibility of figuring out how to handle homework with your child.

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



About Kathy Slattengren

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

Kathy has guided thousands of parents and teachers from across the United States to Australia through Priceless Parenting's online classes, presentations, coaching and books

Read more parenting articles by Kathy Slattengren >>

Kathy Slattengren






Do you want to print out this article?
A PDF version is available for printing.