Raising the Strong-Willed Child
“No!” he says, with arms crossed, scowling face, and feet planted firmly on the floor. If you’re parenting a strong-willed child, you’ll recognize these signs. Children are born with a number of personality traits and the spirited child is often one of the most difficult personalities to parent. Very often parents end up exhausted, frustrated, and ready to throw in the towel. There are days when parenting seems to be the most difficult job one can undertake.
Strong-willed children often want to do things on their own terms. They will throw tantrums, engage in power struggles, and want to have things their own way. These children have low frustration levels and will ask “Why?” many times. “Because I said so” is a parental response that often doesn’t work and they are persistent in knowing the “why” behind your requests. Often bossy and controlling, they like to be able to make their own decisions and can be impatient. They like to do things at their own personal speed and don’t see the need to meet the “rush” of a parent’s request. These are the personality traits of children who can make parenthood an exhausting experience.
There is hope. Recent research indicates that it is these children who become natural born leaders. As adults, they are brave, not afraid to speak up, take risks, and make changes in the world. Although you may be struggling with getting a child to put on socks, wear a coat to school, or not talk back to adults, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It is this tenacity that often creates strong, independent adults.
If you find that you are the lucky parent of a child with a strong will, how can you cope without losing your mind? First of all, it doesn’t mean that you let them do whatever they want. It is important that strong-willed children understand that they must make decisions based on safety and within the rules of society. Punishment seldom works as these children benefit more from understanding rather than battling over power and control. There are many strategies for assisting children in learning how to cope with their own emotions and behavior.
Here are a few suggestions that might help:
- Lean into the behavior rather than ignore it – guide, coach, teach—especially when the child is dealing with strong emotions. Recognize that these children feel intense emotions and need to have a supportive adult to assist them in dealing with helpful ways of expressing themselves.
- Strong-willed children want you to hear their side of the story. Look for the “hidden message.” What are the underlying causes of the behavior? Is the child worried about something that is very real?
- All children need power, experiences, and connection. You can allow children limited choices (e.g. the blue shirt or the red shirt?). These children often learn by experiencing situations and will want to engage fully in an activity. And like all children, they want to connect with their caregiver and know that they are valued and loved. It may be that most frustrating and annoying time where they need the most support.
- Reach out to the child and use words like, “Let’s start over, try again, let’s do this together.”
- Apologize if you’ve been wrong or misunderstood the child. These children often need you to understand their needs but don’t have the skills to communicate them effectively.
- Challenge your child by playing games, engaging them in activities, and asking them “What’s next?”
- Praise good behaviour.
- Don’t make too many rules. Stick to the important ones so that you can chose your battles.
- Make expectations clear before you go somewhere; “When we are at the grocery store, I’d like you to stay with the shopping cart and use your inside voice.”
- Follow through with consequences. Don’t threaten a child if you’re not prepared to follow through. You may have to think about appropriate and manageable consequences before you go somewhere.
- Use humour.
You can weather the storm with a strong-willed child but it takes a change in mindset. Know that when you feel frustrated, exhausted, angry, and fed up, your child often feels the same. You may also benefit from connecting with other adults who experience similar parenting challenges. There are many excellent courses available which can provide you with some alternative strategies for assisting you with parenting the strong-willed child. The Family Centre offers a variety of parenting courses that may fit your needs. If you find that you are struggling with parenting the strong-willed child, do not be afraid to reach out and ask for support. You and your child will both benefit from looking at your challenges with fresh ideas.
Karin S. Hitchcock, M. C., CCC
Therapy and Counselling