Power Struggles

Dealing with Power Struggles

(Excerpted from Try And Make Me! Power Struggles: A book of strategies for adults who live and work with angry kids by Penny Cuninggim)

A power struggle is a push-pull between two people, each of whom believes he or she knows more, sees more, can do more, or has the right to “win” over the other. It is a clash of wills where each party is determined to pressure for his or her position through (obsessive) persuasion, coercion, or intimidation. Like bucks in a fight, they have locked horns. Neither party is open to incorporating the other’s view, so the exchanges tend to escalate into deeper and deeper levels of entrenchment.

Between an adult and a child, on the surface the power balance is unequal. The adult has more role and resource power and usually is physically bigger. However, in some cases, the adult has abdicated that power. Either way, the adult has the responsibility to change the situation.

Power struggles are one of the hardest things to deal with when we work with rebellious kids. In my experience, nearly every time this topic is discussed among adults, the question arises, “Even though I am well aware of the uselessness of power struggles, why is it that inevitably I find myself embroiled in them over and over?” These adults go on to say something like, “Before I even realize it, I’m in the middle of one. And I am so frustrated with myself that I often make it worse. I get more and more stuck and defensive. Then I get angrier and angrier. I end up saying and doing things that I regret and my relationship with the child (or student) suffers.”

When we least expect it, we clash with children over things that aren’t very important, or in ways that don’t further understanding and mutual respect. Even now, even after figuring out how to avoid many kinds of power struggles and successfully using many prevention techniques for many years, I still fall into power struggles.

Power struggles are probably the most difficult behavioral dynamic one can
address with consistent and positive results. I am not sure why this is so. My colleagues and I wonder if it has to do with how vulnerable we really are as adults and in our roles as teachers, parents, caretakers—how much we really do give of ourselves, of our physical and emotional energy; how high our expectations are for ourselves and students in our care; and how disheartened we feel when, over and over, we are disappointed by the children in our care.

When students deliberately start a fight, and our intentions were never anything but good, our first response is often hurt and anger. Our values, our legitimate power roles, and even our basic integrity are perceived to be at stake. Our emotions rise quickly.

But how do we stop before we react, or how do we extricate ourselves once we are hooked? How do we stop retorting in kind? How do we stop before we say something that gets us in deeper? We have to figure out both how to short-circuit our natural responses so we don’t create unnecessary struggles and how to do this when the child has already made his first combative statement.

Yet has the power struggle actually started once the child starts baiting us? Is the child’s statement the actual point when the struggle starts? Does the child saying one of those negative things mean a power struggle is now inevitable? These are common questions adults ask as they try to figure out what to do. For me, to each, the answer is a resounding “No!”.

A power struggle has not started when a child attempts to goad you. The child’s goading statement is just his or her verbally aggressive “plop.” I repeat his’ or her’s, not yours. Assuming your request of the child was fair and friendly, not punitive or baiting, you did not start or do anything. The child’s statement is just one side of what could become a two-sided struggle. But it doesn’t have to, because the struggle does not begin until…until what? Until you, the adult, respond in the same way, with the same kind of verbally aggressive statement!

Even if you take the bait by initially responding defensively, you don’t have to keep responding that way. There are ways to either get out of the struggle or refuse to keep participating.

You cannot keep a child or a student from initially wanting to win or gain the upper hand, but you can refuse to play the game. You don’t have to respond in the same way. As long as you don’t, there really isn’t any power struggle. The student’s statement just sits out there, reverberating. Without a response, it is just one person’s goading, venting, or voicing of anger. It goes nowhere.