The Competent Parent: Power struggle with a 4-year-old


Headshot2011Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with local expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Power Struggle with a 4-Year-Old


Dear Dr. Debbie,

I’ve been using a birthday party my 4-year-old son is invited to this weekend as my leverage to get him to cooperate with instructions this week. Not sure what I’ll do after Saturday. His attitude is REALLY getting to me.

Admitting a Power Struggle

Dear Struggler,

Sounds like a lot of stressful moments strung together are creating opposing forces between parent and child. Too bad you’re holding a reward/threat as a consequence for his behavior. This only adds to the tension between you, and as you predict, loses its potency once the party is past.

Each situation in which you need him to “cooperate” has its own variables. Try to see the conflict from his point of view, since as a 4-year-old he is much less able to see it from yours. For example, if he disagrees that he needs a sweatshirt, save your breath. Just take it with you in case his body tells him that he is cold once you’re out. If he won’t put away his toys to go to bed, make it a smaller job – one he can visualize success with – then add the next job and the next. Maybe by tomorrow you will limit the amount of toys he has access to, or will start the cleanup process before he gets too tired to do the job.

Cooperation, research suggests, is a two-way street – you and he meeting happily in the middle. If that’s what you’re going for. The more you are flexible to meet his needs, the more he will acquiesce when you really need him to meet yours. A power struggle, as you describe, is two opposing forces doing their darndest to pull the other in their own direction – often with intimidation and victimization in the process. Family relationships should be nicer than that.

Any threat or bribe should relate to the situation and be immediate. The consequence is not “because you didn’t listen to me” but because now that he’s cold, he wants his sweatshirt. Good thing you were wiser than he, and brought the sweatshirt with you. No need to rub that in, just move on and forget about it.


Dr. Debbie

Dr. Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at [email protected]