Power Struggles

If you’ve worked with young children or are a parent, chances are you have found yourself in a power struggle. Have you ever asked a child to do something, and the child just says, “No”? We might call it a power struggle, defiant behavior, boundary testing, or pushing back, but at the root, a power struggle is a conflict where both the child and the adult are trying to assert their authority or control. They happen when an adult and a child disagree on a boundary or expectation.

If you are an early childhood educator you can probably think of plenty of examples from your own classroom, but a few common power struggles that come to mind are refusing to come in from the playground, not cleaning up when free play time is over, or repeatedly getting off their mat at naptime. Power struggles can make us as adults feel powerless, like we aren’t in control of the situation, and can negatively impact our relationships with the kids we work with. In these moments, it can feel like kids are just trying to be difficult, but if we take the time to understand what’s really going on, we can approach power struggles in a new, calmer, more confident, and more effective way. Keep reading or check out our new on-demand course, Power Struggles to learn more.

When kids engage in power struggles, what they’re really telling us is that they want more opportunities to be in control. If you think about it, young kids have so little control over how their day goes. Teachers or parents decide when it’s time to eat, when it’s time to sleep, when they have to go to school, when it’s time to stop doing an activity they love. When kids challenge these decisions adults are making for them, they are communicating

that they want control. While we’ll probably never welcome power struggles, we can appreciate that power struggles are a normal part of development, and that it’s healthy for kids to want control over their lives. 

Young children are starting to establish their sense of self. Wanting control, power, and autonomy – this is all part of kids trying to figure out who they are in the world. They do this by expressing opinions, even if it means disagreeing. Sometimes the clearest way to know who we are is by disagreeing with other people. Check out this resource from NAEYC with helpful tips on navigating this period of growing independence.

Of course, at the same time kids are trying to establish independence, they are also still developing the emotional and communication skills needed to express their needs and ideas effectively. In the meantime, while they're learning, kids may express themselves through inconvenient behaviors like power struggles or refusal.

So, adults – early childhood educators and parents alike, have to be prepared and respond in the most effective way possible to avoid making the power struggle even worse. This includes staying calm in the moment, and taking the time to see and connect to the child’s point of view. And of course, using proactive strategies to prevent these power struggles from happening in the first place.

If you’re interested in building up your toolbox to prevent and more confidently respond to power struggles, check out our new on-demand course, Power Struggles to learn all this and more.