power struggle

The secret to stopping power struggles


“Time for bed,” my husband says. He’s not talking to our 3-year-old. He’s talking to me, because I’ve been going to bed waaaay too late, and I’ve asked him to help me out. Even so, whenever he tells me what to do, I balk. “OK,” I say noncommittally, and I stay up even later.

Think about the last time someone pressured you to do something. What was your gut reaction?

How about the last time you told your 3-year-old what to do? Did she do the opposite of what you wanted?

Mine did. Yours, too?

I’d love to see a post on how to deal with power struggles with 3-year-olds. Because my daughter is so strong-willed, she tries to assert herself often, in ridiculous ways.

For instance, she tries to tell me which route to take to school and then unbuckles her car seat in protest if I don’t adhere to her demands. All of a sudden she refuses to wear any other shoes to school but her winter boots, despite the 80-degree days here in South Florida — don’t be jealous. 🙂 [I am jealous.] She tells me to stop talking, for no reason other than because she doesn’t want me to talk to her. She will run away defiantly at the park and get farther and farther away, all while glancing back at me, until she is standing in the middle of the street when she knows it’s dangerous, just to make me run after her.

It’s driving me crazy!!

— B.C.

Here’s the surprising thing we need to know: The brain is wired to resist being coerced. Our children are acting on instinct. Being controlled or coerced instinctively triggers defiance.

Why? This defensive reaction protects us from going along with someone who doesn’t have our best interests at heart. It’s actually a good thing.

We parents often call this behavior “strong-willed,” stemming from the belief that our child is defying us on purpose and fighting hard to take the upper hand. Developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld says we need a new word: “counterwill.” Counterwill more accurately describes the brain’s instinctive defense to being controlled by another’s will.

So telling our kids what to do triggers counterwill. But we need our kids to do things, like take their naps and keep their car seats buckled and put on their shoes and not run into the street. What now?

Two ideas:

1. Give choices.

“You like to navigate. You may choose one street this morning. Would you like to take 3rd Avenue or 4th Avenue?”

“You really want to wear your boots. Your feet might get hot, because it’s hot outside, but it’s up to you.” (Maybe it’s a little embarrassing to you if your kid shows up at school in winter boots on a hot spring day, but shrugging off minor things will make discipline easier on yourself.)

“Would you like to buckle your car seat by yourself? Or shall I help you?”

“Yes, you may camp out on the floor instead of sleeping in your bed.”

Having a say is the opposite of feeling controlled. Keep it to two options, though, to avoid overload. And, of course, allow a choice only in situations where the answer doesn’t matter to you. This isn’t about letting a child take over all decisions. And it’s not about pretending there’s a choice because it’s obvious which one you want your child to choose. I like the way Susan Stiffelman, author of “Parenting Without Power Struggles,” describes our role as parents: Be the captain of the ship–not controlling, but in control.

2. Connect before you direct.

That’s Neufeld’s line. I mentioned that counterwill is triggered unless our child is feeling a connection with us. Neufeld says: “[Having a good] relationship is not enough. The attachment instinct needs to be engaged in the moment.” The way to engage your child’s attachment instinct, which trumps his counterwill instinct, is to create a connection. Neufeld’s strategy:

Collect eye contact, collect a smile, collect three nods. “The most powerful force in the universe is now on your side,” Neufeld says. Then make your request.

Today, at nap time, I tried this. My preschooler was coming out of her room for the fourth or fifth time and I felt my blood begin to boil. Deep breath.

I knelt down to make eye contact. She was talking about an upcoming trip.

“A well-rested girl will do better on the plane to Arizona,” I said with a smile. She paused.

“Are you looking forward to Arizona?” Smile. “Yes!”

“Do you want to be well-rested on the plane to Arizona?” “Yes!”

“What do you need to do to be well-rested?” “Sleep!”

“Mm. Do you want to sleep?” “Yes!”

I gently picked her up and carried her back to bed, singing a song about a girl named Geneva who wanted to rest. And, miraculously, she did.

OK, enough for now: I’m up waaaay too late already.

For more small tips that yield big results, check out my book, Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science.




Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press
Written by

Tracy Cutchlow

Tracy is the author of the international bestseller Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, a public speaker, and a creator of places to speak and be heard. Sign up for her newsletter here.





2 thoughts on “The secret to stopping power struggles



  1. My son, Mason, is four an normally really easy going. Lately at night, though, he goes slightly …insane. The more tired he gets, the higher the level of Insanity. Until he’s almost vibrating!
    The last episode involved getting his rear popped because he snatched the front door open pushed through the storm door and ran straight for the road. Our front yard is tiny done early didn’t have far to go. It was dark and people use that road like it’s the audobon! Plus, we lost Mason’s baby brother to still birth and then right after, my 9yo Chihuahua got hit in that same road, and a bobcat walked into the yard, no more than 50ft from our door and attacked my 90lb Pitbull. When I caught him (before he made it into the road, I was already crying. He immediately got his bottom swatted. I firmly believe that parents can reason with kids the majority of the time, but when it’s a dangerous situation, I have no problem making sure he understands how serious the situation is.
    By the way, I just started reading Zero to Five. I love it! I have a digital copy and I’m ordering a physical copy shortly. Do you have plans to write one for after 5?

    Have a wonderful week!

    1. I agree, Beth, in dangerous situations we immediately do what we need to do to keep our kids safe. Sounds like the location of your home could be keeping you in a constant low-level state of fear. I hope you’re able to put up a fence, otherwise create a sense of safety there, or find a new home.

      I’m also so, so sorry about your painful loss of a child. Our society is not good at allowing for grief. If you are open to a resource, I know sacredgroves.com is offering weekly drop-in grief circles during this time.

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