Parenting the Strong-Willed Child
Is mom-brain getting the best of me, or has the phrase “strong-willed child” become even more common (and a lot less intimidating) in the last few years?
When I became pregnant with my son in 2014, I remember dreaming about what he would be like, the way most new, excited mothers probably do.. Would he be silly and giggly like I was as a child? Would he be more stoic and serious, the way I remember my little brother when he was a toddler? Would he be adventurous and a bit mischievous, the way I’d heard my son’s father was when he was a little one?
Or--because there is always a big ‘or,’– would he be so incredibly stubborn that getting him dressed every morning after his first birthday would be the equivalent of an intense cardio workout? Would he be rampant and hyper in the wee hours of the morning or late at night, refusing to settle down before ten p.m.? Would his favorite word be “No!” or would he refuse to comply with even the simplest request of his mama or another grownup?
I remember wondering all these things, all the while watching many friends of mine parent what they called their “strong-willed child,” and at the time, I can remember thinking Goodness, I really hope he doesn’t turn out like that. For a long while, it seems as if the phrase “strong-willed child” sent soon-to-be parents into a How the heck do I avoid this? frenzy or made others roll their eyes, throw up their hands and say, “That one belongs to me.” I would hear some of my friends talk about their child or children as strong-willed, and, quite honestly at the time, it came with a negative connotation. But it seems as if in 2019 and in recent years, we are opening our arms to this idea of having and raising and loving a strong-willed child. These types of children as still who they are; they can be stubborn, energetic (read: hyper), constantly excited and loud, mischievous, daring, and even intense. But they can also be loving and sensitive, kind, friendly, silly, and full of joy for the seemingly innocent and inviting world around them. They are still our children, and they are still worthy of the love and affection we, as parents, should always give them.
You’re likely not unfamiliar with the term strong-willed as it pertains to our children, but in case you are, here’s how Dr. Erlanger A. Turner, an assistant professor of Psychology at the University of Houston-Downtown, defines the strong-willed child.
“A strong-willed child is defined as one who is stubborn and always has to get their way. These children often have difficulties associated with disruptive behavior disorders such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Conduct Disorder. The key to coping with and understanding these children is that these behaviors are malleable and can be changed with the use of behavior modification.” (Turner)
Many additional families and child psychologists elaborate a bit more on some of the qualities and characteristics of the strong-willed child, but Dr. Turner’s definition from an article he published in 2013 is likely the very one that comes to the mind of a parent of this special type of child when they stop and consider what it actually means for their little one to be considered strong-willed.
When you type “how to parent a strong-willed child,” into an Internet search engine, you’ll find a vast array of articles, webinars, and self-help books that exist solely for helping a parent this type of child, and it’s no wonder, as we are growing more and more aware and familiar with these characteristics and many of us are realizing Hey! I’m raising one of these!
Below are a few tips and tricks of the trade, if you will, for how to love, grow, and support your strong-willed child.
Set a few ground rules and stick to them.
This tip isn’t just for strong-willed children; it’s a general guideline in parenting that most of already have in place! Keep in mind that quality over quantity truly is gold when creating house rules. Having 3-5 quality rules as opposed to 10 or more will be much more effective. Children have a way of getting overwhelmed by too much information to process, and your stubborn little one might see a laundry list of house rules as a laundry list of opportunities to break them. If you’re currently parenting a strong-willed child and you’re thinking, I’ve tried this; no matter what I do, they won’t obey the guidelines I set, don’t be afraid or intimidated by the idea of rethinking them and starting fresh. Every child is different, and sometimes it’s necessary that we adjust the rules we’d already set so that they are easier to understand and follow for our child(ren). As far as enforcing these rules, ChildrensMD.org recommends reciting the rule repeatedly when it’s broken. For example, if you’ve set a house rule against whining and complaining, repeat to your child “We are grateful in this house.” It also helps to have the house rules posted somewhere easily visible, such as on the refrigerator or message board in the kitchen. Remind your child(ren) of the rules often, and repeat them when they’re broken.
Give them choices.
Just as setting some ground rules isn’t only for our strong-willed children, neither is giving them choices. As they get older (think preteen years and young adulthood), this one may not need to be utilized as much, but consider that barking an order at your four or five-year-old child is likely to result in immediate defiance or anger. Rather, give him or her a choice. For example: “You need to clean your bedroom; would you like to do that now or after dinner?” It says to your little one: you’re going to clean your room regardless, but I’m giving you the choice of doing it now or delaying it by an hour or so. It will also help to high five or shake on your deal, and once they’ve made their choice, help them stick to it by praising them for making a good decision. A little encouragement can go a long way!
Listen and empathize.
This is perhaps a tip that’s geared more towards our little ones who are five or possibly a little older, and again, it’s a great parenting tip in general. Make an effort to truly listen to your child by giving him an opportunity to explain his feelings after an argument or an intense episode where he behaved inappropriately. You might be surprised at what you can learn about your child, as well as yourself when you take the time to listen. It doesn’t mean he’s right or that he was justified in whatever behavior he engaged in that was wrong, but it could certainly help him to know that you’ve got his back as his parent. You’re willing to listen and help him talk through some of the emotions he may have been feeling at the time. Then, share your side and encourage him to listen to you as well. We learn a great deal about ourselves when we’re willing to listen to one another–even to our own kids.
Discipline for a relationship; not just for punishment
There is an intimate desire in the heart of every child to feel loved and nurtured by their parent. Although we can’t always see it, and many of us haven’t felt this desire from our children in years, it’s still there. It’s imperative that we remember this as we discipline our children, that we’re disciplining them to teach and redirect them; not just for punishment, which often delivers short term results but with long term harmful impacts. Aha!Parenting.com states that “when you want your child to change course, think in terms of support rather than force.” When we force our children into submission, we’ve only temporarily alleviated the situation. We haven’t even begun to correct or positively change the behavior that leads to the punishment, to begin with. And if we continue to punish our children simply to get momentary compliance from them, many of us will soon discover that we’ve only diminished our child’s need to feel close to us as their parent(s). Before you resort to spanking or sending your little to time-out, get creative and try something that allows your child to check in with his or her emotions. For an older child, have them write an apologetic letter to you or whomever they’ve upset, describing how they could have handled themselves and/or the situation differently. For a younger child who perhaps had a tantrum in the kitchen because he couldn’t have his favorite snack when he wanted it, help him clean up the mess he made while talking to him about his actions and about how his behavior broke one of the ground rules in the home. You’ll often recognize that your child needs cool down time after some situations; give them that time but limit it as well: “In ten minutes, we’re going to talk about this.” When it’s time to discipline, remain cool and calm. If you use these methods for the majority of the disciplining you’ll do as a parent, you’ll soon see your child grown and develop into a healthy individual who can express his emotions and feelings with ease.
Model desired behavior
Just as a good math teacher continuously models how to correctly work an equation until the student masters it, good parenting requires that we model desired behavior until our children have mastered it– and then we continue modeling it because that’s good parenting! If you want your child to exhibit kindness and respect for others, exhibit that in and outside of your home and especially in the presence of your little one. If you want them to be comfortable accepting blame and apologizing when they’ve done wrong, let them witness you apologize when you’ve made a mistake. It definitely doesn’t mean they’ll exhibit perfect behavior from the very first time we show them how, but it does help build their character and confidence over time. Never forget that you are the influence of the way your child speaks and acts. While no one is perfect, make your influence a good one as best as you can!
Love big and love hard
You could likely take all of these tips and tricks of the trade and apply them to any and all children–not just the strong-willed child. But if there is one I can’t sign off without it’s this one: love them big and love them hard. As I stated earlier, our children are born with an innate desire to feel close to us as their parents, no matter how hard some of them may eventually try to fight it. In all of your parenting decisions, trials, and joys (and believe me, there are many of each to go around), never forget that unconditional love is something you absolutely cannot give them enough of. Whether strong-willed or not, let all things you do for your child, from awards to discipline, be done from a place of love and affection for them. Remember that your strong-willed daughter is unique. Your strong-willed son is worthy of boundless support and empathy. In everything you do as a parent, show them how to love and respect others unconditionally, with the belief that they will learn to do the same in return.
Turner, Dr. Erlanger A. “Parenting a Strong-Willed Child.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-race-good-health/201304/parenting-strong-willed-child.
“Parenting Your Strong-Willed Child.” Aha! Parenting, www.ahaparenting.com/parenting-tools/positive-discipline/Parenting-Strong-Willed-Child.