Power Struggles

Written by Seth Pozzi, Asst. Head of School on .

Where were you last Thursday night? If you weren’t at WHPS to see Debbie Godfrey’s presentation about power struggles [and how to avoid them], I would like to recap a few of her points.

Debbie explained that children generally misbehave for one of four reasons called “mistaken goals”: attention, power, revenge, or avoidance. According to Godfrey, to identify a power struggle, the child may simply refuse to do something or continue doing something against parent's permission or direction. The parent can identify the power struggle based on how the parent is feeling, such as feeling that he/she is being provoked or challenged and wants to make the child do (or not do) it.

Godfrey explains that from age 2-5, children will “shop” for behaviors to meet their needs. By age 5, children have often identified one of the behaviors that tends to work with a specific adult in their life. They have also learned what Godfrey calls the joy of opposing. This means that they have learned it can be fun to argue; it raises energy, making them feel powerful and strong.

My favorite--though by no means the only--piece of advice from the night was about the Broken Record Strategy. Godfrey tells us to choose a calm and appropriate response to the child’s misbehavior and to repeat the same response like a broken record each time the child repeats the misbehavior. The goal is to avoid escalating the situation, such as raising one’s voice or becoming more and more animated, which may cause the child to experience the joy of opposing. An example of her strategy is when a child gets out of bed at night, a parent might say, “Sammy is going to sleep in her room until morning” and carry the child back to bed. Each time the child gets up, the parent would repeat the same calm broken record response. Godfrey said that this strategy may take 10, 20 or even 40 or more repetitions the first time around, but the child will learn his/her boundaries and the struggle will quickly diminish in subsequent instances.

Some other tips Godfrey offered were: Getting Out of Power Struggles

 Use loving guidance vs. trying to overpower the child or use punishment

 Find useful ways for the child to feel valuable and powerful

 Offer choices to side-step the power struggle (E.g. If a child says “no” to a nap, ask the child if he/she would like you to walk with him/her to the bed or for you to carry him/her to bed.)

 Win/Win negotiate

 Use a signal


Preventing Power Struggles

 Use one word

 Let the child have the last word

 Make it fun

 Talk less (Power struggles are often verbal battles and fueled by verbal responses.)

 Use GEMS (Genuine Encounter Moments) - In a University of Iowa study, it was found that the average child gets 432 negative comments per day versus 32 positive comments. GEMS can take only 1-3 minutes, and they help children feel important and supported, so they don’t need to use power struggles to get those needs met.


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