Educational advocacy, learning disabilities advocacy     Internet Special Education Resources
Special Education & Learning Disabilities Resources: A Nationwide Directory

Five key ways to avoid a power struggle with your teenager

By Theresa Miller, Director of Residential Life at Brehm Preparatory School in Carbondale, Illinois

Have you asked your teenager to complete a simple chore and somehow ended up with your darling angel yelling, slamming doors, with giant teardrops falling? Somewhere in the middle of that exchange some key elements played out. You were hooked into a power struggle with your teenager. It is OK, it happens to us all. Although, we all recognize that power struggles occur, if you know what to look for, you may avoid a big one! Most kids escalate on some type of continuum. Recognizing these five key points may help you avoid getting into a power struggle with your teenager!

The first key in avoiding a power struggle is to remember that it takes two to create one. If you do not engage in the struggle, it will not occur.

As difficult as it may be at times, remember, it is not personal! Teenagers know exactly what buttons to push and how to get a rise out of you. They are trying to avoid whatever it is you are asking of them. If they get you hooked on something else, it no longer is about what you asked. You must remember that neither one of you will feel good about the interaction if you allow yourself to get off topic and get in a power struggle.

As adults, we must remember that it is our job to model appropriate ways to navigate difficult situations. What better way to show your teenager how to deal with difficult situations than by keeping your cool in a difficult situation? Parents should stay calm (we all know that can be very difficult at times) and address the issue at hand in a calm but firm manner. If it continues, set limits and disengage. If you are able to remain calm, the power struggle never occurs!

The second key in avoiding the continuum of escalation is when your teenager starts the basic questioning tactic, "Why do I have to sweep the floor", "Where is the broom." These are reasonable questions and deserve a reasonable answer. Your teenager may have swept the floor ten times and you feel they know exactly where the broom is. However, it is important, especially with kids that may have some learning disabilities, to answer the questions consistently and with a reasonable answer. If you respond to these questions with provocative statements such as, "because I told you to, or because I said so," it may be the catalyst for a power struggle. The goal is to get them to complete the task, not engage in a verbal volleyball session with you!

The third step in the continuum is those challenging questions that seem to get the power struggles started. Comments such as, "You can't make me," "What are you going to do," or "Why don't you do it." As much as we would like to say, "because I told you to," or, "I do enough around here; you need to do something," the goal is to get the task done, and for both sides to feel good about the interaction! When your teenager becomes non-compliant, it is important to set limits.

The key to setting limits is to make sure you keep the directives clear, simple, reasonable, and fair. Obviously, "Do it, or your grounded until you are 18," is not really reasonable or fair. You may feel like it is in the moment, but is your teenager really going to be grounded until they are 18? I don't think so! A more productive response may be, "You can have some free time when you finish sweeping the floors." Then walk away! You have now placed the free time in your teenager's hands. They get to do the fun things when they finish sweeping the floor. They are making the choice!

The fourth key to avoiding power struggles is not what you say, but how you say it! How you frame things can help kids appreciate what you need from them. For example, "Sweep the floor, NOW!" is very direct and does not allow your teenager to feel like they have any control over the situation. Another approach might be to say, "Would you prefer to sweep the floor or mop?" This allows your teenager to make choices and participate in the decision making. Also, using "I" messages can help frame things for your teenager. For example, "I need you to sweep the floor, so I can get dinner ready for us." If the interaction continues to escalate, use this communication model: I feel _____________ because ________________. So, I need you to ______________. This model helps to structure what your feelings are, the reasons for the feelings (specific to behaviors or situation), and what you need to happen to get it resolved. This is a perfect opportunity to model effective communication for your teenager!

The fifth key to avoiding power struggles is to be consistent! All kids want predictability! They want to know what to expect. If you give in and allow teenagers to skip doing chores because you do not want the argument, guess what? You will be doing those chores until they head off to college. As difficult and as challenging as it may be in the moment, being consistent will help teenagers make positive choices and feel good about themselves in the long run! It will only take a couple of times of implementing consequences, before teenagers realize it is easier to just do the task!

Recognizing these five keys may not eliminate all the power struggles with your teenager, but it will certainly help! None of us are perfect! Remembering that it takes two for a power struggle to happen will help you disengage. Answering reasonable questions with reasonable answers will assist in keeping the interaction calm. Setting limits will let your teenager know what could happen. Recognizing how you frame directions will teach effective communication and allow your teenager to be part of the process. Finally, being consistent will decrease the escalating interactions because they just aren't that much fun anymore!

Theresa Miller is the Director of Residential Life at Brehm Preparatory School in Carbondale, Illinois. She has more than fifteen years experience working with adolescents; the majority as the Associate Administrator for a licensed residential children's home. Before working in residential care, she worked with victims and witnesses of violent crime (children and adults) at the Jackson County State's Attorney's Office and also in the Investigations Unit at the Jackson County Sheriff's Office. She has a Master's Degree in Education and has served on many boards, task forces, and committees throughout the region that address adolescent issues and concerns. Theresa was the recipient of the Minerva Award in 2007 (an award given to a female in the community for outstanding community service and leadership). She received instructor certifications and taught through the Illinois State Police Training and Standards Board and the Non-Violent Physical Crisis Prevention Institute. In addition, she has successfully completed Conflict Resolution Training, Leadership Training, and other supervisory training courses.Contact Brehm at:, by phone at: 618.457.0371, or via email at: .

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


Educational advocacy, learning disabilities advocacy     Return to ISER Home