Christian Parenting and Family Resources with Biblical Principles

Please Help Provide Clean Water to Persecuted Christians

Rising Above the Parent-Child Power Struggle

  • Hal Runkel, LMFT ScreamFree Parenting
  • Updated Nov 08, 2007
Rising Above the Parent-Child Power Struggle
Why is it that when you really need kids to do something quickly, they choose that time to move in slow-motion? Late for an early morning meeting? Jr. suddenly takes twenty minutes to find his tennis shoes and needs help on his homework. Trying to have a quick dinner before dance practice? Little Jessica decides to eat her peas one at a time with her fork and afterward, clears the table with a pace that would make a snail look fast. Trust me, you are not alone in this most common of parenting issues.

When your child stalls, it is a way for her to exercise a form of power over her own life. Unfortunately for you, but intoxicating to her, stalling also drastically affects your life. Since you both have to be somewhere at a certain time, her stalling creates problems for everyone involved. Annoying? Yes. Diabolical? No. This is an immature power struggle, not a personality defect.

If you have a youngster who stalls, it’s likely linked to your own anxious need to make her punctual. This has undoubtedly become a battle between the two of you, which means it’s not really about stalling. This battle is about whose life belongs to whom, and it’s only going to get worse the more you dig in. So, take a look at the following principles and see how they can directly relate to this most frustrating of behaviors:

1. What kids need most are parents who do not need them. I know this sounds weird, but our own need for our kids to comply communicates messages contrary to what you want. When we need them, we are saying "Mommy or Daddy are not in control of their own emotions, you are"; "your behavior is the driving force in this family"; "your immaturity is very powerful".

In contrast, when we no longer need our kids to behave a certain way, when we no longer need their cooperation in order for us show self-control, then we communicate three very different messages: "Mommy and Daddy cannot be manipulated by your emotional outbursts (we're bigger than that)"; "your behavior has consequences for you that you (not anyone else) will have to deal with"; "power is found in self-control, not neediness or immaturity".

2. Practice Paradox Parenting (or Push the Pause Button). Usually the best thing to do in a stalling situation is the thing we least want to d slow down. Slow down your speech, your movements, your breathing. Lower your volume. You’ll be surprised how much more they listen to you when they have to be more still to hear you. When you feel the pit of your stomach tighten as the clock ticks toward bedtime and your daughter asks for just “one more” story, take a really deep breath and ask yourself: How do I want to behave? Do I want to roll my eyes and give in over and over until she blows up and everyone ends up crying? No. I’d much rather feel good later about how I acted. I’d prefer to gently hug my daughter and calmly tell her that this will be the last story and if she gets out of bed again she will lose one of her toys to timeout for a day or two.

The bottom line: slowing down or pushing pause gives you the space to be creative and act the way you want to act, instead of acting just as immaturely as your child. If you want to set some consequences for your daughter not getting ready or going to bed on time, then do so calmly. If you want to grant her some space to stay up in her bed, do so without regret or resentment. The goal here is to not let her version of a tantrum create one of your own, but rather to respond in a calm and connected way.

3. Give your kids space and place. You can’t control which choices that your child makes. They know it and you know it. Embrace that and realize that you can control which choices your child has. If your child is sick and needs medicine, they don't have a choice in the matter of whether or not they take the medicine. But, they do have a choice as to how they take it. The easy way or the hard way. We used to play the medicine game in our house when our daughter was little. The easy way was her taking it with a spoon and chasing it down with an MnM. The hard way was us prying open her surprisingly strong jaws and using the medicine dropper and then taking away a favorite video for the next day. The choice as to which way she took the medicine was fully hers and we had to let go of the desire for her to choose which method we preferred. It was with great pride and respect that my three year old smiled and said that she would prefer the hard way. We actually all giggled as she put up a pretty good fight just to see if she could trust us to respect her choice.

4. Let the consequences do the screaming. Ask yourself a question—how did you learn to be punctual? Most likely it came through experience, the negative consequences of being late and the positive results of organized living. So what is getting in the way of your son or daughter learning those same experiential lessons? My guess is that it is your own anxiety. Because of this, I have made the timer my new best friend. Instead of me nagging my son to do what he needs to do before we leave for school and then hovering over him while he ignores me, I use the timer. I decide on a reasonable amount of time for him to finish breakfast, brush his teeth, and head out the door and I calmly set a consequence that I can live with if he doesn’t beat the timer. Then comes the hard part. I drop my anxiety. I let the timer do its thing. I let my son choose to do his. I don’t count down like NASA; I don’t remind; I simply give him space. If he makes it, great. If he doesn’t, I don’t need to say a word, I just enforce the consequence. By taking myself and my own anxiety out of the equation, I can walk next to him in the whole process without dragging him kicking and screaming. I allow something larger than both of us to motivate.

Kids can smell your anxiety a mile away; they have an incredibly sensitive radar for that kind of thing. So, instead of allowing your anxiousness to drive the boat, give them a clear cut timeframe and a clear cut consequence and then back off – show them that you respect them and their ability to do this without you hovering and you do amazing things for your relationship along the way.

Hal E. Runkel, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of the National Bestseller ScreamFree Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool, from Waterbrook Press. Visit for more information.