Art as Therapy’s Tips for Reducing the Power Struggle with your Kids

In our work with families, we often speak to parents who are experiencing defiance from their children and find themselves frustrated in a constant power struggle. How do you deal with these difficult moments? Is there a way to step out of the power struggle and instead stand beside your child and empower them in those moments?

In a previous blog post, we talked about the idea of viewing difficult behaviour from a different perspective. If behavior is seen as communication, or as a way to express a need, then it is possible to address the underlying cause rather than focusing on the difficult behaviour. From here, the underlying need can be met which will eliminate the motivation for the challenging behaviour. You can read the full blog post here.

At Art as Therapy we believe that a shift in understanding and interpreting challenging behaviour is the key starting point for reducing the power struggle between you and your child. It allows you to take a step back from the fight and see the bigger picture. When you take a step back, it provides some space where you can access your creativity and discover some alternative ways of responding.  The needs and circumstances will be unique for each family, but here are some basic tips for reducing the power struggle between you and your child:

1.     Reframe your child’s difficult behaviour in your own mind. Challenge yourself to see it in a different way. What underlying strength does their defiance point to? How will this strength serve them as an adult?

2.     Ask yourself what your child may be communicating through their defiant behaviour. Do they need help with an overwhelming task? Are they feeling listened to and understood? Are they expressing a need for attention? Are they looking for a way to experience some control?

3.     See if there is a way to acknowledge your child’s need, and to meet it in a more positively relational way. Empowerment is key here. Believe that your child is capable of responding differently under the right conditions. Focus on your child’s desire to connect with you, and ultimately to please you. No child likes getting in trouble. It’s just the best way they currently have for getting their needs met.

4.     Provide more freedom within structure. At Art as Therapy we have often found that this is the best way to deal with defiant behavior. The structure of the art room provides a great example. Any child who comes to Art as Therapy knows that the rules are few and simple: The session is 50 minutes long and takes place in the art room. The art therapist works to keep the child safe, the child helps to keep him or herself safe, and they work together to keep the art room safe. There is a check in and a check out at the beginning and the end of the session. And that’s it! These rules are non-negotiable, and provide structure which creates a sense of safety. Beyond this, there is freedom. Children can explore, redirect, and respond however they wish as long as these basic rules are followed. For some children, an open ended approach is overwhelming and they benefit from more structure. In this case, they may be offered a choice between red or yellow paint, rather than a choice of any art material in the room. But offering a simple, structured choice sends the message that children are capable, that their opinion matters, and that they have an impact on their world. It’s about finding the balance between freedom and structure, but empowering them to make their own choices and to be able to experience a sense of mastery and control at a developmentally appropriate level. This is different than giving in to whatever a child wants. The adult doesn’t stop being in control, because the adult is responsible for the underlying structure. This is what allows the child to feel empowered – because they know that the adult is in control and will step in if they make a choice they’re not happy with or if they need help.

5.     Reconnect and re-establish your positive bond at the end of the day. There will be days that do not go well. That’s part of being human. Deborah MacNamara gently reminds us, “While we cannot condone uncivilized behaviour from our kids, we can move to protect the relationship as well as use it to help influence and guide a child in a different direction.” At bedtime, chat about what worked or didn’t work today. If you are unsatisfied with the way you responded, don’t be afraid to apologize to your child. This shows them that they will make mistakes sometimes, and that it’s okay. Relationships can survive moments of disconnection, and can be even stronger through reconnection. If you are upset about the way that they behaved, explain that you are not pleased with their behavior, but that you love them no matter how they behave. Try to start each day fresh.

How do you deal with power struggles with your kids? Do you have tips or tricks to share with us? We would love to hear from you! Leave a comment below, or email us at . For more information about how art therapy can help to support children and families, call our Orangeville office at 1-519-307-9000. We also serve Milton and Mississauga.

Written by Rubi Garyfalakis, Art Therapist at Art as Therapy


 “Kids are people too…” Embracing Us. December 4, 2016.

MacNamara, Deborah. “Five Things You Might Not Know about Attachment Between Parents and Kids.”

Reist, Michael. “Difficult Child. Interesting Adult.” December 7, 2016.