Power Struggles Part I: Are You at War with a Defiant Child?

by James Lehman, MSW
Power Struggles Part I: Are You at War with a Defiant Child?

Do you ever feel as if your relationship with your child has become one long, drawn-out (and exhausting) power struggle? If you're in this situation, it probably seems like you simply progress from  nagging your child over dirty laundry on the floor in the morning to arguing over bedtime at night. As they get older, power struggles get more entrenched as your child pushes against the rules: they start asking for things like the keys to the car and permission to go to all-night parties, “because all their friends’ parents said ‘yes.’” In Part I of this two-part series by James Lehman, MSW, you’ll see why the struggle for power is an inherent part of growing up, and learn how to tell if the resistance you're getting from your child is normal or if it's crossed the line into defiance and needs to be addressed.  (And stay tuned for Part II, where James will give you hands-on advice about how to defuse defiant power struggles!)

"Here’s the bottom line: kids have to learn how to have power struggles with their parents in a way that is not a fight."

Power is one of the strategies people use to get their needs and wants met. As children grow, you will see them trying to gain power in order to get more autonomy and control over their lives. When your child was an infant, you had almost all the power. He communicated that he was hungry or uncomfortable by crying; that was the only power he had. As your child grew older, he took on more responsibility—and with more responsibility came more power. He learned to pick up after himself, and he also learned that refusing to do chores gave him some power. He learned to do his homework—and refusing to do it also gave him power. Remember, there is no such thing as positive or negative power: it's simply power with positive or negative ends.

There are many things in life that are empowering. Certainly information, knowledge and communication skills are empowering in a constructive way. And also sadly, violence, abuse, and threats can be empowering in a destructive way. If kids learn the latter lesson at any point in their development, they can become entrenched in a way of behaving where they use acting out, threats and verbal abuse to get what they want. I personally believe this is a dangerous path for kids to start heading down, and encourage parents to take this behavior very seriously when it first develops.

You vs. Your Child: Perception is Everything
Know that when kids engage in power struggles with you, although it may feel like they’re trying to control you, generally they don’t think of it this way. They just feel like whatever is going on isn't fair—or that it's not their fault. In fact, they probably aren’t even aware they’re testing your power. They see it as, “I don’t want to clean my room now. I just want to watch T.V.” Or “You're old fashioned, you just don't understand.”

And that's their actual perception—most of the time they’re really seeing it that way. Most children and teens don’t perceive life the same way their adult parents do. As adults, we often mistakenly think kids see the same picture we do, so we might wonder “What’s the problem?” when they start arguing with us. But most kids don’t have the adult ability to perceive the totality of what’s going on. And not only are they developmentally immature, but there are certain obstacles that can block them from developing that awareness in an age-appropriate manner. There may be diagnosed (or undiagnosed) learning disabilities, which cause distortions in their thinking. The end result is that they become willing to fight everyone and everything in order to get their way.

Teenagers especially see the world very differently than parents. While parents are concerned about safety and want their kids to avoid doing high risk things, teens may feel as if they're being held back from doing things that appear reasonable and legitimate to them. This becomes even more complex when kids discover that some of their peers are allowed to do the things they are not.

So teens can develop a way of looking at some of their parents’ decisions as unfair. That perception fuels their willingness to fight, argue, and engage in defiant power struggles with you. For example, you decide you don’t want your teen to go to a party if there’s no adult supervision. Your teenager just wants to go to the same party her friends are attending—she doesn’t have any thoughts at all about adult supervision or risk. When you bring it up, she thinks you’re old fashioned or out of touch—and the conflict starts there.

For the most part, this is healthy. It may be annoying (in fact, you’ll probably feel you’re saying the same things over and over) but kids need to find ways to challenge adult authority appropriately. And by appropriately I mean not cursing, verbally abusing or personally attacking you. By the way, if the challenge is appropriate, parents need to learn how to respond with an open mind.

Not What You Might Think: The Goal is not to Take Power Struggles Away
It surprises many parents when I say that we don't want to take all power struggles away. Rather, we want to take the defiance out of the power struggle. This is because as kids go through their developmental stages, they need to challenge their parents appropriately in order to get more autonomy. And parents, in turn, need to teach their kids that with autonomy comes responsibility and accountability. Children are looking to be more independent and make more decisions, but they should not be allowed to argue in an abusive, hurtful or obnoxious way. Here’s the bottom line: kids have to learn how to have power struggles with their parents in a way that is not a personal attack.

Look at it this way: when a police officer pulls you over, if you don't agree that you’ve made a mistake in traffic, you might find yourself in a power struggle with him. If you get out of your car and start screaming, that won’t get you anywhere. Instead, you try the tactic of calmly and respectfully explain your position. Whether or not he still gives you a ticket, you’ve been able to present your viewpoint in a way that doesn’t get you into more trouble, and might in fact solve your problem. In the same way, ultimately we want kids to learn how to advocate for themselves by engaging in actions and conversations which increase their autonomy—without getting them into more trouble.

So know that it’s normal for kids, and especially teens, to get into power struggles. That testing, pushing and challenging of your authority, no matter how difficult to deal with at times, is your child’s job. As he matures, his goal is to separate and individuate from you—to form his own opinions and feelings about things. Part of that process includes the desire for more power and control over his life; your goal is to make sure he tests those boundaries without being abusive or threatening.

Often, parents don’t want to expand a child’s circle of control over his own life as fast as the child would like. At the same time, kids want more control. So parents are constantly pushing against that wall to hold it steady, while the child is pushing back from the other side. Certainly, by the time kids are 13, 14, 15 or 16, they're questioning the rules you’ve set for them. They’re pounding on that wall with a sledgehammer, asking, “Why can’t I go to the concert? Why can’t I wear make-up? Why can’t I borrow the car tonight?” Their confrontation of your limits becomes stronger and stronger as they get older. So defiant power struggles can increase in frequency and intensity unless parents know how to manage them.

Why It’s a Mistake to Give in to Defiant Power Struggles
Almost all kids become increasingly resistant to parental authority as they grow older. For many kids, that resistance is acted out in socially acceptable ways. But some kids really get entrenched in power struggles. They become defiant, not just resistant. Their most common answer is “No, I’m not going to do it.” When you tell them there will be consequences, they’ll tell you they don’t care.

For those kids who learn that defiance helps them get their way, you’ll see their urge to become defiant grow stronger and stronger. A typical trap many parents fall into is developing a pattern of giving in as the child wears them down. After that, any time the parents resist, the kid thinks, “Well, if I push a little more, then they'll give in.” And so the child can escalate forever. In effect, the child is confronting the boundaries you’ve created, and will keep confronting them until they no longer exist...
The truth is, you really can't win with somebody who's got nothing to lose—you’ll just end up losing more and more of your own power. For parents in the situation where things have gotten to a point where the child is abusive and aggressive, I recommend that they seek some professional help. Because that pattern can be stopped and it can be changed. You don't have to be stuck in that forever, you just need to learn how to deal with it. In my opinion, what these kids really need to learn is that defiance doesn't solve their problem; defiance doesn't get them what they want in the first place. And if parents don’t teach them this lesson when they’re young, these kids will certainly find out later when they’re dealing with the school system, their employer, the police or their spouse.

Let me be clear: both the child who is mildly resistant to authority and the defiant, acting out child need to be empowered with problem solving skills to learn how to communicate effectively in the many situations life presents. I think that this particular training for adult life should start very early. Believe me, you can’t walk into your boss’s office and say, “This stinks, I’m not going to do it, you’re a jerk,” and expect to have your needs met. Kids need to learn how to negotiate and advocate for themselves in order to gain power, and they need to do it in an appropriate way—a way which doesn't get them into trouble and doesn't make the problem worse.

In next week’s EP, James will explain in Part II of this series what parents can do when they find themselves trapped in a defiant power struggle with their child—and how to defuse an argument instead of letting it escalate.


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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


Honestly I am crying after reading it. My 15 year old daughter has steadily become more and more defiant. I have a comlicated situation though as I share custody with my ex-husband who not only ignores this behavior but shows constant disrespect to me in front of my daughter when I am trying to get him to address this and co-parent with me. There are no boundries at his house so all the progress I do make when she is with me goes out the window as soon as he picks her up. And when she doesn't get what she wants from me she calls him and he picks her up without my okay. I've taken a parenting class and a NAMI Family class- which was helpful but for every bit of progress I make I am underminded. I have NO IDEA what to do next but I'm open for advice and more than ready to execute it. Please HELP.

Comment By : Jacklyn

Jacklyn, I am in the exact situation with my 14 year old daughter. Until your ex-husband holds the line like you do, you are in a no-win situation. My ex-husband and I ended up sending our daughter away to a "wildernesss" situation to get her back on track. She is still there and will go on to a therapeutic boarding school for a year after that. Yes, it is all very expensive and not covered by insurance but it has to be done. Loans, etc. I miss her so much but know it is her only shot at realizing that the world is not at her beck and call. I hope you don't have other kids in your house because your daughter will turn violent and abusive to everyone as she continues to get her way via your ex husband. It is just a matter of time until risky behavior on behalf of your daughter enters your lives. Drugs, sex and alcohol. Really scary. My two younger kids were so scared of my 14 year old daughter. It was frightening how defiant and angry she got when she could not get her way. I have taken many parenting classes and consider myself to be a good parent, but my ex husband of 18 years is clueless although loving. Get on the same page with your ex and there is hope. Hang in there. You are in a really tough situation. Stay strong.

Comment By : Evelyn

* Dear Jacklyn: It’s a lot of work to raise a teenager! Sometimes it can feel like you’re on an emotional rollercoaster. Trying to do this as a divorced Mom with an uncooperative ex-husband makes it that much tougher. If your ex is determined to raise her differently than you, there is little point in trying to change his mind. I would let that go. It’s probably not a good idea to discuss your concerns about her with him in her presence, or expect him to give her consequences for behavior that occurred at your house. Decide for yourself what are good standards and rules for your daughter when she is in your home. It’s better for her if you stay focused on keeping her accountable for her own behavior and not allow the excuse that she was influenced by her father or her friends, for that matter. If she complains that the rules are different at Dads say, “That may be, but in this house, these are the rules.” Kids are very capable of knowing the rules in different situations. School rules are different than home, for example. As James would say, ‘create a culture of accountability in your home’. Try having a new focus on just the two of you and establishing reasonable expectations and consequences and see if that helps your daughter reach the behavior goals you set for her.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Hi Jacklyn, I don't know if this is even relevant, but your ex shouldn't be able to pick up your daughter without your permission. If you are the custodial parent, you have legal rights as does he, but unlimited access to your daughter is not one of them. I have an ex of 7 years so I know exactly how you feel about him 'undoing' all you do. But that doesn't mean we stop doing it! It's not for your ex, it's for your daughter, and you don't need him to validate your parenting! I had to let go of the idea that we would be 'co-parenting' our kids a long time ago. Don't add to your frustration by having expecations of your ex that will never be met!

Comment By : Sara

My daughter is only 6 and she can blow up and sometimes is sooo defiant we don't really know how to stop it. We have the Total Transformation program and when we used it the first time it worked wonders but we sort of lost our way and there is nothing you can take away that she seems to care about. She cries when it's gone but during the struggle she will flat out tell us that she does not care and argue till she turns blue. We've taken most everything away and counseling is something that we not so sure about. We don't have the best folks around here and they really didn't do much of anything with us when we went 2ce and the co pays are of course outrageous. So any help to form the TTP to a 6yr old would be appreciated and do I just stick her in her room even when she gets so angry that she kicks the doors??? Help.

Comment By : WoreOut

Hi Woreout, My daughter was very passive and then following an accident when she was three, she began asserting herself and everyone at preschool and at home celebrated her not letting the other kids take her toys or push her down and I don't know what happened but by four, she was out of control, it sounds crazy to say that, but it is true, she took her cubby and left a locked kindercare and walked down the street saying no one listened to her, she became combative and was asked to leave both a kindercare and a christian school. we have been through it all, she is thirteen now, things are better, my family is in shambles from the tantrums, the destruction of stuff, the screaming, the defiance. The poor little girl, it must be awful to feel like she does, I am going to try this new avenue. I will hope good things for you.

Comment By : amandasmom

* Dear WoreOut: It makes it extra challenging for us as parents to remain calm and businesslike when our kids are in the middle of a temper tantrum. We’re probably as anxious for it to end as they are. Hard as it is, we need to use some of James Lehman’s great techniques for ‘disconnecting’ and ‘role modeling’ because kids learn far more from what we do than what we say. Show your child how you control your own pressures. Maybe you could say out loud, “I need to take a break for a few minutes here. I’m going to go lie down for a bit”, or “Let me take a deep breath” and then demonstrate how slowing your breathing and breathing more deeply can be calming. I wouldn't be concerned that your daughter says she doesn’t care about consequences when she’s angry. You know that she does. What I’d do differently is concentrate on getting her to use her coping skills to calm down. Use the ‘coaching’ role that James talks about. When the child is in the middle of a temper tantrum, mentioning that they will lose a privilege is not calming. It usually escalates their behavior. Instead, teach her that you won’t argue with her during those times by disconnecting from the argument and changing into the role of a coach. Simply state, “You need to find a way to calm yourself down. We’ll talk when you feel better.” If she needs more help, remind her what has worked for her in the past. “It usually calms you when your lie on your bed and listen to soft music. Go try that for awhile.” Have the purpose of going to her room be to calm down and switch gears, and not be punishment for her behavior. You can talk to her about her behavior when she has calmed down and decide if she needs more of a consequence.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

As hard as it may be, start seeeing a counselor so that there are some boundaries. Start with the school counselor. Slowly little bits of input can help with a teen having a hard time. You can't control husbands or ex-husbands and do not be afraid to announce this to the child. She knows. Tell teen calmly that its not fair to leave unannounced or to call other parent to play against one another. She will still do it but until she starts realizing her own actions it won't stop. Slowly they realize what they are doing even if they don't stop this way they learn the lessons indirectly. Set rules that work for your household and go to therapy, even if the kid doesn't show up half the time. You have made a dependable effort and can use the coping skills to improve your household. Behavior can take a while to change the biggest eyeopener is when they realize that they are not being controlled and really do have the power. The power to do whats right. If we are always taking the power away, they feel powerless like little kids which is counterproductive. You remember having feelings like you were an adult and then you came home and now you were like a menstrating 6 year old. Its a juxaposition. When my child is acting out I need to calm myself and try not to "react" it is very difficult. Solving a problem in the middle of an issue is not usually productive. Try the I need 10 minutes to think about this... question, response, reaction... To give yourself some time to be in a better frame to deal. Build upon postitive moments even if they are few and far between.

Comment By : kl2010

my 9 year old son is still laying on the couch watching tv. I'm waiting for a counselor to call me back. If I dare go near the tv he'll have a temper tantrum. I've tried to set boundries but get the same thing, threats and verbal abuse back. Of course when he gets what he wants, he's good as gold.

Comment By : Brenda

How do I begin. The other night it was a screaming match when I said it's 8:00 turn the tv off and take a shower. Then next night after reading this about offering "choices" I asked him when does he want to take his shower. He was very nice and said in a few minutes and he did. But why do I have to offer "choices" all the time. Why can't he just do what I ask him too? If he asks for dinner, I have to make it and can't say no, he threats that he'll call the police because I'm abusing him. I say call the police, I'll be glad to tell him what you say and do to me. He say's I don't care call them. I gave into him alot when he was little just to keep him quiet because my mom and husband were sleeping. I work days my husband works nights now and there's no structure. The school year helps, but the summer's totally suck! I'm at work during the day and my husband sleeps in. He's totally on his own. I tried to put him in some summer camp classes but he says no. He's and only child, I'm sure that doesn't help much either.

Comment By : Brenda

* Dear Brenda: I really like your question. “Why do I have to offer ‘choices’ all the time? Why can’t he just do what I ask him to do?” Many parents ask this same question and express your same frustration. Choices give kids ownership and accountability over the decisions they make. We don’t want to impose our will on them so to speak because it will prevent them from the opportunity to think, to learn to problem solve, and to choose the right thing to do. They need to see that they are the cause of their actions in their lives. This can’t happen without choice. We all lead busy lives and it’s challenging at times to think about a new way to interact with our kids, but it should become easier as you practice the techniques in the Total Transformation Program. There’s also another article you might enjoy, Trapped in a Screaming Match with Your Child? 5 Ways to Get Out Now http://www.empoweringparents.com/how-to-stop-a-screaming-match-with-your-screaming-child.php When you feel discouraged, remember you can call the trained specialists on the Support Line. We’re here to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

i have 7 yea old step son and he can be a handful for my husband and i he lives with us and he goes to his mothers ever other weekend and he has been dealing with a lot of things he is add with odd and he takes 10mg. of addderall a day. his outbursts have become increasingly worse, he is really disrespectful at times and refuses to andything you ask at the time of the outbursts, we aret rying so hard to correct this behavior, he was going to a therapist , but hasn't for a while, but my husband andi have decided to take him back, so we can fund out why he is so angry, but at times he is so good and is rewarded but he doess not like to lose at anything . i need help.. at times the outbursts are so bad and the yelling and hollaring gets louder and louder and my husband breaks downs and cries... what to do.....

Comment By : licstr11901

* Dear licstr11901: This definitely sounds like a challenging situation and I’m sorry to hear that you’re having difficulty with your son. If the situation is feeling out of control, then getting some additional help and support sounds like a good idea. In the meantime, it will be important to help your son come up with appropriate ways to handle his anger. Kids often get really angry because they think what we’re asking them to do is unfair or it may be something that’s difficult or uncomfortable for him. No matter WHY he is angry, it is not ok to respond the way that he does. When things are calm sit down with your son and talk about this. He might need some help from you with some new ideas of ways to calm down when he is upset. Make a list of ideas together and have your son pick one or two skills that he will practice the next time he starts to get upset. You may consider actually practicing those skills with him by role playing. During the outburst the best thing you can do is coach him to use those skills you talked about and then walk away and give your son the chance to try these out. I’m going to include some articles that will outline some skills that are essential to being successful when dealing with a child who has ADD and ODD. http://www.empoweringparents.com/Why-the-Word-No-Sets-off-a-Child-with-Oppositional-Defiant-Disorder.php http://www.empoweringparents.com/Oppositional-Defiant-Disorder-the-War-at-Home.php http://www.empoweringparents.com/ADHD-Young-Children.php

Comment By : Tina Wakefield, Parental Support Line Advisor

I have a 17 year old daughter who refused to go to school. Last year I had the same problem but she turned it around after a few weeks and became an A grade student but now she has started refusing to go into school again. She lives a very blessed life with no drama and has lots of friends. I have always been a single parent since her father died when she was 1 years old. Last year when she was 16 and doing this I was able to get the police to come and get her and drag her out of bed to go to school which worked but now she is 17 and knows her rights (she can legally drop out) she refused to go to school and says I cant make her and she can do what she wants. I cant tell her to leave as i am responsible for her til shes 18. But all she does is sleep and basically leaves when she wants as I can not restrain her. We as parents have no rights anymore - if we use restrain our children and leave a mark we can be reported and dragged through court! I am frustrated and just watching my daughters life go down the drain as I work my butt off supporting her with the necessities as I have taken everything else away. What can I do?

Comment By : L M P

* To ‘L M P’: 17 is a really tough age as kids seem to be in limbo between adulthood and childhood, and the laws allow them to make some pretty adult decisions like dropping out of school but put all the pressure and responsibility on you still. It can be incredibly frustrating and exhausting. You certainly aren’t required to provide your daughter with extras such as a phone, computer, or internet but these are tools that you can use to motivate her to go to school on a daily basis. Instead of taking these things away long term, you might look at taking it on a daily basis. For example, each day your daughter goes to school she can have time on the cell phone or computer. If she doesn’t go to school, she doesn’t get them that day but she can try again tomorrow. This might be a bit more motivating. Here are some more articles that relate to your situation and offer more ideas for you: Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part I & Throwing It All Away: When Good Kids Make Bad Choices. Good luck as you work through this and take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

My daughter is 12 and facing some challenges. She was diagnosed with ADD and now with Scoliosis. She has fought most of the interventions related to ADD, including resisting medication, but since much of it goes on at school, she has no choice (ie: she doesn't do her homework, she has to eat lunch in the guidance office..etc). The scoliosis has been more of a challenge. She has to sleep in a brace at night but absolutely refuses. I've tried just about everything I can think of, offering rewards, taking away things, begging, pleading, yelling, sympathy. I've tried having trusted friends talk to her, her physician. We went to the doctor yesterday to find out the curve is rapidly getting worse and she came home and refused to wear the brace. It has become a total power struggle which has now spilled into other things like taking a shower, picking up after herself etc. I just don't know what else to try.

Comment By : Cindy

* To Cindy: Thank you for writing in. It sounds like you are feeling pretty frustrated with your daughter’s behavior right now. It’s hard when you have tried everything you can think of, and still she insists on not complying with what you are asking of her. Debbie Pincus reminds us when you need someone to do something, it puts you in a vulnerable position because they don’t have to give it to you. You can try to problem solve with her about what is going on for her to make her decide not to wear the brace, and we would encourage you to continue with incentives for wearing it. Ultimately, it is your daughter’s decision whether or not to wear the brace to bed. Here is a link to an article by Debbie that addresses power struggles, and how to achieve more calm when talking with your daughter about her choices: Anxious Parenting: Do You Worry about Your Child's Behavior? Good luck to you and your family as you work through this.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

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