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Barriers and Power Struggles from a Mothers Perspective

“That’s what happens when you…”, “Be sure to…”, “Because I asked you to do it, that’s why…”.  These sentences have certainly been uttered to our children once or twice (okay, maybe more!) in our home.  They may sound quite harmless, and even may be the same sentences you remember hearing from your parents when you were a child, but using these types of words and phrases actually creates barriers and causes power struggles in your relationships, which obviously leads to less than desirable outcomes.  Putting up barriers or engaging in power struggles with your children not only creates distance instead of fostering closeness and trust, but can also cultivate feelings of hostility, worthlessness, and incapability.  So how can parents break these patterns of speech and start on better paths to more trusting, teaching, and open conversations?

In the blog post “18 Ways to Avoid Power Struggles” by Dr. Jane Nelsen she reminds us that “It takes two to create a power struggle,” so the first thing parents need to do if they find themselves in a power struggle situation with their child is to remove themselves from the struggle without winning or giving in, and then create a win/win environment.  Nelsen gives the 18 suggestions parents can use to help teach children important skills such as responsibility, cooperation, and problem-solving, all without engaging in a power struggle:

  1. Decide what you will do – “I will read a story after teeth are brushed.”
  2. Follow through – use kindness and firmness at the same time
  3. Positive Time Outs – creating a nurturing (not punitive) area for time out for your child
  4. Distraction for young children (with lots of supervision) – oftentimes children are punished for doing what they are developmentally programmed to do: explore
  5. Get children involved in the creation of routines (like chores, bedtime, etc.)
  6. Ask ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions – “How will we eat if the table isn’t set?”
  7. Put the problem on the family meeting agenda and have the kids help brainstorm for solutions
  8. Use ten words or less – one word is ideal – “Toys.” “Homework.”
  9. Get children involved in cooperation – “I can’t make you, but I really need your help.”
  10. No words – use pantomime, charades, notes, hugs
  11. Non-verbal signs that have been planned in advance with the child, such as a sheet over the television as a reminder that homework needs to be done before TV can be watched
  12. Use reflective listening – listen not only to what your child is saying, but what he or she means
  13. Give limited choices – “Do you want to do your homework before or after dinner?”
  14. Make a “Wheel of Choice” with your child with illustrations of brainstormed ideas of solutions to problems
  15. Create a game like “beat the clock” while getting ready for school in the morning
  16. Do it with them – maybe even join them for a positive time out
  17. Use your sense of humor
  18. HUG!!!

Okay, so plenty of tools to use to avoid the power struggle.  Now what about barriers?  In a post entitled “Avoiding Barriers in Parenting,” by H. Stephen Glenn and Jane Nelsen (from the book “Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World”), the authors give examples of five different barriers that parents often create with their child, oftentimes leading to diminished self-confidence.  In the example in the article, a four year old girl becomes stuck when her tricycle wheel runs off the sidewalk.  Following are examples of the various barriers that may be created by the parents in this situation:

  1. Directing: “Don’t just sit there and cry.  Get off and push the tricycle back on the sidewalk.”  This sends a message that children cannot problem-solve on their own without following specific directions.
  2. Explaining: “That’s what happens when you don’t watch where you are going.”  This statement doesn’t give the child the opportunity to examine and analyze their own problems.
  3. Rescuing: “Don’t cry, honey.  I’ll fix it for you.”  This statement doesn’t allow children to take the consequences of their own actions, and sends the message that they are incapable of handling both the behavior and the consequence.
  4. Assuming: “Be sure you don’t let your wheel come down off the edge of the sidewalk, because your bike will get stuck.”  This is a combination of assuming the child wouldn’t stay away from the edge of the sidewalk without directing.
  5. Adultisms: “You knew you were supposed to keep the handlebars straight.  How come you never keep your eyes on the sidewalk?  Why can’t you ever do it right?  Surely you realize what will happen if you don’t!  When will you ever listen?”  These are attacking statements, implying that the child wasn’t old/big/mature enough to handle the situation on his or her own.

Instead of barriers, the authors suggest using the following builders: checking, exploring, encouraging/inviting, celebrating, and respecting.  So an appropriate response to the tricycle incident could be something like, “Whoops!  Honey, what do you think would happen if you got off your tricycle and backed it up?”  At first glance, this may seem like the parent is directing or explaining, but the subtle and important difference is that the final answer must come from the child after he or she reflects on the situation and maybe even explores the suggestion.

Just eliminating these barriers and making the conscious decision to not engage in power struggles with our children can lead to substantial improvements in the parent-child relationship – like more empathy, respect, teachable moments, trust, and encouragement.

Although these may seem like simple changes, it may not be that simple when trying to change a standing pattern.  One tool that can help is the Kidtelligent Assessment!  This assessment gives you helpful insight into your child’s personality, and then offers parenting suggestions and tips based on his or her unique personality traits, giving you tools to more effectively communicate with your child.  To learn more about Kidtelligent, go to, and follow us on Facebook at

Sarah is a guest mom writer for Kidtelligent. If you are interested in submitting an article to be shared on the Kidtelligent Blog and Facebook please email us at