5 Tips for Parenting the Strong-Willed Child
Bossy. Controlling. Inflexible. Argumentative. Stubborn.
You may have heard these words thrown around a time or two (okay, maybe a few hundred times) to describe your child. Because from the moment she entered this world, she’s had a spark that simply would not die down. In her eyes, authority is meant to be challenged, and rules are made to be broken.
You love her tenacious little spirit. Still, you’re not afraid to admit, parenting that spirit is genuinely exhausting.
Because when you go left, she sways right. When you say sit, she stands. Every decision you make, there she is, ready to challenge it.
There’s no doubt about it. You have a strong-willed child. . .
If that phrase sounds nothing short of horrifying, don’t worry, you’re not alone! Many parents of boys and girls, toddlers and teens fear raising strong-willed children because of the negative stigma that seems to be attached.
After all, aren’t we supposed to raise kids that aren’t bossy, controlling, and stubborn? Isn’t that the opposite of well-behaved?
Actually, it’s not.
Countless parents have taken our FREE WEBINAR, read our blogs, and become students of our 7-Step Parenting Success System® online training program, all looking to answer the same question.
How do I raise a well-behaved child?
Guess what? The parenting techniques are no different for those raising strong-willed children!
Having a strong-willed child does not automatically mean you have an ill-behaved child. But you may have to adjust your parenting to accommodate their unshakeable spirit.
I’d like to give you five tips to help you positively parent your strong-willed child. But first, let’s go over some benefits of having a child with an iron will.
It may not feel great at the moment, but I promise, your strong-willed child is a force to be reckoned with. And that is certainly not a bad thing.
Benefits of Having a Strong-Willed Child
Believe it or not, your child’s unyielding temperament may be an indicator of future success.
A recently completed 40-year longitudinal study found that children who were labeled as “rule-breakers” or “defiant” were more likely to become over-achieving and financially successful adults.
When you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. I mean, I can’t think of many Fortune 500 CEOs without a strong sense of determination.
While the everyday battle with your toddler about putting her blocks away may feel discouraging, take heart! Because the same unbending attitude that drives you insane at home should give you a little peace of mind when thinking of the future. After all, if she won’t cave into your pressure as a parent, she’ll likely have that same attitude when interacting with her peers down the road.
The thing is, strong-willed children are often misunderstood. Though it may come across as disrespectful, their sturdy spirit is actually a gift to be harnessed. These kids have the ability to focus on what they want and the drive to push forward.
What you see as demanding, someone else may see as decisive. Where you see a rebel, others may see a nonconformist.
Will they challenge you as a parent? Absolutely.
But the most extraordinary ventures often come at a heavy price. I promise, once you begin to see the fruits of a stubborn spirit, you’ll understand the tremendous benefits that come with parenting a strong-willed child.
Now, let’s talk about how you can parent your spirited child without losing your parenting joy…
Tip #1: Identify Your Child’s Most Common Power Struggles
Power struggles can be sneaky–especially with a strong-willed child.
But, as parents, we must learn to identify our child’s typical power struggles (which can be different for every kid!) and what triggers set them in motion.
Let’s say one minute you’re helping your daughter get ready for preschool, and the next she’s stubbornly stomping around the room in her underwear because she doesn’t want to wear the outfit you picked out for her.
“I hate those pants! They feel funny! And I don’t like that shirt!”
Like an auctioneer, you start the negotiations.
“Just put them on, we need to get out the door. And I’ll let you watch an extra show later.”
“Fine. Just the pants and we’ll find a different shirt.”
“Please, just TRY!”
Does she put on the clothes? No. Does anything come from you begging and pleading with her? You bet. A power struggle!
Instead of forcing her into one choice, you can let her choose from a list of pre-approved options, or even let her sleep in her outfit the night before. (Don’t worry if her clothes are wrinkled. Power struggle-free mornings are worth the trade off!)
Or, for a little extra fun, try letting her have mismatched days when you turn a blind eye to the mixed-patterns ensemble she’s chosen.
You want her to get dressed at a reasonable time; she wants to feel like she has some control over what she puts on her body. Meet her in the middle and see what a difference it can make.
Pro Tip: Positive Parenting Solutions® Members, be sure to check out our Expert Series: Taming Morning Mania to learn more about why kids battle us in the mornings, and how that can change.
This same idea applies to strong-willed kids of all ages.
For instance, does asking your teenager to do his homework as soon as he gets home always lead to an argument? If so, identify the power struggle in advance, then shift your approach by giving him a little more autonomy over his schedule.
“I understand you may not feel like doing your homework right after school. Would you rather do it before or after dinner once you’ve had some time to rest and eat?”
Some power struggles pop up out of nowhere, but if you think about it, I’m sure you can identify a few that are constantly prevalent with your strong-willed child. Figure out what they are, then take the proper steps to avoid them.
Helpful Hint: Positive Parenting Solutions® Members, looking for even more problem-solving strategies for strong-willed kids? Check out our Expert Series: Aggression and Anger—The Explosive Child in the 7-Step Parenting Success System® course
Tip #2: Give Them Some Power and Control
Now that you’ve identified what common power struggles your strong-willed child faces, let’s talk about how you can hand some control over (while still maintaining your peace of mind).
From the examples above, you saw how putting your child in charge of little decisions–like what to wear and when to do homework–can make a significant impact on whether or not they give you pushback.
You know what pushes your strong-willed child into a fight, so the next step is to make a list of areas where you’re willing to loosen the reins and hand off some control.
You don’t need to pick out your 3-year-old daughter’s place setting; she can. Sure, she may pick all the cheap plastic dishes but it also gives her a huge hit of positive power (which leads to better behavior).
Your 10-year-old can pack his lunch for school. If you’re worried he’ll eat nothing but Fruit Roll-Ups and potato chips, simply use a little tool we like to call Control the Environment by ensuring you only shop for healthy options you don’t mind him packing each day.
If your headstrong 16-year-old is unrelenting in her desire to stay out later with her friends, invite her to sit down for a civilized conversation about why her curfew should be extended. She may have some very valid reasons you wouldn’t have thought of had you not allowed her to state her case.
Handing off control to your child may sound terrifying, especially if you have a controlling parenting personality. But once you see the fruits of your labor, you’ll understand why this is so important.
Pro Tip: Positive Parenting Solutions® Members, check out Step 1 of the 7-Step Parenting Success System® online training program to take the Parent Personality Assessment and learn more about your specific parenting style and why it matters.
When you start giving your child options for control over their lives, you’re creating what we call a Decision-Rich Environment. A Decision-Rich Environment gives kids a boost of positive power while also helping to develop a strong sense of internal motivation.
“If Mom thinks I’m capable enough to pack my own lunch each day, I must be!”
Creating a household environment filled with little decisions your kids can make for themselves will surely cut down on those insignificant power struggles you’re used to. Your child can be as headstrong as they come, and you’ll still see a difference in their misbehavior and attitude.
Tip #3: Show Some Empathy and Respect
Parenting a strong-willed child can feel a little like playing an endless game of tug-of-war…only nobody wins.
We make demands, and they openly defy everything we say. Then we wonder why we experience an endless stream of meltdowns and temper tantrums (on both our parts).
The thing is, our kids house the same emotions we do, just in much smaller containers.
We don’t like having orders barked at us or being told what to do and how to do it every second of every day, so why would our children be any different? Add a firm will to the mix, and the fight becomes even more challenging.
Instead of shaking your fist the next time your daughter engages you in a battle of wills, try putting on a more empathetic hat. Step into her shoes and take on her worldview.
Start by physically getting on her level, eye-to-eye, and offering an understanding statement that labels and validates her big feelings.
“I understand you are frustrated we have to leave the playground. It’s never fun to leave such a fun place! How about we pick a day next week to come back?”
Don’t forget, there’s also a level of respect that should always accompany any conversation you have with your child. Start with yourself and set the example. Because when you model respect toward your kid, you’re more likely to receive the same in return.
As parents, we all want to raise respectful kids who will remain so into adulthood. But sometimes we make the mistake of focusing so much on their respectful attitudes that we completely disregard our own.
So how can we show our kids respect? Many ways, but here are a few important ones…
Avoid talking down to them. Your 6-year-old can understand some pretty complex things, so it doesn’t work speaking to them as you would a toddler. The same goes for your teens and tweens, who will be entering the adult world sooner than you’d like. Speak to them the way you’d like to be spoken to.
Also, avoid doing tasks for them they are perfectly capable of doing on their own. Allow them to answer questions for themselves. And respect their wants and desires.
When you show your child respect, you’re sending them a very important message.
You’re saying, “I know you are a strong, intelligent, and capable human being.”
Wow! Talk about a boost of power.
Tip #4: Find a Routine That Works
Here at Positive Parenting Solutions, we love our routines. Why? Because they work!
In truth, all kids thrive on healthy routines, but they can be especially beneficial for strong-willed kids.
There’s something about the predictability of knowing exactly what to expect that sets their minds at ease, while also avoiding your most common power struggles.
For instance, let’s say the mere thought of putting your child to bed exhausts you completely. You know that no matter how wonderful your day has been, come the bedtime hour, you’ll step into their bedroom like a boxer entering the ring–ready for a fight.
“I don’t WANT to brush my teeth!” “I won’t wear the striped pajamas! I want the ones I wore yesterday.” “Pleeeeese, I need another story!” “But I’m not tired!”
This is when you know it’s time to get strict with your child’s bedtime routine.
When it comes to routines, consistency is key. It’s important to do the same thing over and over so your child can get an idea of what to expect. This is true for any child! But with a strong-willed child? Inconsistency to the routine can be so detrimental.
If you’re trying to establish a good bedtime routine, start by picking a set time to be in bed and sticking to it. Now’s not the time to allow “just one more episode” or “five more minutes playing with toys.” This only opens up the road to night-after-night negotiations and the end of a firm bedtime.
Stay strong and let the routine be the boss (so you don’t have to be!).
Also, it’s important to make sure the events leading up to that bedtime are just as consistent.
“At 8:00, we will put on pajamas and brush our teeth. At 8:15, let’s pick out a few stories and snuggle up in bed to read. At 8:30, it’s lights out.”
Helpful hint: Instead of setting a timer on your phone or microwave, use a visual timer (like the Time Timer) to help your younger kids conceptualize the passing of time.
Should you receive any pushback, simply ask, “What does the routine say we have to do now?”
If, after consistently implementing your routine, you’re still facing an iron will from your child, use what we call the When-Then Routine.
It’s simple, straightforward, and works like magic. Here’s how it goes…
“Henry, WHEN you brush your teeth, THEN we get to read books!”
“Maddy, WHEN you’ve packed up all your books, THEN we can head to the library!”
See what happened there?
By placing the least desirable task as a precursor to the more desirable one, you create a simple, easy-to-follow routine. This is fantastic because it still leaves the control in the child’s hands, but now they want to do what is required to get to the fun stuff later.
No sassing, pushback, or power struggles are required.
Simply put, routines are the guardrails that help keep your strong-willed child from going off the tracks. And they make all the difference!
Pro Tip: Positive Parenting Solutions® Members, be sure to read Step-3 of the 7-Step Parenting Success System® course for more ways to implement When-Then Routines.
Tip #5: Focus on Problem-Solving, NOT Punishment
Strong-willed children have such a powerful sense of independence, but it can often be mistaken for defiance and misbehavior. A clever disguise if there ever was one.
Unfortunately, what do most frustrated and exhausted parents tend to do when their child is misbehaving? Look for a punishment.
And in the world of positive parenting, punishment and discipline do not go hand-in-hand. Honestly, they aren’t even in the same ballpark.
Now, I understand how this becomes the go-to solution for most parents. Perhaps they’re tired, embarrassed by their child’s behavior, or just feel as though they’re out of options. But punishment comes with a lot of emotional baggage. And trust me, you don’t want to unpack it.
First, for the sake of clarity, please know that we define punishment as any action by an adult that causes the child to experience blame, shame, or pain (physical or emotional). Source: Jane Nelsen, EdD, and Positive Discipline founder.
Perhaps it does in the moment. But in the long run? Nope!
I’d be willing to argue that she will just get better at hiding the misbehavior in the future. Because not only are you telling her not to hit by hitting–which is so confusing–but you’ve done nothing to address the bigger issue…why she’s hitting in the first place.
Instead, focus on solving the bigger problem.
If your daughter is hitting her sister out of frustration, try getting to the heart of why she’s so frustrated, and help her work through those big emotions. (Hint: A Feelings Wheel is a great place to start!) Talk about what changes she’d make next time, and how she can make things right with her sister.
And if your son is defiant every day after school, put on your detective hat to figure out why.
Is he hungry because he’s trading his sandwich for cookies every day? Is he having trouble in a subject or two? Problems with friends? Or simply weary after sitting still so long?
Whatever it is, get to the bottom of it, and figure out some solutions to try. He’ll be much more likely to work with you if he understands you’re with him, and not against him.
I know it can be challenging to stifle that automatic desire to jump straight to punishment, but the more you practice implementing a problem-solving approach with your strong-willed child, the easier it will become.
If your life feels like a constant battle of tug-of-war with your child, now is the time to end the game. When they pull, resist the urge to pull back even harder.
Instead, loosen your grip and remember these five tips. Because parenting a strong-willed child does not have to be so exhausting.I promise, with a bit of time, patience, and the right tools, you can even learn to enjoy that fighting spirit. You’ve got this, and I’ve got you!
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