“I don’t like you anymore!” is heard as her bedroom door slams. Or, his hands on his hips, he looks me dead in the eye and declares, “I’m leaving the family!” They’re heated, hurt, and resorting to anything. Something has not gone their way and they’re expressing how upset they are in a single phrase. Their body language is further underscoring this sentiment. It’s a familiar scenario in my household. You see, you see, I’m not just parenting a strong-willed child. I’m parenting two of them.
Both my three-year-old and four-year-old are sensitive, have iron-clad determination, are wildly outspoken, and are prone to power struggles. My children are easily upset when their autonomy is imposed upon. They can become rattled easily if an event or experience deviates from their expectations. For instance, when dinner is something new, their shoes feel funny, or their tower of blocks fails to stack well, they can be quite difficult to deal with. And, these instances happen often. Here and there, outsiders will weigh in, mistakenly thinking a good dose of punishment will set my willful children straight. If you too are parenting a strong-willed child, you’re likely nodding your head at all of this.
Of course, submission is not the goal of parenting a strong-willed child. The more research that comes forward on these headstrong, spirited beings, the more we learn that maintaining their spirit is the key to their lifelong success. In fact, it has been found that spirited children are more likely to become strong leaders willing to do the right thing at all costs. One longitudinal study examined children’s characteristics and circumstances as predictors of occupational success. Researchers followed these children from the age of 12 through to the age of 52. They found that children who questioned authority and weren’t obedient were more likely to earn more and be more entrepreneurial than their less spirited counterparts.
So how do you successfully parent a spirited child without breaking their spirit?
The Key To Parenting a Strong-Willed Child
The key to parenting a strong-willed child comes down to one crucial thing: TRUST. In maintaining a spirited child’s trust, we open them up to understanding and internalising our values and rules. So how do we accomplish this? Below you’ll find some wonderful tips on how to reinforce or re-establish the trust between you and your strong-willed child.
Have a predictability about your day-to-day life.
This can be accomplished by having a well-established routine. Or, it can simply be accomplished by letting your child know what the day will look like and what to expect throughout the day. Strong-willed children do not do well when their power is taken away. By having predictability, they feel in control and are less prone to meltdowns.
Provide warnings before changing activities or leaving an event.
There are days, or parts of the day, that are less predictable than others. Giving your child a two-minute warning before leaving or transitioning allows him or her to feel involved in the process and not overtaken by the process.
Set clear expectations.
Like having a routine, setting clear expectations allow a child to know how he or she should act, what they should do, and what isn’t acceptable. It also makes discipline much easier too because he or she will understand that they’ve deviated from expectation.
Follow through on what you say and communicate readily.
Our children need to be able to trust that what we say is what we mean. If they have done wrong, it is important we follow through on discipline. And if plans change, it is important they understand why.
Label their feelings to show you understand even if you don’t agree.
One of the greatest gifts you can give your spirited child is the acknowledgement of how he or she feels. This recognition scaffolds moving forward and creates space to understand the discipline that may follow.
Go with your child when giving a timeout.
With my daughter, this means going into her room with her and hugging her through her big feelings. Then, we talk about what went wrong and how she can make amends. For my son, this is a bit different. I bring him into his room and tell him I am available when he needs me. When he’s really upset, he needs his space. Moreover, he can lash out when he’s angry. Once he is ready for me, we hug and talk it out. Timeouts that isolate the child from the parent do more damage to their relationship than to their bad behaviour. Read more about this here.
Apologise when you parent out of anger.
Yelling, get mad at their crying, or showing other signs of anger can happen to the best of us. Not only does admitting we’ve done wrong model good behaviour, it also re-establishes trust. Yelling can be quite damaging to young children.