What to do when you find yourself in a power struggle with the child of divorce


PowerHave you ever been leading a group of children and everything was going great when all of a sudden you found yourself pulled into a power struggle? Or is there one particular child who constantly argues with you about every little thing? Many times children of divorce seem to excel in power struggles.

3 reasons some kids want to be in a power struggle

  • In the past the child has received a lot of attention via a power struggle
  • It is a control issue – the child wants to be in control
  • It’s been working for them

I want to warn you to be very careful with some of these children that you don’t get caught up in a power struggle. It takes two people to have a power struggle. If you don’t enter it, then there is no power struggle. Another thing to remember about power struggles is many times the child wanting to pull you into a power struggle may not feel safe, and if you enter the power struggle, you will only be reinforcing the child’s perception of “un-safeness.”

A child needs to know that the adults are strong enough to be in control. When you come across a child who wants to pull you into power struggles, and some are very good at it, it is best to try and maneuver out of the struggle. Sometimes before you realize it, you are in a full-blown struggle and find yourself at odds with this little person in front of you.

What to do and not do

  • One thing is to allow the child to save face and keep their dignity intact. Every time we take away their dignity, the more the child feels like they have to in be control. The more they will try and pull the adults in their lives into a power struggle.
  • I don’t advocate for just walking away from the struggle. I think this tends to say to the child, “You and your opinion don’t matter to me.” Or “I don’t have time for you.” Trying to talk them out of the struggle doesn’t work either.
  • One way to handle the situation when a child is bound and determined to “win” the argument is to simply say, “I’m giving you permission to have the last word. Now what is it?”
  • Honor the child and yourself by not entering into any further conversation with the child on that issue. The child feels like they “won” and you’re able to end the argument. You still maintain control over the group because you are still in charge.

If the child comes after you with any further conversation say to them, “Whoa! I gave you permission to have the last word and we are now done with this conversation.” If you feel you need something else to say to end the conversation add, “And since I respect you, we are done with this conversation.” It’s at this point that you can turn and walk away.

What are some unique ways you handle power struggles?



This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on the Kids & Divorce blog on August 12, 2014.

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3 thoughts on “What to do when you find yourself in a power struggle with the child of divorce

  1. As I minister to stepfamilies, these power struggles are ongoing in many of them. I coach the couples to express to the children that there are boundaries and decisions that adults are responsible for and in charge of. The child’s opinion and viewpoint are heard, respected, and considered, but ultimately, the adults make it kindly clear that their decision is what stands. Would you say that after this assertion, that dignity for the child is then expressed by saying that they can have the last word? Would that jeopardize the decision of the adult? I look forward to your reply, Linda! You can also reply directly to me at With our Stepfamily Rx conference coming up September 27th here in Eau Claire, this would be a great “pearl” for couples. God bless you! dori:)

    • Dori I think stepfamilies might be a different situation if the power struggle is because of step siblings or step parent. If it is a power struggle between the birth parent and child then the parent needs to be careful they don’t take away the child’s dignity. Remember many kids in step families have not healed before being thrown into the new family. These children feel they have no power thus the power struggle. I still think saying the child has the last word works. The parent can lay down their rules or whatever and telling the child they can have the last word doesn’t negate the rules. It only gives the child an opportunity to express themselves. The parent is still actually in control because they are ending the conversation by allowing the child to have the last word. Again the rules, boundaries and parent’s decision still stands.

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