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Family Power Struggles: Unintended Consequences

“I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig.
You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”

—quote by playwright and author George Bernard Shaw

As parents we invest endless effort in our children and teenagers.  We hope they’ll adopt our values and eventually transition into adulthood successfully. We discipline and encourage them, spend time with them, set limits, and yes, even negotiate power struggles. And while there are definitely situations where power struggles are necessary (usually related to safety issues), the overuse and misuse of power struggles can provide the breeding ground for oppositional behavior in children and teens.

Power struggles are a competition for control. Between parents and teens power struggles can occur over nearly anything in the course of a day: “Finish your homework. Stop yelling! You’re banned from seeing those kids at school. Stop nagging me! Hand over your phone. Apologize to your sister. Get in the car. Don’t walk away from me! Go to sleep.” Many teens will comply with such demands, but when a teen feels provoked or mistreated, each of these demands can become nearly impossible to enforce.

The power struggle often begins with a simple request, and can then escalate in dramatic fashion. Here’s an example of how it can play out:

Teen’s father says, “You’re not going out tonight after what you did… hand over the car keys.”

Teenage boy refuses, “I bought the car, you can’t take my keys.”

Father asserts his authority, “While you’re living in my house, I can take whatever I want because I’m the parent… now hand over the keys!”

Teen matches dad’s intensity, “I’m not giving you my keys… you’re always trying to control me!”

Argument moves to threats, “You better give me those car keys or else!”

Teen deflects the threat, “Or else what Dad? What are you gonna do? I’m going out tonight, and you can’t stop me!”

Continuing the power struggle at this point leaves the parent with only two choices: (1) a ‘forced win’ or (2) resignation. Try to wrestle the keys from his hands? Threaten to sell the car? Call the police? Or give-up, saying something like, “I would hate to find out what my dad would have done if I acted the way you’re acting!”

As you can imagine, resignation has disastrous effects on a parent’s authority. With so much on the line during a power struggle, failure to enforce limits epitomizes the expression “big bark, but no bite.” Once a pattern of resignation sets in, the teen will know that if he or she yells enough, threatens enough, bullies enough, then he or she will take control. The teen now has ‘carte blanche’ to live as he or she pleases, which can result in relational damage, academic problems, greater exposure to drug use, threats and bullying in the home, and legal trouble.

Another form of parental resignation is not enforcing consequences. Failure to reinforce consequences are often due to the parent’s guilt for their own actions during the power struggle (yelling, threatening, doling out catastrophic consequences, etc.). The teen receives his or her ‘Get out of jail free’ card once the parent’s anger subsides and guilt sets in. Some teens are even bold enough to shame their mom or dad for backing off consequences—saying something like, “What does it matter? You’ll let me do it anyway.” And they’re usually right.

‘Forcing a win’ can be just as disastrous as resignation. Forcing the teen per my illustration above, can result in the teen’s vilification of the parent with statements such as, “What’s wrong with you, you psycho!” or “Just wait until the police get here and I tell them what you did!” or “You’ve never cared about me!”

More importantly the ‘forced win’ provides the teen with his or her Casus belli—provocation to justify a war against the parent. A ‘justification for war’ will allow even a typically compassionate teen to view his or her defiance as ‘a stand against tyranny.’ If time passes, and the teen starts to feel guilty about his or her behavior toward the parent, all the teen needs to do is provoke the parent again. The parent’s anger reaction provides all the evidence a teen needs in order to absolve any personal guilt and cement the Casus belli. In my experience, working with families in conflict, a parent’s anger is often more convincing to a teen of the parent’s ‘villainy’ than any limits the parent may set, regardless of how strict.

To be clear, I am not saying that parents are villains if they have trouble controlling their anger or are easily goaded into a power struggle. The villainy is all in the teen’s interpretation. A parent’s anger reaction and ‘forced wins’ are the teen’s confirmation of his or her bias against the parent. Disconfirming evidence of the parent’s villainy is filtered out, while a mental score is kept of the parent’s mistakes. This bias against the parent is often reinforced by teenage developmental themes including a natural inclination to feel invulnerable along with an acute sense for injustice.

In extreme cases, where the conflict has more profoundly damaged the teen’s sense of self, the teen can begin to identify with his or her Casus belli, and view oneself as a heroic figure facing a parent’s tyranny. The resistance itself gives the teen a sense of purpose. I refer to this identification with resistance as “The Cool Hand Luke Effect.”

In the popular 1967 movie “Cool Hand Luke” the hero and also chain gang prisoner, Luke, is willing to resist the oppression of the prison guards at all costs. Near the end of the movie, an inmate describes Luke’s unflappable defiance even in the face of certain death.

“He was smiling…That’s right. You know, that, that Luke smile of his. He had it on his face right to the very end. Hell, if they didn’t know it ‘fore, they could tell right then that they weren’t a gonna beat him. That old Luke smile. Oh, Luke. He was some boy. Cool Hand Luke. Hell, he’s a natural-born world-shaker.”

When teens identify with this kind of heroic resistance, consequences can be disastrous. The teen may try to ‘make a statement’ to the parents through self-injury, drug use, dropping out of school…even running away. He or she may eliminate any leverage the parents have by destroying his or her phone and other electronics—or even crashing the car. The teen may even consider suicide or assault… resistance at all costs!

Fortunately, most parents and teens embroiled in conflict never reach such an extreme. But regardless of the intensity of the conflict, parents’ willingness to engage power struggles will train children and teens on the art of resistance. Before you enter into conflicts with your teen, ask yourself: “Am I walking into a no-win power struggle? Am I giving my teen an excuse to vilify me? Can I find the leverage I need to set limits without using force?

Expect to find many practical solutions to the family power struggle in a future article!


Carroll, Gordon (Producer), &   Rosenberg, Stuart (Director). (November 1, 1967). Cool Hand Luke [Motion picture]. U.S.A.: Jalem Productions.

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Brendan Bell, MA, LCPC

Brendan Bell is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in Illinois. He has worked in private practice for the last 20 years, with offices in both Deer Park and in Wheaton. His expertise involves working with middle schoolers, adolescents, and their families, with extensive experience addressing behavior disorders. Brendan also works with adults and particularly enjoys counseling artists.

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