“You can’t make me!” The Push-and-Pull of Power Struggles

Posted September 28, 2015 by

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You need to leave the house early so you can drop the kids off at school and make it to work on time. Just as you’re about to head out the door, your daughter decides that attending class is not in her cards today.

“I’m not going, and you can’t make me.”

Makes you cringe, doesn’t it?

This is just one example of how power struggles start. Your need (getting the kids to school and making it to work on time) rubs up against your daughter’s need (staying home from school). The situation turns into a push-and-pull, where your needs compete for attention.

Any time your child uses defiance to push back against your requests or rules, you’re in a power struggle.

Your daughter might have a good reason why she doesn’t want to go to school, but she’s not able or willing to talk about it. This causes tension, since both of you have places to be and not much time to get there.

Ask your child to get out of bed and she will.

In these moments, it can feel like you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. I understand how challenging it is. Parents are busy people — the last thing you need is another obstacle to overcome!

The good news is, there are effective ways to manage power struggles without going to war with your child. The first step is awareness: knowing when you’re being drawn into an argument.

It might seem obvious, but sometimes we’re so caught up in patterns of fighting or arguing, we miss the fact that we were invited into a power struggle. Don’t worry, this is normal! To learn more about identifying power struggles and how to overcome them, check out Avoiding Power Struggles with Defiant Children: Declaring Victory is Easier Than You Think.

Power struggles take time and practice to handle constructively. Remember that you’re not alone — we’re here to help support and guide you!


Darlene Beaulieu is a parent to two teenage daughters, ages 13 and 16. She has been an Empowering Parents Coach since 2009 and has helped thousands of families in that time. She earned her Master’s Degree in Counseling and has worked in school and community settings helping children and families with academic, social, and behavioral issues.

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  1. KJC Report

    Thanks Rebecca, the article you suggested is interesting  with regard to holding children accountable for their actions and teaching them to take responsibility. I think I’ve tried doing something close to this by saying, that’s fine if you want to be late, you’ll have to explain it to the head teacher, but when my daughter then accuses me of being ‘rude’ (which is her stock response when I tell her to do something she doesn’t like), do you just ignore the disrespectful backchat or explain what being rude actually means? I’m torn at that point between not being pulled into an argument (which I know is one of your basic tenets) and telling her off for answering back and telling her she’s the one who’s being rude. That’s the time when I feel that I’m letting her get away with talking disrespectfully to me and ‘losing the fight’, and it’s tempting to come down on her for that. Any thoughts? Thanks

  2. Geneva Report

    Hi the opening was very interesting to read because I was in that situation and didn’the know how to handle it correctly! I would like to know how you handle a situation like this.
    Thank you

  3. KJC Report

    The above example of the daughter refusing to go to school is a very common one. I’ve had a similar situation with my own 7 year-old daughter, who if I explain that she has to go to school even though she doesn’t want to, then develops a problem with her shoes/socks, or simply slows to a snail’s pace in order to avoid going. Sometimes I’ve had to threaten taking her straight to the head teacher to explain why we’re late, which does work, though my daughter is then angry and tells me I’m ‘rude’.  

    In the case of a child who flatly refuses to go to school, how does the ‘walking away from an argument’ technique actually work? Although you say that you should avoid being drawn into any conflict by saying: “We’ve discussed what is going to happen. I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” and leave the room, how does this work when you’re pressed for time before school, in the example you give? I can’t see how leaving the room is going to help if you’re then making yourself more late and you daughter is just ‘waiting you out’ somewhere in house!

    • rwolfenden Report

      @KJC @Geneva 
      Thank you both for your questions.As
      I’m sure you can imagine, we hear from many parents who describe similar
      situations with a child refusing to go to school, so you are not alone in this!The best way to avoid power struggles is to
      focus on what you can control, which are your own actions and responses.As outlined above, a good first step is to
      set a limit and walk away, so that the situation does not escalate
      further.If your child is still refusing
      to get ready or go to school after you have removed yourself, the next step is to
      hold your child accountable for that choice.You can find additional tips on how to address this issue in our
      article, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/i-dont-want-to-go-to-school-and-what-you-can-do-about-it/.Please let us know if you have additional questions.Take care.

  4. Evelynoc Report

    Hi my son is 15 and recently had to move schools due to being excluded by peers after a falling out with friends . He tries very hard to fit in and told me today he is going to support a new pal who is fighting some other guy this weekend over a girl 🙄 . I told him he certainly isn’t going but he’s insisting he is. He said I’ll ruin his new friendships if I don’t let him go etc etc . I’m not concerned about this as I feel this won’t happen anyway but if he goes anyway without permission what do I do ?
    My instinct is to punish him by removing his privelages like computer etc but people tell me I’m too hard on him but I do t feel I am . We talk about everything but lately I feel he’s getting more defiant and less likely to talk things through !
    Any help would be appreciated

  5. ralph Report

    my son is in college. lives in an apartment. says he is depressed because he got a DUI and he wants a dog. now what am i to say ?

    • AJ Report

      I’m unsure my opinion is helpful but what if he could offer dog sitting (baby sitting for dogs) in his home when he has time available? That way he would get the companionship he’s looking for without the full responsibility of a dog.
      Our family does this regularly for one particular doggie and we love it.

    • rwolfenden Report

      I can hear how difficult this situation is for you, and I’m
      glad that you are reaching out for support.Something to keep in mind is that when your child becomes an adult, then
      your role as a parent changes.Instead of
      trying to make your son follow your rules, it becomes more about determining
      what your boundaries are, and how you will respond to his choices.Ultimately, the decision about whether he
      gets a dog is your son’s to make; you have power over your own responses.For example, you might set a limit that your
      son is financially responsible for taking care of the dog, such as vet bills,
      food, and/or a pet deposit on his apartment lease.Please let us know if you have additional
      questions; take care.

      • Dee Report

        RebeccaW_ParentalSupport – Thanks for your response.  I too, am struggling with how to parent a rebellious, out of the house off to college son.  We were at one time very close, but things have changed so dramatically since he went off to college.  I am truly having a rough time, because I wonder who he is?  He was raised to be different then the character he has been exhibiting, a big part due to the girl he’s been seeing. I am trying to be positive, pray and hope for the best, but lord, it has been a struggle.

        • Sad mum Report

          I have the same problem.. went over to the USA to college from Australia on a scholarship.. came back depressed -different -defiant.
          He is now estranged and moved in with friends. Won’t tell me where.
          Has seriously got involved with a girl..
          Ignores his family now…
          Unbelievable how he has changed.
          So disappointed and so sad.

    • Sherena Report

      If he’s able to afford and adequately care for a dog go for it. A dog will definitely help with his depression and help him become more responsible.

    • Violet Report

      I’ve battled with depression for years and I can honestly tell you that he is probably lonely and wants a pet for comfort. Having a pet is a big responsibility as you probably already know, but pets are good therapy. Just be prepared to take care of the dog incase your son starts making friends and getting busy.



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