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Avoiding the Power Struggle


Many times we tell our child to do something, and then end up in a Power Struggle when our child refuses. We dig in our heels and stand by our demand, and our child does the same! It literally becomes a battle of the wills. It happens with all children, so do not feel bad. One of the problems with Power Struggles is that the more you try to force your will on your child, the angrier your child becomes and then the more frustrated you become. This is a quick way to end up ruining your family’s morning or your whole day.


Why does this happen? Every behavior happens for a reason! One of the reasons may be that


they want to get out of the task that you have given them. It might be because they want to get a reaction out of you. It might be really fun to see Mom lose her cool! Maybe they are just not feeling good, or are a little tired. Whatever the reason is, there are some strategies that you can utilize every day to avoid getting into these situations.


If you notice that you are ending up in a lot of Power Struggles, here are some tips to help you out!


Remain Neutral: I cannot stress this enough!! Use a calm voice and keep a neutral demeanor, even when you are frustrated. Remember that any attention is attention, negative or positive, so we might inadvertently reward negative behaviors with unnecessary attention towards their refusal.


State the demand, don’t ask a Question: If you ask your child “do you want to eat dinner now” you are indicating that there is a choice in the matter. If there is not a choice, make sure to phrase it that way. Instead of asking a question you want to state the demand. For instance, in our dinner example, you would want to make sure to say “It’s time for dinner now.”


Eye Contact and Attention: Make sure that you have your child’s full attention and eye contact if possible (some children avoid eye-contact and that is okay too!). A lot of times getting down on your child’s level and having them look at you helps them to focus and will increase the probability of them following through with the task you are giving them. It is much more effective than repeating yourself from across the room multiple times!


Put a Positive Spin on it: Tone and intonation can do so much! Being positive and enthusiastic will increase the likelihood that your child will follow through with your requests. Also, stating the good things that come with the task will help. For example, “It’s time to use the bathroom! Let’s hurry so we can play our game afterwards!” or “It’s time to use the bathroom, I’ll race you there!!”


Lighten the Load: Sometimes staring at an entire room full of toys on the floor can be a little intimidating when told to clean it up. The child’s knee jerk reaction is to refuse because it looks way too hard. Instead, try breaking it up into smaller steps. Be creative! Giving him a bin to easily put all of his toys in first, and then later putting them in their homes may be a little more doable.


Offer to Help: This goes hand in hand with lightening the load. Sometimes just offering to help with a task will make a job look a little easier and just a little more fun! Who can put away the most toys first? Making a game out of it or just lending a hand will often make it a little more likely that your child will follow through.


Offer Choices: Our children have very little control in their lives. We control when lunch is served, when bedtime is, what they eat, where they go, and so much more. Offering them some choices makes them feel that they have a little more control of the situation, which will frequently make them happier to help out. Giving them the choice of brushing their teeth or putting their pajamas on first, eating corn or peaches, wearing jeans or sweatpants, doing math or reading first, using a pencil or marker. All of these choices are so small, and ultimately we are accomplishing the same thing!


First/Then Language: This is based off of an ABA principal called the Premack Principle. The Premack Principle is a principle of reinforcement that states that an opportunity to engage in more probable behaviors (or activities) will reinforce less probable behaviors (or activities). This sounds complicated, which is why we break it down into simple first/then language. All it means is that in order to get your child to do something that they are less than fond of, we want to offer them the opportunity to do something they enjoy doing afterwards. For example, First clean-up/Then Television! Super simple and super effective! It is very important to state these expectations before you run into negative behaviors, otherwise we end up blurring the line into bribery.


Behavioral Momentum: Behavioral Momentum is just like it sounds, it is building up momentum to complete a difficult task. This is great to use if you know that the task that you are going to ask of them is more difficult, and that they are less likely to want to complete it. We start by giving them demands that are a pretty easy (i.e. hand me that pen, give me a high five, stomp your feet) followed by extra praise and attention (i.e. tickles, praise, smiles) prior to asking them to perform the more difficult task (i.e. putting on their pajamas). This will help to create momentum that will lead to more compliance. Two very important aspects with Behavioral Momentum are to make sure you are rewarding the easy demands just as much as the more difficult demands and to make sure that the easy demands are actually easy!!


Visual Supports: Displaying the task in a concrete format using pictures, words, gestures, or modeling can help with follow through. A lot of our children are visual learners, and process demands more clearly when they are provided in a visual format. This depends on each child, and you may need to try different formats of visuals to find out what works best. Some children process better when they read directions. You can state a demand, and then write it out when you notice some hesitation on initiating the demand. Others may do well when you provide a picture visual. You may tell them it is time for the bathroom, and then provide a picture of the bathroom. Providing visuals allows for you to provide another mode of communicating the same thing, without having to repeat yourself.


Give Warnings and Provide Consequences: If your child does refuse to complete a task or activity that you have given avoid getting in a Power Struggle with them. Unfortunately sometimes we have to provide negative consequences. Instead of engaging in the Power Struggle or trying to force them into completing the task, simply and neutrally provide a clear warning about what will happen if the task is not completed. One to two warnings ONLY, there is no reason to repeat yourself over and over! If it is not completed, make sure to follow through with your consequence. Never threaten your child with something that you are not willing to follow through with because your warnings will lose effectiveness in the future.



Please remember that these are general suggestions. If you have individual concerns regarding your child’s behavior that you would like assistance with, please reach out to get professional assistance. You can locate a qualified service provider in your area by visiting the Behavior Analyst Certification Board’s (BACB) website and search for service providers in your area. The BACB website contains a list of all Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs). You can also find qualified service providers by visiting the Autism Speaks website. They have great Resource Guide that allows you to search for services in your state. - Jamie
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