7 Practical Tips to Avoid Power Struggles and Arguments with Your Child
My oldest daughter graduated from college last weekend and will be heading to law school this fall. I could have predicted this path for her years ago when dealing with her as a young child.
There’s an infamous “Emery story” in our family lore that I even shared with her college advisor. When I met him last weekend, he stated he believes she was born to be an attorney. I agreed and relayed the following example to demonstrate why.
Once, when Emery was about three years old and strapped into the car seat in the back of my minivan, we were having quite an argument. Why was I arguing with a three-year-old you might ask? Um, I couldn’t tell you, but I’ll chalk it up to being a younger, less experienced mom.
I remember exactly where I was driving the moment I said, “Emery, I feel like you think I’m stupid.” She responded, “I don’t think you’re stupid, I just think you’re wrong sometimes.
We tell that story now as an illustration of her way of cutting to the chase in an argument, but she was right.
I was wrong at that very moment. I was the adult and I was arguing, literally arguing, with a young child. And like I said, I couldn’t even tell you why.
But haven’t we all been there as parents? Caught up in a moment of frustration, we’re trying to “win” an argument with our child, even though we know logically how ridiculous that is.
But when we’re in the middle of a frustrating morning or dealing with tired kids at the end of a long day, we find ourselves in power struggles and arguments and, like my argument with Emery from years ago, we can’t even explain later what it was all about.
All we know is we needed things to go one way and our child had other ideas about the way the course of events should unfold.
I wish I could tell you I learned my lesson that day and never struggled with this again, but that would be portraying myself as a much better parent than I actually am.
Even parenting now at a much older age when I should be “wiser” or at least more patient, I still find myself sucked into the swirling vortex of emotions and stress with my eight-year-old. So these words of advice I’m sharing here? I “know” them, but I don’t always live them.
What I do now better than I did when I was a younger mom is recognize the patterns quicker, step back faster, and cut myself more slack as a mom. I reflect on what happened each time there’s an upset with my daughter and vow to do better.
This trying and trying again is an ongoing way of life, but I do see progress.
So with those confessions out of the way, these are the tips that help me the most and the steps I take to make the most improvement in my parenting journey in this area.
7 Practical Ways to Avoid Power Struggles and Arguments with Your Child
Realize You Can’t Win
What would it really look like to win an argument with a child? Have you ever actually won one? Have you ever had a friend call you to tell you she just won the power struggle with her child?
What would it even look like to win an argument with a child? Better yet, what would it feel like?
Do you think it would feel good?
I’m guessing not because to win one of those would mean overpowering your child in some way. And if this takes place during the heat of an argument, you’re probably not going to feel very positive about it anyway.
An argument or power struggle is our child’s way of asserting autonomy and trying to mold her world to fit what she would like or expects, and our children actually need that.
As tough and challenging as it is to deal with, we want our kids to have opinions about their own lives and be strong enough to stand up for those. We just don’t want to have to battle about every little thing all the time.
Now, if you’re like me, I’m sure you’re thinking, “If you tell me to give them choices like that’s going to solve this problem, I’m outta here.” And I agree with you completely.
When Sylvia was about four, I was struggling mightily with her about everything. At least, it felt like that. Everywhere I turned said to give her choices as much as possible. Of course, I’d done this with my two older kids and I knew all about it from my life as a teacher and understanding classroom management.
On one particular morning, I was prepared to give her options on clothes to hopefully alleviate at least one battle. I had two sets of clothes picked out for her and asked which one she’d like. She’s a master at being one step ahead of me, so she picked the shirt from one outfit and the shorts from the other. She’d managed to exert her autonomy and still defy me, even when I’d given her the proverbial choices the experts insist we give them.
I laughed to myself and thought, like you probably do, if another article tells me to give them choices throughout the day to help stop arguments I’m going to pull my hair out.
So I will never tell you that as advice to stop power struggles.
Does it help? Sure, in some ways, but no matter how many choices I have given my children throughout a day, it has never solved those arguments that come up at the most inopportune times.
So realize power struggles are a part of parenting, manage them as best you can, but don’t look at them as something to win. That’s the way your kids are looking at them. And if the situation is set up so only one of you comes out victorious, I hate to say it, but it’s usually going to be them.
Decide Which Things Don’t Matter
When you have a quiet moment, (if you ever have those!), spend a few minutes reflecting with yourself or your partner about what causes most of the power struggles and arguments in your household. Make a list and then decide whether these things are really worth your energy.
This is one area where I definitely think we older moms have an advantage. There are things we know not to worry about that we might have spent our precious energy on when we were younger.
For example, Sylvia wanted to wear her Cinderella costume to the grocery store a couple of weeks after Halloween. No power struggle there or argument from me. As she proudly walked around the store wearing her blue gown, I saw she received nothing but adoring looks from adults.
And sadly, I heard a little girl say to her mom as they passed us, “See, she got to wear her costume.” I felt for both the girl and her mom. They’d probably had a power struggle about it, and no one went to the store in a good mood.
One of the most frustrating areas for us in the mornings used to be getting Sylvia’s shoes and socks on. She likes to go barefoot as long as she can, so now we take her to her papa’s in the morning without shoes or socks and let her put them on at the last minute there.
There have been mornings I thought it was too cool to go barefoot, but that’s what she wanted. And you know what? She was not only fine, she was happier.
By not insisting on things that don’t really matter, we’ve avoided a lot of battles.
Don’t Pick Up the Rope
It takes two people to play tug of war. If you let some of the little slights go or ignore their button pushing, you can skip the exhaustion of playing their games. Even if your child keeps on offering you opportunities to get into a struggle, leave the rope on the floor.
I wish I could tell you I’m so good at doing this that my daughter has quit trying to get me into power struggles. I’m not and she hasn’t.
Maybe that could happen eventually if you never engaged, but that’s impractical advice. There are going to be some battles you have to fight, and they’re not always going to be planned ahead of time.
For example, when Sylvia was a toddler, she wanted to walk on her own and never wanted to be carried, including in store parking lots. I insisted she had to hold my hand. She’d try to pull away, intent on being on her own. This was a battle I had to win. I couldn’t let a two-year-old wander on her own through a busy parking lot.
How did I eventually win the war? I didn’t. I had to fight that battle every single time on every trip to the store. She never gave up on the idea she didn’t need me and I never let go of her hand.
So don’t think you’ll master this technique and never find yourself in the middle of an unplanned game of tug of war. You will. And you’ll either handle it well or you won’t. You’ll either look back and know you had to be in that game or you’ll resolve not to play next time, but that’s just part of parenting.
Don’t Over Explain
My best friend and mothering mentor, Christina (a recurring figure you’ll see in my blog posts, including 3 Ways Older Moms Need Support), helped me raise my two older girls. We both stayed at home with our kids which meant we were together most of the time. She was, and still is, really great about having the right words to get to the crux of any matter.
I, on the other hand, would explain and reason and make perfectly rational arguments I was sure would convince my girls I was right.
Who do you think was most effective with their kids? Yes, Christina.
When we were together and I’d start one of my explanations, she’d signal me to cut it short. I still struggled, but I got better and saved the explanations for more adult conversations with my kids as they became young adults.
Prepare a Mantra
So how can you keep things short and to the point in the middle of a heated situation?
Have your go-to mantra prepared ahead of time to use.
Don’t wait until you need to think quickly and find yourself struggling to respond to your arguing child. Know what you’re going to say and stick with it.
One phrase I used to use was, “I know it’s not what you want right now, but that’s the answer.”
No matter what the comeback, I’d just keep repeating it. “I know it’s not what you want right now, but that’s the answer.”
If you take some time to come up with your catchphrase that works in multiple situations, you’ll be ready when the moment strikes.
And you know, that moment doesn’t always strike within the confines of your own home. Some kids (my youngest!) seem to have a knack for knowing when they have you over a barrel. If we’re in a public place, she knows I’ll be trying to keep things calm and that’s her cue to escalate. If I have my phrase ready, in addition to a plan to get out of the situation, it’s easier to keep us from becoming a parenting “don’t” in the aisle at the grocery store.
Avoid Words that Escalate Conflict
One of the quickest ways to escalate an argument between adults is to use certain phrases we know trigger the other person. Sometimes these are as simple as using absolute words like “always” and “never.”
“You always make me feel stupid.”
“You never give me the help I need.”
Kids are no different. If we resort to absolutist language with them, they can more easily internalize our temporary frustrations as something integral to who they area. If you tell a child he “always” forgets his backpack, it’s no longer a behavior you’re addressing but his characteristic of being a “forgetful” person.
Additionally, you know the words that cut your child most quickly and hurtfully. Avoid these at all costs.
Stick with words about the specific behavior occurring in the moment. Don’t resort to describing who your child is as a person.
If you’re upset about them not cleaning their room, address the behavior of not doing the assigned chore. Don’t tell them they’re lazy.
In my “real” life, I teach at an alternative high school and I’ve had students tell me heartbreaking stories of words their parents have used with them. When a kid is told they’re “worthless,” that hurts in the moment and for decades to come.
If you do lose your cool and say something extraordinarily hurtful, apologize immediately and do your best to help them understand the anger you were speaking from. Admit that having a reason for a behavior is not an excuse and your frustration does not make it okay to use those words.
Stay Calm and Don’t Raise Your Voice
I saved the best for last, didn’t I? Or I should say, I saved the toughest for last. If this were so easy, we’d be in parenting nirvana.
But it isn’t so easy.
This is the toughest part for many of us in all areas of parenting. Staying calm and centered when the chaos is swirling is tough, even for people we consider great parents. Even for us on our best parenting days.
This is where anticipating and preparing for situations that bring on power struggles is key. The more prepared we are, the more likely we can get through the upheaval without it turning our entire day upside down.
And unfortunately, not only is this the most difficult part of arguing and power struggles, it’s the part that leaves us all feeling the most damaged and drained. It’s what makes us question our ability to parent and doubt we’re a good mom.
And on days we struggle with not wanting to be a mom, the overwhelm of arguments can be too much.
So if you find yourself yelling at your kids and losing your temper, try implementing the previous suggestions to be more prepared for the tough times. Hopefully, being in a better position going into these moments will help you make it through them in a little calmer way.
We’ve looked at some ways to prepare for and get through the arguments, what about when the argument is over? What do we do then?
Debrief With Your Child
If you and your child had an especially intense argument or it’s happening regularly, take some time afterward to talk about what made it so tough. This is a chance to get some perspective on your child’s thoughts about the arguments and to share your concerns about what happened.
It’s also a good time to see if the two of you can come up with some agreed upon ways to make things a little less intense next time around.
Debrief For Yourself
A day in the life of a mom can be a roller coaster of emotions. At some point during your day or in the evening, reflect on strategies you can implement to improve tomorrow. And tomorrow, you’ll probably need to do the same thing.
We never get parenting completely right and I’ve never met any mom who couldn’t think of some very specific mistakes she made or ways she feels like she failed her kids. Self-doubt seems to be inextricably linked to being a mom.
If you’re having arguments about things that need to be handled more substantially, check out my post on How to Have Difficult Conversations with Your Child for some strategies to deal with issues in a more structured way.
But remember, you’re a good mom (download worksheet here) and you’re not alone in the struggles you deal with. Reach out and find the supports around you if you need more than just a blog post can provide.
So how do I look back on that moment of arguing with Emery? Well, it has given me a story that defines my child to this day. And it provides me with a great reminder of why I need to always strive to alleviate arguments with a child. I hope it has done the same for you.
If you have great insights to help us all, please share them here. Because if there’s one thing for sure about kids, they’ll keep us on our toes and challenge us at every turn.