Parent Trap: Power Struggles

Three-year-old Bart throws a tantrum every night when his parents try to put him down to sleep. Eight-year-old Addy refuses to eat anything besides what’s on her list of 10 approved foods. High school senior Jen brought home a resounding 1.8 GPA last semester after rebuffing all attempts to get her to do her homework. I could go on and on with stories of how my patients dig their heels in defiantly with adults. In order to ascertain the best way to redirect these conflicts, you first need to zoom out and figure out why your child is engaging you in the struggles.

1. They feel disconnected at home: Many children live with parents who are distracted with work, finances, aging grandparents, a troubled sibling or struggles with their own mental health. This causes kids to feel unimportant, unloved, hurt, lonely and angry. Kids who don’t feel cared about often subsequently don’t care about things like homework, chores, their future or even hygiene.

2. Temperament: Some kids are born with a personality that is intense, independent-minded and detests being controlled or talked down to. They are at their best when given say-so, choices, decision-making, leadership and opportunities to be valuable. They are at their worst if they live with parents who are autocratic, controlling, closed-minded and disrespectful. It’s one of the reasons why some kids receive glowing reports from school and coaches who never see these struggles.

3. Overstimulated: Some people have a small tank of tolerance, i.e., the ability to go about your day and gracefully handle the normal ups and downs. Thus, after a certain amount of disappointment or setbacks, they boil over and lose it. Some kids are also sensitive to being overstimulated by lights, noise or crowds. At a certain point they get overwhelmed and then either shut down or lash out.

4. Lack of self-care: Some people become “hangry” when they are hungry and their blood sugar is low. Others become crabby and likely to engage in power struggles when they don’t get adequate sleep. A lack of adequate exercise also causes kids to be edgier and more likely to be triggered by small things.

5. Nonconformists: I counsel many teen girls who have different interests, beliefs and world views than their parents. Which is fine unless their parents continually push them to conform to their expectations and standards. These kids feel misunderstood, unheard, unappreciated, judged and like a huge disappointment. Those with enough courage push back and stand their ground. I always affirm these girls for their bravery and fighting to stay true to themselves.

6. Autocratic parents: Strong minded kids who grow up with strict, close minded parents are often embroiled in power struggles as they fight to gain respect and some sense of control.

Every child needs to be given appropriate power proactively to grow in confidence. Start with zooming out of your present struggles and ascertain what might be at the root of the conflicts. This will tell you the key to redirecting the power struggles.

Tim Jordan, M.D., is a Behavioral Pediatrician who counsels girls aged grade school thru college. Listen to his weekly podcast, Raising Daughters, to gain information on raising strong, resilient girls. For more info on Dr. Jordan’s retreats, summer camps and books visit

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