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Choose Your Battles

Anatomy of a power struggle

At its most basic, a power struggle is a battle for control, with parent and child duking it out over which one gets to decide what the child eats or wears, how he spends time or what he plays with, where he goes and when. The key ingredient, though, is that the actual object of the dispute is often not its crux. Usually, either the child is pushing for control beyond his years or capabilities, or the parent's holding on tight to control something that would be better ceded to the child.

There are other earmarks that distinguish a power struggle from a run-of-the-mill discipline problem, says Jan Faull, a Seattle-based parenting educator and author of Unplugging Power Struggles: Resolving Emotional Battles With Your Kids Ages 2 to 10.

Typically, emotions run much higher than the issue  -- whether eating peas or wearing a tutu to preschool  -- would seem to merit. Your child objects to a simple request, and you ("It's the principal of the thing!") decide that you're just not going to put up with this insubordination. Unfortunately, if the battles become a pattern and occur again and again without being resolved, they can come to characterize, and undermine, your relationship.

Like the parents in the restaurant, I tried everything I could think of  -- bribing, begging, insisting, threatening, ignoring  -- to get my daughter to do what I wanted, all to no avail. Was I a bad mother, or was she a difficult kid? And were we simply destined to drive each other crazy?