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Family Conflict Power Struggles

Families are much like tiny nations.  They each have a financial structure, social structure, and a power structure.  Unfortunately, the younger members of these “family nations” tend to make a run for power on a regular basis.  Like a government coup every other day.  No wonder parents get so stressed!

These attempts at asserting power are a very normal part of a child’s life.  They don’t automatically know how to handle their own initiative and control.  Families provide a safe environment for kids to test these out and learn from their mistakes.  Despite the turmoil this can cause families on a daily basis, kids can and usually do improve as they grow older.

The way a parent handles each situation in the moment makes a lot of difference.  But it’s also important how they prepare for them in advance.  Rules, expectations, the kids’ respect for authority, parenting style – these all exist whether a ruckus is happening or everyone is asleep.

If you quizzed your kids right now, what would they say about the rules?  What would they say about how much freedom they have to do what they want?  What would you say about how effective your rules are and how you enforce them?

Power struggles happen when kids rise up in some way against a parent and the parent attempts to wrestle the power back.  You may particularly experience this if you have a child with a strong personality, if you have been fairly permissive as a parent, if you have a teenager, or if your child is going through some type of stressful time.  Notice the very different circumstances that can lead to a power struggle. 

A mistake parents often make is that they struggle with their child.  Rather than doing something swift and decisive to take the power back quickly, they often go back and forth with their child in some way.  Arguments, bargaining, giving in to a child’s outrage – all of these things keep a child engaged in the struggle.  Unfortunately, the longer this pattern has gone on, the longer it may take for a child to work their way out of it. 

Parents who feel like they have a lot of power struggles have perhaps unwittingly allowed their child to think they can rumble and fight with them, and sometimes win.  When you change your tactic to being more decisive and less argumentative, a child used to the struggle will fuss and holler a lot.  A lot.  They want to engage you in the struggle like before because sometimes they prevailed. 

When you refuse to give in to their forceful emotions and negative behaviors, you will already gain a measure of power back.  It becomes one out-of-control kid and one calm adult instead of two people fighting and struggling with each other.  You change the standard to a format that plays to your advantage – your maturity and ability to manage your emotions.  And if you feel you are somewhat weak in these areas, it’s time for you to get some support and help with this. 

A note of caution – the earlier in your kids’ lives you establish this non-struggling approach to power, the easier it will be for you to stay in control.  That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to make improvements if you are the parent of a teenager.  I’m just saying from clinical experience it seems that the older kids get the less impact a power structure change tends to have.  The more years a kid has gotten their own way, the more they will resist a change towards more submission. 

So the best way to avoid power struggles?  Don’t struggle – act decisively and be prepared to hold up against some strong emotion from your kid.  With patience and persistence, you can help them learn better self control and respect for your authority.  And maybe one less coup for the week in your “family nation”.

Family Conflict Power Struggles

Erika Krull, MS, LMHP

Erika Krull, MS, LMHP is a practicing licensed mental health counselor in Nebraska.

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APA Reference
Krull, E. (2010). Family Conflict Power Struggles. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Jan 2010
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