Do you have a strong-willed child? One who won’t back down and turns most discussions into a debate they’re determined to win? Lucky you…here’s why:
“Mom, can we watch a movie tonight?” my daughter asks.
“No, not tonight, honey.” I say, taking lettuce and carrots out of the fridge to make a salad for dinner.
A simple answer to a simple question. Or so it seems.
But inside my muscles begin to tense as I anticipate what will almost inevitably come next.
“But why not?” she persists.
“Because we haven’t been together as a family for three weeks and it would be nice to spend time together.”
“But watching a movie is spending time together!” she insists.
“Not really – I was thinking we could play a game or go on a walk. Besides, you know we only watch one movie a week.”
With that, her eyes begin to narrow and fists clench as she starts to stare me down. I know that face well. It’s the face of a determined girl who wouldn’t be backing down anytime soon. A girl who expects to get her way no matter what it takes or how long.
And so it continues – four more pleas to watch a movie followed by four more explanations. By the fifth time, I’m done and just stop answering. Nothing I say will be good enough.
“Why won’t you answer me, Mom?!!”
Sigh. “How much longer until bedtime?” I wonder as my mind tries to quickly think of a way out of this one.
There’s no doubt about it…strong-willed children are a handful.
Try as you might, convincing a strong-willed child to let go of his opinions and beliefs is downright impossible at times.
No matter what you say, no matter what you do, and often no matter what you threaten – it’s no use. They’re not going to back down.
Dealing with a strong-willed child is exhausting. And trying to figure out how to make your relationship work feels like trying to solve a Chinese puzzle.
But not to worry – there’s hope as well as good news for parents of strong-willed children.
First, the good news…
That little girl who stubbornly insists she needs to keep playing with Legos even though it’s bedtime?
Sure her strong will is causing you to pull your hair out in the moment, but you’ll be grateful for her resilience when she’s older.
Strong-willed kids – if their confidence and determination aren’t squashed when young – grow up to:
- Stand-up to peers
- Think for themselves
- Be self-motivated
- Be inner-directed
And really – what parent doesn’t want that for their kids?
The trick is maintaining that strong-will while still providing children with the boundaries and direction they need.
As strong-willed kids push and persist – it’s tempting to simply put our foot down and demand they obey.
But getting kids to obey because we “told them so” is only teaching them to do what they’re told out of fear – and doesn’t cultivate a sense of understanding right from wrong.
So the next time your son – once again – won’t leave the park after you’ve told him three times you need to leave, keep in mind that the strong-will he’s practicing will help him in the long run.
There is a way to gently parent a strong-willed child without them getting their way.
There’s an art to parenting strong-willed children and once you know and understand how they think and what drives them, it’s easier to communicate without pulling your hair out (most of the time).
Set ground rules before chaos ensues
Appointing family rules is imperative in a house with a strong-willed child. These kids like the structure rules provide and need to know that what applies to them applies to everyone (i.e. they aren’t being singled out).
It also helps to make these rules as a family – discuss what everyone agrees are important guidelines for the entire family to follow. This gets early buy-in from kids and helps them feel a sense of control over their lives.
For example, before the first day of school, you could ask: “Why don’t we talk about everything that needs to get done before leaving for school tomorrow.” Since you talked about it ahead of time, there’s less possibility your child will shout: “But you never told me I had to pick up my room before school!”
But rules are only as good as they are followed. A strong-willed child will try to bend the rules whenever possible so be careful – one exception could invite the request for more exceptions down the road.
Let them know you’re listening
When it comes to power struggles, above all else, strong-willed children often just want to be heard. They want the opposing team (usually you) to know that their opinions matter.
Sometimes arguments can be easily resolved by just acknowledging what the strong-willed child is feeling. A simple: “You’re really angry.” can diffuse a situation that otherwise would spiral out of control.
At this point, it doesn’t matter if their opinion is correct or even if they’re behaving in a way that is appropriate (you can address that later). What matters most is that your child gets the message that you respect and empathize with their feelings.
Related: How to talk so kids will listen
Whenever possible, provide strong-willed kids with choices
What strong-willed children hate more than anything is to feel they don’t have control over their own destiny.
Which is ultimately good – it means as a teen and adult they’ll be less likely to let others sway them into being someone they’re not.
In order to preserve this solid sense of themselves, parents can lead their strong-willed kids by giving them choices.
Instead of telling your child: “You need to clean your room.” Ask them: “At what time do you plan on cleaning your room today?”
And then hold them to it. If they don’t comply, let them know that next time they won’t be given a choice but will need to do it at a set time.
Let go and embrace trial and error
Your strong-willed child probably won’t listen when you say she needs to wear a coat in 40-degree weather.
Unless they’re planning on spending the day outside or their safety is somehow compromised, let your child learn by doing.
Let them go without the coat as they dash from the car into school. Let them climb the short fence. Let them mix plaids and fluorescent colors in one outfit.
Learning by doing often provides deeper lessons than being told what to do.
Sometimes all that’s needed is a bit of cooling down
Strong-willed children don’t give up easily. Maybe you’ve tried everything and then some but your child is still fired up and wants his way.
Instead of giving in (because that’s the easy way out), simply calm down, limit discussion, restate whatever needs to be restated as little as possible and wait for the emotions to cool down.
It’s never easy to go this route – and certainly isn’t the quickest way to end a conflict – but worse would be caving into your child’s demands or getting into an all-out battle.
Ready to teach your child life skills? These cards can help! Each card in this eighty-one deck contains a skill your child can begin practicing with you or on their own. Click here or the image below to learn more.
Address behavior after the storm has calmed
Strong-willed kids aren’t open to discussion when geared up for battle – their single focus is on getting their way. Resist the urge in the heat of the moment to tell your child their snarky attitude and eye-rolling isn’t appropriate.
Instead, after everything has calmed down or perhaps later in the day – talk to your child about his behavior. Ask him: “Would you like it if I yelled at you or put my fingers in my ears when you’re talking? No? Then please don’t do that to me. It makes me not want to listen to you when you behave that way.”
…the smoke finally cleared
For what seemed like an eternity my daughter persisted: “I want to watch a movie tonight!”
We’d already gone through five rounds of her demanding her wants and me stating what was going to happen instead.
In the middle of making dinner, I put down my paring knife and took my daughter into the living room.
“You’re pretty upset,” I said, sitting down next to her and looking her in the eye.
“Yes – and you won’t listen to me!” she argued mainly because I wasn’t giving her the answer she wanted.
I sat there as she muttered a few more statements about watching a movie and then eventually started to cool down. When she seemed settled, I made a slightly silly face and noticed her cracking a smile.
We giggled together a bit more and after a few more minutes the discussion moved on to something else. Shortly thereafter, I was back in the kitchen making dinner.
Sitting around the dinner table later that evening and talking about our day, my daughter suddenly asked: “What game are we going to play tonight?”
I nearly spit out my food trying to contain my laughter.
As we gathered in the living room after dinner, she walked over to the shelf and pulled down the game Trouble.
“An appropriate choice for this evening.” I said with a smile.
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About Kerry Flatley
Hi! I’m Kerry, the mother of two girls and a certified parent educator. I believe it is possible for parents to have a supportive, loving, and warm relationship with their kids while raising them to be independent and ultimately self-sufficient. Over the years, I’ve read numerous books and articles that support this belief and I’ve put these ideas into practice with my own kids. Read more about me and Self-Sufficient Kids here.