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Understanding and Parenting Your Strong-Willed Child

We could probably all sit around over coffee and swap stories of that moment … 


That moment in the grocery store checkout when the kid who was fine all morning suddenly digs in her heels about candy. Or that evening when your in-laws come over, and the pre-teen who has been an angel all weekend suddenly snaps and wants to argue (loudly) about everything.


You have a story. We all do. Toddlers have temper tantrums, and pre-teens have hormones, and kids are … kids. 


For some mamas, though, these stories aren’t just freak occurrences: They are the rhythm of daily life. Parenting a strong-willed child is a unique kind of challenge, but it doesn’t have to be the demise of your sanity. Whether you’re a year or a decade into it, there is hope.


Do I have a strong-willed child?

If you have to ask, the answer is probably, “No.” Mamas with strong-willed children have no doubt that they are raising strong-willed children.


Strong-willed children are often seen as stubborn, argumentative, bossy, and/or impatient. And it’s not inaccurate. If you feel like your kid is always arguing, or you’re frustrated because it seems like he never cuts you any slack, you have been blessed with a strong-willed child.


Understanding your strong-willed child: Focus

In the middle of an argument or a power struggle, it might not feel like it, but the fact that you are raising a strong-willed child is awesome. Seriously. Let that sink in. Say it outloud. 


Of course you know that your kid is awesome, but this is more than that. The fact that your awesome kid has an iron-clad will is also, in itself, wonderful. 


Consider that many of these same characteristics and personality traits are present in many adults, but we use different words to describe them. In adults, we use words like:


  • Integral
  • Courageous
  • Focused
  • Determined

In adults, we say that these are characteristics of a “natural leader,” and they are. 


The problem is that your strong-willed child is not the leader in your home. And while he may feel inclined to trust his instincts, prefer his opinion, and insist on what he believes is right, he does not yet have the knowledge or wisdom to do those things well. 


So it’s inconvenient (and sometimes maddening) in children, but recognizing that those same character traits are gifts is the prerequisite to parenting your strong-willed child well. Your task is not to break her will and remold it to your own. Rather, your task is to help train and shape behavior, to help her thrive as she grows into her strong character.


1. Lay a foundation of respect

Strong-willed children need two big things, and the first is respect. They need to feel respected, as appropriate, and they need leadership they can respect.


For themselves, strong-willed kids crave respect for:


  • Their autonomy — They have a need to know that their bodies, their stuff, and their time is respected. What does that mean for you? It means that, where health and safety are not concerns, let him decide what to wear, whom to hug, etc.

    If she wants to wear a dress on a cool day, make your recommendation for pants, but let her decide. Put the pants in the bag or the car, and be graceful when she realizes she’s wrong, but let her make the call.

  • Their personhood — Apart from his physical body, your strong-willed kid needs to feel respected as a person. How does that translate to parenting? Talk to him like you would talk to a direct report at work. You can give instruction and correction calmly and respectfully.

  • Their emotions — It’s easy to forget that being a kid, at almost any age, is hard. They have big feelings they don’t know what to do with, and about the time they start to figure it out, the pre-teen hormones kick in. It’s rough.

    What does that imply for moms? Strong-willed kids need you to listen. They need you to acknowledge their feelings (and if they’re still little, they might need you to help name their feelings too). “I understand you feel ___, because ___. I sometimes feel ___ too.” etc.

    Note: It’s okay to do this even when you disagree. “I understand you feel ___, because ___. But you misunderstood …” or whatever. Acknowledging emotions is helpful, but it doesn’t not require that you agree with them.

  • The other part of that foundation of respect, is being a leader deserving of their respect. Yes, they should respect you as The Mom, but that’s not enough for strong-willed kids. They might bend to that reality sometimes, but it won’t hold them together when emotions get really big. 


    A few ways to demonstrate that you are worthy of their respect include:


  • Letting them win — No one wins every time, and neither should you. Similar to the example about letting her wear the dress, let your strong-willed child “win” the small battles.

    This will create opportunities for her to learn, when she is wrong. But it will also build her confidence in your relationship, as she learns that you can be “reasonable” and flexible.

  • Be firm and consistent where it matters — You are still The Mom, of course, and good parenting sets boundaries and limits. All kids need those boundaries and limits—and the consequences of violating them—to be consistent, but especially your strong-willed ones.

    A wavering, even where it seems to be in your child’s favor, will erode respect for your leadership. Your child might be happy, in the moment, to have convinced (or brow-beaten) you into relenting, but they will also unconsciously note that weakness.

  • Apologize when you mess up — When you parent out of anger, or let a bad word fly—or even when you behave badly unrelated to parenting, but your kids witness it—apologize. It feels like weakness, but nothing speaks louder (to anyone) about the integrity and trustworthiness of a leader than her apologizing for a mistake. 

  • Remember that your strong-willed child is a leader in training. You are helping to mold what’s already inside of them, but more than what you do or say—the kind of leadership you model will be what ultimately guides them.


    2. Give your child choices.

    The second big consideration that strong-willed children need is choices. 


    No one likes to be told what to do all day, every day. Other kids may take time to grow into that level of autonomy, but strong-willed kids are there almost as soon as they can walk. 


    This ties in very closely to their need to feel respected. So instead of issuing a command, as often as possible, give your child appropriate choices. Warning: This usually requires a little planning ahead. 


    Instead of, “Come unload the dishwasher,” for example, try, “The dishwasher needs to be unloaded before lunch. Do you want to do it now, or do you want 10 more minutes to finish your game?” 


    Instead of, “Come on. It’s time to go home now,” try, “We need to head home in a minute, so do you want to go down one more slide or get five more pushes on a swing before we go?”


    Giving options lets your child feel like he has some of that necessary autonomy and some control over his time. It also generally makes compliance easier and helps you avoid power struggles. 


    3. Establish the rules together.

    It’s the ultimate in both giving choices and in laying a foundation of respect, so it deserves a unique mention: Let your strong-willed child be involved in creating the rules. 


    It could be the big, long-term, family rules or it could be the rules for how we behave at the playground. It could be the rules for driving when he gets his license or the rules for being a big sister when a new sibling comes along. 


    Every family, and every kid, goes through seasons. Navigating them well usually means establishing a few key guidelines, and strong-willed kids especially crave ownership in that process. In addition to communicating respect, this will also help encourage compliance and prevent arguments. 


    4. Use routines and schedules.

    Routines and schedules can be collaboratively established and agreed upon too—as appropriate. Your strong-willed child doesn’t get to decide that dessert comes before dinner, but she could cast the deciding vote on whether you go to the park in the morning or afternoon.


    However the routine is established, strong-willed children tend to do better when their schedule is predictable. Unanticipated transitions and changes make anyone feel out of control, and your strong-willed child will find it harder to go along with those curve balls. 


    Establishing a routine and/or sticking to a schedule creates a set of clear expectations, which helps to avoid power struggles. It also gets you off the hook a little bit when arguments start to arise. It’s no longer, “I said it’s bedtime,” but “Bedtime is always 9:00.”


    5. Set clear expectations.

    Routines and schedules are the first step to clear expectations, but you can take it a step further. In addition to the general routine or the schedule for the day, take a minute to front-load expectations for grandma’s house, the birthday party, the park, etc. 


    While you’re at it, outline the consequences of non-compliance as well. Eliminate as many surprises as possible. 


    “In [time frame], you need to [action expected] or [consequence].”


    (Giving a time frame may or may not be relevant, depending on how old your kids are.)


    “It’s almost time to leave for grandma’s house. You need to put your toy away and come put your shoes on, or you won’t have time to play outside when we get there.”


    If you’re going somewhere, setting expectations in the car, just before arriving, is a great option. They’re a captive audience, literally strapped to their chairs, and they’re not chomping at the bit to get out of the car quite yet. Take a minute to get their attention and review the birthday party rules, etc.


    Disciplining a strong-willed child

    Discipline is no one’s favorite part of parenting, but it can be especially grueling if you’re working with a strong-willed child. Remember that you’re molding behavior, not breaking her will, and you can stay focused better.


    Additionally:


  • Remain calm — No one learns when they’re angry or defensive, and your strong-willed child will be especially closed off at feeling disrespected.

  • Suggest a do-over — Give your child a chance to do the right thing, after he messes up. Instead of just enacting discipline, reset the stage as much as possible and let him or her make a better choice.

  • Try a time-in — Rather than sending a strong-willed child away to a time-out, bring them close for a time-in. Sit him on your lap while you work for a few minutes, or ask her to bring her homework to the kitchen while you prepare dinner. Bring them close, instead of pushing them away.

  • Stick to your guns — If you named a consequence, you have to follow through. If there’s a standard consequence established, it has to be consistent.

  • Raising a Strong-Willed Leader

    Parenting any kid is a paradox of stress and honor, and parenting a strong-willed child is that amplified. Your son or daughter has the makings of a great future leader, but just throwing raw ingredients together, in their original forms, never made anything amazing. 


    When the next power struggle starts to rear its head, take a deep breath and remember that you are working with your child to teach him how to manage those emotions and personality gifts.


    In the meantime, start laying that foundation of respect. There’s probably something you can do even today to give him more autonomy or show that you respect her emotions.

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