Avoiding Power Struggles with Defiant Children: Declaring Victory is Easier than You Think


How do you nip escalating fights over power in the bud? In part two of our power struggles series, James shows you three powerful techniques for defusing defiant power struggles.

How do you know if you’re entering into a power struggle with your child? Any time you’re asking your child to do something and he’s refusing to comply—when you find him “pushing back” against the request you’ve given or the rules you’ve set down—you’re in a struggle. If the push for power is appropriate, you should be able to sit down with your child and talk about it in a fairly reasonable way. If it escalates into an argument or fight, you are in a defiant power struggle—and make no mistake about it, parents need effective ways to dial that back immediately.

In my opinion, defiant power struggles between parents and children have become more common in recent years. I believe this is a direct result of the glorification of power we see all around us: on television, in music, in politics, in the movies. In our culture, kids are taught from early on that power—and brute force—will get them what they want. As a result, we see a lot of kids who don’t know how to solve social or functional problems constructively. A social problem is “How do I get along with others?” And a functional problem is, “How do I meet my responsibilities without getting into trouble?”

So if your child has not learned to solve these types of problems, he’ll refuse to do his chores by throwing a tantrum. Or when he gets older, he’ll say mean things to you and tell you it’s none of your business when you ask him to comply with a family rule. If the defiance becomes more entrenched, he might try to intimidate you physically to get you to “back off.”

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If your child is trying to draw you into these kinds of defiant power struggles, realize that he needs to develop more appropriate problem solving skills as soon as possible. Kids who use this type of behavior to get their way are headed down a dangerous path that only leads to serious difficulties later in life.

The good news is, there are real and effective things you can do besides going to war with your child.

Avoid the Fight: Don’t Attend Every Fight You’re Invited to

A key skill I teach parents to use when they are confronted with a child who wants to drag them into a fight is the technique of “Avoidance”. Think of it this way: when you engage in an argument with your child, you’re just giving them more power. In effect, you’re increasing your child’s perception that they have the power to challenge you. Even if that perception is false it still carries a lot of weight. Why is that? Because your child often doesn’t realize that this empowerment they’re feeling is not real. The danger here is that the more powerful they think they are—and the more defiant behavior gets them what they want—the more they will use it as a shortcut to solve their problems.

Make no bones about it, parents have to make every effort to learn how to manage this type of behavior in their kids. I’m not saying this is easy—in fact, I believe it’s one of the most difficult lessons parents have to learn. And the lesson is, “How can I let my child mature, individuate and become appropriately empowered with the least amount of fights possible?” Remember that genuine empowerment comes from the development of appropriate life skills, such as communication and learning how to meet responsibilities– and developing age-appropriate problem-solving skills.

As a parent, it’s easy to slip into a fight with your child over small and large issues: power struggles can occur over everything from refusal to pick up dirty laundry to how late your child is allowed to stay out on the weekends. But I tell parents they don’t have attend every fight they’re invited to. That’s my way of saying that you don’t have to get involved with every fight each time your child begins to escalate. You can just declare victory and walk away.

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So next time your child tries to draw you into a defiant power struggle over something either minor or major, just say, “We’ve discussed what is going to happen. I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” and leave the room. When you leave, you take all the power with you—you just suck it out of the room, and your child is left yelling at a blank wall. Know that the more you engage your child in an argument, the more power you’re giving him. So again, just walk away and declare victory.

Give Your Child a Choice

I recommend that parents give kids some choices around their responsibilities when possible. So if there’s an issue around doing chores or homework, for example, a good way to avoid a power struggle is to offer some options. During summer, you might say, “You can start your chores when you get home from day camp or other activities, or you can wait till I get home. You can text message all you want between 3:30 and 5:30 and then do them when I get home. Or you can do them between 3:30 and 5:30 and then text message during your free time at night. So decide when you would rather be text messaging, talking on the cell phone, or going on the computer: between 7:00 and 8:30 p.m. or between 3:30 and 5:00 p.m. Those are your choices.”

That’s when you put the responsibility on your child to make choices about how they’re going to spend their time. I think you have to learn how to present these things in a way which makes it your child’s responsibility to complete his tasks. When the choice is, “When do you want to instant message? Now or later?” you’re establishing a structure and giving them some appropriate power. This teaches your child good problem solving skills, because he’s looking at his choices and picking the best one. In my opinion, that skill is the most important thing a child can learn as he develops; there is nothing more positively empowering than learning problem solving skills.

The Key to Increasing Your Child’s Autonomy Wisely (And the 4 Little Questions You Should Always Ask)

Remember, with every increase in autonomy for your child, there should be an increase in responsibility and accountability. For instance, let’s say your child wants to stay up till nine o’clock at night instead of eight o’clock. You decide that staying up an hour later isn’t going to interfere with your child’s need for sleep and that he’s old enough to handle the later bedtime. So you both reach a compromise of 8:30 p.m. to see how that goes.

Most parents will think the case is closed at this point—but if you leave it there, I don’t believe you’ve done enough to teach your kid how to solve problems. You need to make clear to your child how you expect increased responsibility with increased autonomy. So I think the end of any conversation that centers around a change or an increase in power has to include these four questions:

1. How will we know it’s working?

We’ll know staying up later is working if you still get up on time in the morning.

2. How do we know it’s not working?

If you have a hard time getting up on time and don’t have energy during the day.

3. What will we do if it’s not working?

We’ll go back to the old time, 8:00 p.m.

4. What will we do if it is working?

We’ll continue with this new bedtime.

Those four questions are really important, because what they say is, “If you want to stay up later, how will we know that it’s okay? Because you’ll still meet your responsibilities.” What’s the accountability piece? “What are we going to do if it’s not working? We’re going to return to the earlier time.”

Related content: “Go to Bed NOW!” Winning the Bedtime Battle with Young Kids and Teens

By the way, if it’s not working, parents should not give a consequence. Just say, “It’s not working because you’ve had a hard time getting up. No hard feelings. We’ll try it again in 30 days.” The chance to increase autonomy doesn’t stop forever for your child, so he or she is still able to earn more independence later. You can say, “We’re going back to bedtime at eight o’clock and then in 30 days, let’s sit down and talk about it again. Meanwhile in those 30 days, get your rest, practice what you need to do and then we’ll take another shot at it.”

That’s how negotiations are supposed to go. They are carried out through the use of proposals, compromises and ways of measuring outcomes to make sure everyone is doing what they agreed to do. Understand that all these gradual gains in power for your child are really rungs on a ladder that leads to independent functioning, or adulthood. And what you want your child to know at the top of the ladder is how to solve social problems and functional problems, how to get along with other people and how to live the right values.

So remember, even though it’s quite possibly the most difficult balance we have to maintain as a parent, we don’t want power struggles to go away. We don’t want limits and limit testing to go away. Rather, it’s the way kids push that’s important. Think of it this way: If children don’t get engaged in power struggles with their parents, they won’t learn how to advocate for themselves later in life. So what we want to focus on are the techniques they should use. And the appropriate techniques are ways to say, “Mom, I don’t like this, can we talk about it?” Or “Dad, I don’t think you understand what I mean, can we talk about it?”

Obviously, the expectation is for parents to be willing to sit down with their kids and talk about it. Nothing ensures a power struggle like your child’s belief that he can’t talk to you reasonably about something. I think when times are good, it’s important for parents to sit down with children and say, “When you don’t agree with me, this is how we should handle it.” Invite them to talk to you about it. At the end of that conversation remember to say, “Whatever decision is reached, it’s going to have to be acceptable. I’m not going to keep arguing with you. I’m just going to walk away.”

This is a good way for you to establish the ground rules around challenges to your authority, and to make sure that those challenges are appropriate. Plainly and simply, if your child doesn’t push boundaries or tests limits, they won’t be adept at living in the adult world. They won’t develop the problem solving skills of negotiation, compromise and sacrifice in a way that empowers them and prepares them to solve real life problems. And I believe that’s one of our main goals as parents—to empower our kids appropriately so they’re able to navigate independently in the adult world.

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


James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.

Comments (16)
  • flo
    Good article. However how do you do when choices/contracts are not respected? "you have the choice between watching an hour tv now and then doing your homework? Or doing your homework first and then watch tv? " . And the child watched tv and then doesn't do the homework asMore requested. The trouble is all this is very logical but teenagers are ruled by hormones, and a good resolution one minute can be forgotten the next one, when "the gremlin" inside takes over...
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport


      Thank you for your question.While offering choices can be an effective way of avoiding power

      struggles, it can be difficult when your teen still refuses to follow through

      on meeting responsibilities.In the end,

      while you cannot control your child’s choices, you can hold them accountable

      for their actions.If your child decides

      to watch an hour of TV first, then the TV is turned off after an hour, and your

      child doesn’t have access to further privileges that evening until homework is

      complete.You also have the option of

      allowing your child to experience the https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/why-you-should-let-your-child-fail-the-benefits-of-natural-consequences/ of being unprepared for school the next day.In addition, as noted in the article, if you

      see that offering a choice between watching TV first or doing homework first

      isn’t working because homework is ignored, then you can structure evenings

      differently.Please let us know if you

      have additional questions.Take care.

  • jlb

    I just wanted to point out what I see as a misuse of the word "consequence."  The way I see it, a consequence is not something that is "given." A consequence is the natural outcome of our choices, and can be a powerful learning tool.  The word "consequence" seems to be more and more used as a euphemism for "punishment."  Parents (and educators) should not be doling out "consequences", but instead letting their children learn from them.  In other words, don't protect them from the natural outcome of their choices.  

    In the example from the article, if a child stays up later but then cannot get ready for school on time, then the CONSEQUENCE is that bedtime goes back to an earlier time; parents should not give a PUNISHMENT for the child being late.  The consequence (being late) helps the child understand that he has made a poor choice:  He is simply not ready for a later bedtime.

    Keep up the good work.  I wish more parents and educators subscribed to the "empowering parents" way of thinking.

  • watermelongal
    The problem I'm having with this post is this:  If you are in a power struggle, you yourself are arguing to win and make the child "lose."  If you use these techniques to "win" then it seems the only thing you are teaching your child is to learn to tryMore to be the winner.  Of course you want your kid to do the thing you ask them to do, and they refuse (or argue, whatever), but how is it helpful to do the things listed above if all you are doing is just imposing your will upon theirs by "winning."  I am constantly in power struggles w/ my 16yo boy, and he won't negotiate or have a sit-down conversation either.  He flat refuses to do some things (chores, etc), I insist, and then he just still doesn't do it or yells and then doesn't do it.  If I walk away, he still doesn't do it.  If I engage further, he escalates.  I'm not really sure what will work at this point.
  • Frustrated Mom of 6
    What about a 13yo whose response to being told to do things is to state, 'I won't', or to just ignore the request. I follow through with taking away privileges that are significant to her, but still she refuses. She seems to think we have no right toMore ask her to clean up after herself or contribute to family chores. In general, I get the sense that she thinks she's a grown adult and no one has the right to make her do anything. Younger siblings are watching this which further compounds the problem. I'm at a loss.
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      Frustrated Mom of 6

      It is very frustrating when your child absolutely refuses to

      do anything you ask her to do. Using privileges as a way to motivate follow

      through usually is an effective approach. It might be helpful to approach it

      from the perspective of her earning privileges, instead of you taking them away

      for noncompliance. For example, if you are asking your daughter to clean her

      room, you might say to her something like “It’s time to clean your room. That

      includes making your bed, putting away your clothes and picking up what’s on

      the floor. When you’ve finished that you can then watch TV.” You can use a

      similar strategy with other chores as well. You can check out the article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/ill-do-it-later6-ways-to-get-kids-to-do-chores-now/ for more tips on how to

      motivate your daughter to follow through. We appreciate you writing in and wish

      you the best of luck moving forward. Take care.

  • DebraCG
    I have a 4 1/2 year old with Oppositional Defiance Disorder. She has incredible strength and size. During an extreme defiant episode, me leaving the room merely escalates the episode. She will follow me and has pushed and hit me for leaving the room. Once I tried separating us betweenMore a door and she hurled herself against the door repeatedly. I was concerned about the door busting thru the jam with more property damage (there has been $1000's of damage in our home) so I opened the door. The screaming continued. Another time I locked myself in the car while it was in the garage so the screaming was muted somewhat. She somehow managed to cover herself in the grime from under my car (which I couldn't see or hear while inside) and then keyed my car with a screw driver she found in the tool chest. I heard that and stopped her before she moved from one panel to the next. This is impossible. What do I do?
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport


      What a tough situation. I can hear how frustrated and

      overwhelmed you are trying to deal with your young daughter’s behavior. From

      what you have written, it sounds like you might benefit from finding support

      services in your area who would be able to work with you and your daughter

      directly. The 211 Helpline would be able to give you information on resources

      in your community, such as in-home supports, counselors, respite care, and

      other services. You can reach the Helpline 24 hours a day by calling 1-800-273-6222

      or by logging onto http://www.211.org/. In the meantime,

      you might find it helpful to check out some of our articles that focus on

      parenting https://www.empoweringparents.com/article-categories/ages-and-stages/younger-children/. One article in particular you may find helpful is https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/hitting-biting-and-kicking-how-to-stop-aggressive-behavior-in-young-children/.

       Good luck to you and your family moving forward. Take care.

  • loveusmc
    So...I have already messed this all up!  My 17 year old already has all the power.  How do you get back to normality? He has always followed me when I try to walk away. And when I do walk away...the chore, or responsibility does still not get completed.   IMore feel that he "wins" as soon as I do walk away, because I am off his back and he just does as he pleases with no by your leave. Any consequence given for bad behavior or bad choices is another power struggle and he does with out...or lets it roll off his back.   Doesn't let it phase him.
  • Lulu1
    What do you when your teenager stepdaughter ignores you when you ask her to do some chor
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport


      You bring up a tough situation. Generally speaking, it’s

      usually more effective if the bio parent takes the lead in matters of

      discipline. We have several articles that offer some insight into effective

      step parenting. You may find the 2 part article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/my-blended-family-wont-blend-help-part-i-how-you-and-your-spouse-can-get-on-the-same-page/ & https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/my-blended-family-wont-blend-part-ii-what-to-do-when-your-stepkids-disrespect-you/ by James Lehman helpful for your situation. We appreciate you reaching

      out to Empowering Parents for help with this challenging issue. Take care.

  • Sasha
    The walking away is a great method so the struggle and frustration of the situation fizzles, but what happens when you leave them alone and they start throwing items? Also, when you are a step parent what are some guidelines that you can suggest to keep your sanity.
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport


      You ask a great question. In the situation you describe, you

      would hold the child accountable after things have calmed down. For example, if

      s/he breaks something, s/he would be responsible for cleaning it up and/or

      replacing it. You might also have the child make amends for his/her behavior by

      doing something to make up for their behavior, as suggested in the article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/kids-and-excuses-why-children-justify-their-behavior/. We have several articles

      on step parenting and blended families. One in particular you may find helpful

      is  https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/blended-family-the-5-secrets-of-effective-stepparenting/. I hope this is helpful.

      Take care.

  • cuddles84
    i realy like what i have read i am putty most of that stuff  to practic now not all of it works yet. hope to learn more from you .  thank you  for being so helpful.
  • endofmytether
    How do you handle a 13 year old that wont let me walk away, she follows me continuing to shout her point and wont let me get a word in.
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport


      You bring up a situation we hear about often. It’s actually

      not uncommon for a child, especially a teen, to follow a parent when s/he tries

      to disconnect. The purpose of  disconnecting and walking away is to end

      the interaction until things have calmed down. You may need to go to your room

      and close the door, go outside for a walk, or do another activity to

      disconnect. When it’s not possible to walk away, you would stay disengaged by

      not responding to what your daughter is saying. Remember, the longer you stay

      engaged in an argument or power struggle, the longer it will probably go on.

      You may find the article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/disrespectful-child-behavior-dont-take-it-personally/ helpful. It offers more useful tips

      for dealing with this difficult issue. Take care.

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