How to Parent (and Survive!) Your Strong-Willed Child
Parenting a strong-willed child can test even the most patient adult. Yet these children have characteristics that can serve them well as adults. Here’s how to keep that strong-will alive while also maintaining a healthy relationship.
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I have a strong-willed child.
She will ask for a snack 15 times after being told no. It’s likely she will also ask her father if she thinks he may not have heard my answer.
Six months into preschool and she still barely speaks to her preschool teachers. This isn’t because she can’t talk; she just simply decided that she was going to politely refuse to.
She also refused to speak to her swim teacher, which translated into a complete failure of lessons. Yet she also insisted that we stand in our neighbor’s pool to help her until she could stay afloat while kicking the length of the pool.
If she doesn’t want to wear those shoes, there’s nothing you can offer that will convince her otherwise.
She’s bossy and surprisingly sarcastic. She has a memory like an elephant and pulls on those memories to make her point when she feels it’s necessary.
She’s persistent and stubborn when she makes up her mind about something. She struggles to accept “no” when she feels strongly that the answer should be yes. She has an uncanny sense of what she likes and dislikes – forget trying to convince her otherwise. I’ve found myself in more power struggles with a 4-year old than what I’d like to admit.
I don’t remember being a strong-willed child myself, yet I know that many of the traits I see in her I recognize in myself. I pride myself in my persistence and can admit that I’m also quite stubborn (although my husband would say it’s more like extremely stubborn).
The advantages (yes, there are some!) of strong-willed children
Here’s the thing: while raising a strong-willed child now can be a challenge and a true test of patience, these kids also have amazing innate characteristics that can be advantageous as an adolescent and adult.
Strong-willed children tend to be:
Goal-Oriented: The determination and persistence of these children serves them well in sticking with the process until reaching their objective. If they’re truly invested in a goal, they’ll often show a fierceness in persistence that is something to be envied!
Attentive to Detail: My daughter does not miss a thing. She’s always listening, even when she doesn’t appear to be. Her attention to instructions and details is sometimes shocking; she often seems to be a much better listener than my husband!
Strong-willed children tend to pay closer attention to instructions than their less persistent peers. This can serve them well in a number of ways as they get older; including their listening skills once they’re in school.
Strong Leaders & Big Achievers: Persistent children tend to be big achievers which can translate into high-income earners as adults. They‘re often so confident in their own opinion, likes, and dislikes that they’re not as influenced by peer pressure. These qualities are all ones that great leaders possess.
Examine your own temperament for clues
Just like so many aspects of parenting, our own temperament and behavior as parents influences that of our child. Building a healthy relationship with your spirited child is a two-way street and necessary if we want to survive the challenges they’ll present as they find their way through this world.
In her book, Raising Your Spirited Child, Dr. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka suggests that examining our own temperament is the starting point to building a more effective relationship with our spirited child. This understanding allows us to identify with our child, as we likely share many of the same personality qualities.
In addition to this self-examination, these suggestions may be helpful in developing a strong, positive relationship with your spirited child:
Avoid power struggles by giving choices
In my profession as a behavior specialist, I am well aware of how power struggles work with strong-willed children. Yet sometimes I still don’t come to my senses until already in the middle of a stand-off with my four-year-old.
Think about this for a second – children are always being told what to do by an adult. Almost every part of their little lives is being dictated by the adults in their lives. The strong-willed children are likely to be more resistant to being bossed around and more insistent on gaining control of their lives. Their persistence can translate into power struggles when the normal rush of life makes us feel like we don’t have time to allow them to make their own decisions.
To avoid power struggles, it’s important that we offer choices to our strong-willed children. While the choices we offer may still be within our power, giving options allows children to feel they have some control. It’s human nature to crave control. Our little humans are no different!
While we want to give children a sense of control over their own lives, there are also certain things that simply have to be followed – for safety purposes or because this is the real world and we don’t always have the time to wait for a child to get dressed.
Power struggles about rules that have to hold strong can be helped by establishing basic house rules and sticking to them. It can be helpful to write rules out for older children or use picture visuals for younger children. Talk to your child about the rules, why they exist, and about the consequences of not following them.
Give the “OK” to have an opinion that may be different from yours
As much as strong-willed children want to do things their own way, they also crave our respect and approval. While our job is to encourage characteristics that will make our little people decent adults, there are a million different ways to see the world and “do” the world that still results in our children becoming good adults.
It may be in our nature to smile when we see our children doing something the same way they’ve seen us do it. However, our strong-willed children often make up their own minds about their likes and dislikes. Support those differences and encourage them, even if they vary from your own!
Think about your own adult relationships and how important the ability to listen is in fostering relationships. Our children are no exception; they want to know they’re being heard. Repeat what your child is saying to ensure you have it right and to give them the chance to correct you. Repeating what they say also gives you the chance to pause and reflect on the topic from your child’s point of view.
Offering respect and empathy to your child not only builds a healthy relationship it also teaches your child to bestow the same respect to others. A future world of more tolerance and acceptance relies on our children learning to respect and listen to those around them.
Discipline through the relationship instead of through punishment
While they may be frustrating at times, trying to “break” a strong-willed child is not only unlikely to work, but also holds risks of harm. The wonderful, natural traits that can lead to a responsible, independent, and strong adult, have the potential to turn out differently if we constantly try to force them to comply through punishment.
Children want our attention. This is especially true for the strong-willed child, who is looking for a warm, trusting relationship. Our children are more invested in working with us to find a solution to a problem when they believe we’ll work with them, than if they’re worried about punishment.
Using proactive means of calling attention and giving praise to the good things we see our children do is a great way to encourage good choices. Reinforcement boards or visuals may also help but keep in mind that most children are likely most encouraged by opportunities to spend time with their parent.
It’s often instinctual to try to squash a child’s emotions by saying, “You’re fine,” or “Stop crying.” Changing up what you say when your child is upset or processing an emotion can give them the chance to cope and develop self-calming techniques.
Some helpful phrases include:
- “This is frustrating for you”
- “It’s disappointing when…”
- “You don’t want to…”
- “You can decide this for yourself”
A strong-willed child has beautiful characteristics that can serve them well in adulthood. Many of the world’s strong leaders were likely children who tested their parents’ patience on a regular basis.
It’s so incredible that we, as parents, have the privilege to be a part of that development. And to build the kind of relationship with our child that can later lend itself to a friendship.
A behavior specialist by profession, Leah finds passion in assisting parents with exploring creative ways to support children with behavioral, cognitive, physical, and medical challenges. Leah enjoys finding the humor in parenting and sharing it on her blog Out of The Nutshell, as a way to encourage mothers to build their support village. She has been published on Scary Mommy, Huffington Post, A Fine Parent, and is a content contributor for Moms Beyond. Leah lives in the Baltimore, MD area with her husband and three children.
You may also enjoy:
How to End Battles With Your Strong-Willed Child
Why Every Kid Should Talk Back to Their Parents
Rewarding Kids for Good Behavior: What Works and What Backfires
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