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September 2008

Ages & Stages

Preschoolers: Side-Stepping Power Struggles

By Lynne Ticknor, M.A.

Determination. Strength. Independence. Self-sufficiency. We want these qualities in our children . . . until they help circumvent parental requests and wishes. It is a preschooler’s job to assert her will and demand that her voice be heard. It is a parent’s job to respect her preschooler’s voice and stand firm, all while avoiding a power struggle.

A power struggle feels much like being in a tug-of-war, you on one end of the rope and your child on the other. As you use your power to get your child to come towards you, she resists. You pull, she pulls. You pull harder, she pulls harder. If you become the winner, what does that make her? A loser. None of us wants our children to feel like a loser, but they often do.

I’ve heard Dr. Jane Nelsen, a licensed marriage, family and child counselor, say, “I’ve never seen a child drunk on power without an adult drunk on power within close proximity.” I agree. And in my house, I’m sometimes the adult within close proximity! Here’s what I’ve learned:

Take a side-step. When entering a power struggle, gracefully step to the side without fighting and without giving in. If you ask your preschooler to help set the table and she screams, “NO!” refuse to fight. Work towards finding a respectful solution. You might respond by saying, “When the table is set, I’ll serve dinner. Would you like help getting out plates or can you do it yourself?”

Act. Talk less and respond by action. Decide what you will do (in a firm and kind way) in response to your child’s behavior. In the above example, the mother decided that she’d serve dinner only when the table is set. No lectures, no battles, no bribes, no threats . . . just state what you will do and do it.

Use nonverbal signs. Two fingers in a V-shape over the lips could mean that a voice is too loud. A large blank post-it note on the television screen could serve as a reminder to pick up toys before watching television. Whenever there is less talking, there’s usually more compliance.

Use humor. Preschoolers love to laugh. If you can turn a power struggle into a playful interaction, you’ll gain cooperation and giggle along the way. Do the unexpected by helping your child put toys away with socks on your hands or by using a toy rake or shovel to gather up Legos.

Offer choices. Preschoolers, like older children and adults, want to have some say in what goes on in their and the world around them. Involve them in decision making, when appropriate. Keep choices simple and only offer choices that you can live with. You might say, “It’s raining. Would you like me to drive to Laura’s house for our play date, or should we walk under the umbrella?” or, “We need to have a vegetable with dinner. Would you like peas or carrots?”

Use one word. When parents talk incessantly, kids hear, “Wamp, wa, wamp, wa, wamp,” just as Charlie Brown heard when adults talked in the Peanuts cartoons. Instead, try one word sentences (I won’t tell your elementary-school English teacher!). For example, if you are walking out the door and notice your barefooted preschooler dawdling, point to her feet and say, “Shoes.” When your son doesn’t put his dish in the sink after dinner, you might say, “Plate.” They’ll get the message. Save your voice for meaningful conversation.

Model cooperation. When preschoolers see the adults working together towards common goals, they learn to help. And, they trust that you'll give them help when they need it. Respond to your child’s needs, and she’ll be more likely to help you when you ask for it.

Acknowledge problems. If you are caught in a win/lose struggle with your child, stop yourself and acknowledge that you are headed in the wrong direction. Say something like, “Geez, we got off on the wrong foot and we are entering into a battle. Let’s try again.” In a recent parenting class I conducted, one mom shared her way of starting over. She says to her children, “Let’s reboot.” It works!

Parenting is an art, not a science. These suggestions won’t work in every situation with every child. However, many parents have experienced great success using them. Just remember, when you are headed into a tug-of-war with your child, don’t pick up the rope!

Power struggles are common when:

Children cooperate when:

Lynne Ticknor is a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) in Kensington. She writes frequently about parenting and child development for national and regional publications. For more information about PEP’s parenting classes, visit or call 301-929-8824.