Strong Willed Children
Written by Erin Hannah, LPCC
What exactly is considered a strong-willed child?
I know it sounds challenging and quite exhausting when you hear the words, “strong-willed child,” but the good news is that strong-willed children can become amazing teens and young adults! Strong-willed children are self-motivated, spirited, courageous, persistent, leaders, and go-getters who are unaffected by peer pressure. They often come off as stubborn or difficult because they aren’t easily swayed from what they think, but that is because they want to test limits and learn things for themselves. They can be difficult and push your buttons, but this is just their nature. Strong-willed children have big, intense, passionate feelings and tend to struggle when they need to switch gears. But…they are cooperative if they are allowed to choose. Strong-willed children want to be “in charge” of themselves and often experience power struggles because they really do not like being told what to do. Honestly, they can be a handful; but parents, you can avoid the power struggles and still allow them to learn for themselves.
You shouldn’t make them…(what?!)
It is important to resist “laying down the law” or trying to “break their will” to make them obedient because this will only make them explosive, which makes things worse for everyone. I know as parents that you think you need them to do something, so they don’t have a say. For example, you have to get them to go to bed because it’s way too late or you need them to eat breakfast now because they have to get on the bus for school in 5 minutes. While this is mostly true (you need them to do something now) it still should not be about obedience.
Making your child be obedient does not teach them how to think on their own or learn to make their own decisions. This could turn your child into and anxious, self-conscious, indecisive, or self-doubting adult. Making them be obedient (which makes them feel worthless) also makes them so angry that they lose their connection with you. You can teach your child how to be responsible, considerate, cooperative, and someone who chooses to do the right thing because they want to; without demanding obedience. You want your child to do what you say because they trust you. You want your child to respect and love you so much that they genuinely want to do what you say. Children behave because they want to please their parents…they love them. When your child trusts you, they know that you won’t always say yes, but you have their best interests at heart. “Discipline through the relationship, not through punishment.”
Helpful tips for parenting your strong-willed child and what you can say to them.
1. First and always, (if needed), take a deep breath and then resist the urge to just yell at your child, correct them, or make them do something else right now. Model kindness and teach them the important skills of compromise and negotiation. Teach them not to yell at others by refusing to participate in any argument they throw your way. Staying calm will help you keep a healthy relationship with your child, for example:
- Honey, I don’t want to argue with you because it feels angry and sad and I don’t want to feel that way. Let’s work on getting our body calm, tell me when you are ready, and then let’s talk about it.
Let your child talk first without interruption, and then say what you need to, they will hear you better that way. Kids won’t learn when they are in the middle of a fight, there is too much adrenaline pumping. If your child is upset, help them express their upset feelings in a healthy way so the feelings go away. Then your child will actually listen to you. Your child will not always do what you say, but will eventually do what you do. The more you fight with your child and punish them, you take away their desire to please you.
2. Set healthy limits and boundaries but always try to give your child a couple of different choices (that you are okay with) that they can pick from. You are ultimately in control; however, this allows your child to feel like they have control over themselves. If they feel like they have a choice they are more likely to be cooperative. For example:
- Okay…we have to get in the car, so do you want to wear your rain boots or your snow boots?
- We have to go to the store now, do you want to walk out the door with me now or in 5 minutes? Okay, in 5 minutes with no fuss…deal. It might be hard to stop playing in 5 minutes so how can I help you with that?
3. Try to let your child take charge of as many of their own activities as possible. Don’t keep nagging, instead say something like:
- What do you need to do this morning? If they are drawing a blank then help to remind them. We need to eat, brush hair, brush teeth, get dressed, shoes on, get your backpack and go potty…hmm…what do you have left to do?
Let them have some control over the order in which they do activities. Kids will be less oppositional if they feel more independent and in charge of themselves, plus they are learning responsibility. Don’t forget to hand out praises for all of their successes to fuel that desire to do what you need them to do.
4. Use consistent routines and rules to avoid power struggles. This way you are not the bad guy and it doesn’t feel like you are bossing them around or nagging them. Set reasonable expectations for your child and enforce them. Children thrive on routines and like to know what to expect:
- Lights out at 8pm every night, so if you hurry you will have time for two books instead of 1.
- I’m sorry but we have to finish homework before screen time. If you hurry up you will have time to watch 2 shows.
5. Give your child authority over their own body, but plan ahead. For example, your strong-willed child does not want to put their coat on before you walk out to the car in the garage. It is warm in your house and your child is sure they don’t need a coat because that’s what their body is telling them. They just can’t plan ahead or imagine they will need a coat when they leave the car to walk into the store…so naturally they resist you. They will likely be begging for their coat when you hit the cold air.
- Okay, you don’t want to put your coat on right now, but we will bring it with us just in case you get cold. It is cold outside, so I am going to wear my coat. After you get your seatbelt on, you can use your coat like a blanket until we get to the store and then you can put it on if you are cold.
This way you are not hurting their developing self-confidence and you are allowing new information to change their mind, the way it should.
6. Realizing that respect goes both ways, make sure your child feels understood. Show them empathy and look for win/win solutions. Strong-willed children won’t feel the need to fight for what they want if they feel respected. This is not permissive parenting, it is setting limits that work for everyone; while still allowing your child to be playful.
- I know you really want to wear your costume to church and you don’t want to take it off. When we go to church, we have to dress up to show our respect. I know you will miss wearing your costume, so how about we bring it with us, and you can change back into it for the ride home?
7. Just listen to your child. You know best because you are the adult, but your child wants to protect something that is important to them. If you listen calmly and reflect their words, then you will come to understand what is making your child oppose you. Being non-judgmental, having a calm pleasant tone, and giving your child one-on-one attention at their level will give you more information about what is going on for your child and allow you to help them problem solve.
- I hear that you don’t want to take a bath. How come you don’t want to take a bath?
8. See your child’s point of view. Maybe your child is angry because he doesn’t have his favorite shirt and is throwing a fit. It seems silly and that your child is being stubborn, but to your child this is justified. Has it been a week since you did the laundry? Has it felt like a long time to your child since he saw his favorite shirt? Did you say you’d wash it and forget? How do you handle this?
- Apologize to your child that his favorite shirt has not been through the laundry yet. Reassure him that you will clean it and he can wear it again. Can you put it in the laundry quickly? Can you teach your child how to wash his own shirt, so he feels empowered? You have preferred clothes that you like to wear each week, you just have control over the laundry.
Just consider how your child feels and how you would want to be treated if you were upset about something that was valid to you.
9. Don’t push your child into opposing you. Forcing always creates pushback, which is true for people of all ages. You can tell that it has become a power struggle when you feel like you have to “win” even if it is just to prove a point now. Try to identify when it is happening; stop, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that winning this battle could have a negative effect on your relationship with your child. You can always take a 5 minute break from engaging with your child and then come back to finish. When in doubt, it’s okay to say, “okay, you decide this for yourself.” If this isn’t appropriate, then find something in the situation that your child can decide for themselves, meeting your child’s need for autonomy. Your child has to do what you want since you are the adult, but it should not break your child’s will. Your child is still allowed to have their own opinions and feelings. They don’t have to share the same beliefs as you since they are their own unique person.
10. Strong-willed children have to see for themselves to learn. If there is no danger or serious risk of harm, let your child learn through their own experience instead of trying to control it. You can still expect your strong-willed child to test your limits and your patience!
- Be careful, you might fall down doing that! (they do it again). Honey, did you hear me when I said be careful? (they do it yet again) Okay, I will be over here if you fall down and need me, just come and let me know.
For more on the strong-willed child, check out https://www.ahaparenting.com/.
Erin Hannah, LPCC, has been a Counselor at Northeast Cincinnati Pediatrics since 2018 and currently sees patients in our Blue Ash office on Wednesdays, and the Lebanon office on Tuesdays and Thursdays.