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Effective Parenting Tools to Enhance Cooperation

Finding an end to power struggles and the conflict cycle in your foster home.

mother and father talking to son on a bench in the park.

The parenting of teens could quite possibly be the hardest thing anyone will ever do, ever. If parenting “normal teens” is a difficult job, one could only imagine parenting teens in foster care who may be dealing with a traumatic past, mental health diagnoses and moving into a stranger’s home as an insurmountable task. That being said, people, just like you, are doing it everyday throughout the State of Utah, and Quality Youth Services foster parents are doing an excellent job.

In this article, we will share a few of the effective parenting tools our foster parents use to enhance cooperation in their home with their foster teens. After reading this article, foster parents will be able to recognize the role they play in power struggles; they will be able to teach the foster youth in their homes about emotional awareness and coping techniques; and they will learn how to prevent, escape and repair power struggles in the future.

What is a Power Struggle?

Children and adults both have a need for control—you’ve seen it when your toddler demanded the red cup instead of the green one you offered, or when your teenager didn’t listen to your advice about wearing protective gear while skateboarding. Power struggles occur when both parent and child are determined to have their way—and neither has any intention of backing down. Power struggles are a natural and normal part of a child's development as they explore their autonomy and independence. An example is you ask your foster youth to take out the trash and they respond by refusing or being openly defiant. Then, you and the youth engage in a back-and-forth struggle to get the child to comply with your request.

How to Spot a Power Struggle?

The first step in coping with power struggles is simply recognizing you’re in one. But how will you know? If you catch yourself thinking, “We’ll see who’s boss!” or “You can’t get away with this!” in response to your child’s behavior, there’s a good chance you’re caught in a power struggle. By recognizing your child’s misguided attempts to gain power, you’ll be in a better position to respond in a way that strengthens their sense of autonomy and control.

Foster kids are still just kids and they will use a variety of tactics to try to get their way, such as engaging in power struggles and button pushing, but our jobs as foster parents is to recognize what is happening, keep our cool, and get to a teachable moment. There are certain, seemingly easy tools that parents can use to help combat power struggles and promote cooperation in the home.

Parenting Skill: Pre-teaching

Pre-teaching is used to help prevent problems before they occur, especially in situations where you know that a problem is likely to arise. This method involves talking about the potential problem with your child before you enter into the situation that usually causes it to occur.

Pre-teaching can be thought of as “catching the problem while it’s small” or even before it has a chance to happen. Pre-teaching allows the parent to be proactive by planning ahead and setting clear expectations for behavior and consequences for misbehavior with their child so that they are more likely to receive their child’s cooperation.


Kim asks her Therapeutic Foster mother if they can go to the mall. In past outings to the mall, Kim frequently “bugs” her treatment mom to buy lots of stuff. When her Therapeutic Foster mom says no, Kim becomes very upset and uncooperative.

Using Pre-Teaching:

Kim’s Therapeutic Foster mother chose to sit down with her and talk about what was expected from Kim during their outing to the mall. Kim’s Therapeutic Foster mother was specific and clear about her expectations and also was very clear about the consequences that would occur for non-compliance. Kim would be given one warning about her behavior at the mall. If the uncooperative behavior continued past this warning, both Kim and her Therapeutic Foster mother would immediately leave the mall and go home.

Parenting Skill: I-Statements

An “I” statement is simply someone’s expression of a feeling, thought or emotion about a specific experience or interaction using the statement that often begins with “I feel”, “I am”, etc. Using an “I” statement can help reduce blaming, accusations, and defensiveness when addressing your foster youth. .

An “I” statement can help you communicate your concerns, feelings, and needs without blaming others or sounding threatening. It helps you get your point across without causing the listener, i.e. your foster teen, to shut down. In contrast, statements that begin with “you” tend to evoke defensiveness and an escalation of emotions rather than a desire to compromise and problem solve.

“I” Messages have three basic parts:

1. The problem behavior is defined clearly.

2. Your feelings about the behavior are stated.

3. The effects or consequences of the behavior are made known.

An example pattern for an “I” statement:

I feel ______when ______, and I need ______ so ______.


I feel distracted when there is a lot of noise, and I need quiet so that we will not be late.

An important part of “I” messages is being able to express our own thoughts and emotional experiences with the issue at hand. In the heat of the moment, it may not be easy to logically identify what we think and feel, and we may need to take some time away from our youth and the situation to calm down and think rationally about our emotional responses. Taking the time to reflect and accurately identify our thoughts and feelings helps us more accurately express them to others, and in turn, we can better discuss issues and manage conflicts in our households. Frequently youth in care have limited understanding about emotions and how they relate to behavior. Teaching youth to identify emotions can help them learn how to cope and have a positive impact on their behaviors.

Quick Tips to Prevent a Power Struggle:

■ Say and do nothing (i.e. ignore)

■ Remove your attention, walk away

■ Take 5 Minute Break: Regain your composure. Consequences can happen later. Address the situation once you’ve taken the time to calm down and think.

■ Use effective instructions

■ Follow through on natural or logical consequences

■ Use Pre-teaching skill:

▪ Notice behavior problems when they are small or predict a likely problem

▪ Set a clear expectation

▪ Set clear consequence for non-compliance

■ Use I-statements skill

■ Use teachable moments: Avoid talking with youth about a particular problem when they are agitated or when you are in an argument. Instead, discuss it when they (and you) are calm, either before an argument starts or after everyone has calmed down.

Button Pushing

Youth use many “button pushing” methods resulting in parents responding in a negative manner.

Top 10 Adolescent Button Pushing Tactics

■ “You never let me do anything!”

■ “You don’t love me.”

■ “I hate you.” Or “You’re a liar/ jerk/ bad parent.”

■ “You’re not my real mother/ father. I don’t have to listen to you.”

■ A disgusted look, improper gesture, or whiny voice

■ Finding a parent’s most vulnerable area and preying on it (keeping a room messy

because of mom’s emphasis on cleanliness).

■ “I’m gonna kill/ hurt you/ myself/others.”

■ “I am gonna lie, lie, lie.”

■ “I hate school!”

Similarly, adults sometimes say things that can push youth’s buttons.

Common Parental Button Pushing Tactics

■ Preaching or using clichés (“When I was your age…”)

■ Talking in chapters (“I’ve told you for weeks and weeks to take out the garbage! How many times do we have to go through this?”)

■ Labeling (“You’re always…”)

■ Futurizing (“You’ll never get a date/ job with that attitude!”)

■ Questioning a teenager’s restlessness and discontent (“What’s gotten into you?”)

■ Not tolerating any experimental behavior (learn to tolerate certain safe behaviors like changes in clothing and hairstyle)

■ Collecting criticisms (rehashing past behavior problems, giving insults).

Being aware of your buttons and taking action to avoid pushing youth’s buttons can prevent

power struggles and contribute to more positive relationships. If you feel your buttons being pushed or you are compelled to start pushing your foster youth’s buttons, your 1st step should be to step away and take a 5 minute break to cool off and regain your calm. Being able to control your emotions is a skill you can mirror for the youth in your home, and being abe to come back with a level head and continue a difficult conversation is an invaluable lesson for foster teens.

The Conflict Cycle

Unfortunately, too often parents take on a child's feelings and even mirror the child's behaviors. They may raise their voices, threaten punishment, or say hurtful things. This negative adult reaction, in turn, becomes the next stressful event for the child and creates a new turn of a Conflict Cycle.

As parents and caregivers, if we are not thoughtful, purposeful and aware, we will react to a child’s poor behavior as if it is occurring in isolation—forgetting that there are a whole set of perceptions, thoughts, and feelings that drive it. We may resort to punishment or hurtful, impulsive responses that damage our relationship with our child.

Keep in mind: The adult’s response is the only element of the Conflict Cycle that parents have any control over. If our ultimate goal is to teach young people that they have choices when it comes to their behavior, we must begin by role modeling positive choices of our own, particularly in terms of how we respond to our kids’ unwanted behaviors.

Getting Out of a Power Struggle

To get out of a power struggle, do not try to recall all the parenting advice you’ve ever been told, instead, do this:

■ Walk away

■ Exit and wait: Remove your attention. Walk away. Come back when everyone is calm and you can teach.

■ Take 5: Regain your composure. Consequences can happen later. Address the situation once you’ve taken the time to calm down and think.

■ Stop yourself from…

▪ … lecturing. Be short and to the point.

▪ … having your buttons pushed/getting upset

▪ … pushing their buttons.

▪ … arguing.

Sometimes what may sound easy, is actually hard to do in real life situations, and getting out of a power struggle will take practice. Don’t worry, it will get better.

Repair and Re-Energize

This can sometimes be the most important step in the process, because we as parents inevitably will mess up and lose our cool. This step allows for the parent-child relationship to be “repaired” after a power struggle and for the foster parent to “re-engerize” themselves in order to be in a better place the next time a power struggles comes knocking.

After a power struggle, try using these tips with your teen:

■ Provide a logical consequence or allow a natural one

■ Use the post-struggle teachable moment

■ Apologize and plan for next time. It’s okay to mess up. Apologize for letting your buttons get pushed or pushing their buttons. Use an “I Statement” to describe how you felt. Make a plan for how to respond next time and share it with your Therapeutic Foster Child.

■ Re-charge yourself. Do whatever calms you. Take a walk. Work in the garage. Play with your dog.

■ Let it go. Once you repair and re-energize the situation is resolved. Fully forgive yourself and the child. Don’t bring the situation up in future arguments.

■ Prevent future power struggles for repeated behaviors using pre-teaching and/or an effective behavior intervention

If the power struggle was caused by a repetitive behavior, plan to pre-teach for the future, talk with your case manager, and/or consider a behavior contract which wel will talk more about in a future article.


Every facet of Quality Youth Services Treatment Foster Care model is designed to make Foster Parents feel confident in their ability to provide a safe, secure and nurturing environment for all family members including the foster youth.

Quality Youth Services provides short term foster care through our dedicated foster parents in Cache, Box Elder, Weber, Davis, Salt Lake and Utah counties. If you or someone you know is interested in becoming a foster parent, please complete the foster parent application on our website at this link,, and our Program Director will call to schedule an interview within two days.

Or if you would like more information before applying, check out our website page dedicated to Foster Parents at this link,

You may also request more information or get answers to specific questions prior to applying at this link

Quality Youth Services Foster Parents play a vital role in the mental health, well-being and future success of the vulnerable youth they serve in their homes. Please join us in being catalysts of positive change in our community by deciding to foster today!

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