Parenting a strong-willed child is full of ups and downs. These children are outspoken, prone to power struggles, sensitive and even more likely to have meltdowns. At the same time, they’re born leaders, dynamic, and a tremendous source of pride for their parents. Here you will find the key to raising strong-willed children successfully without breaking their spirit including powerful positive parenting strategies.
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I remember the first time my daughter showed me just how strong-willed she is.
She was about two months old. Healing from a c-section and wanting to be the best momma possible, I spent my time swallowed up by our old burgundy couch pouring over parenting books. The more I read, the more it seemed that all signs pointed to putting her on a schedule. Figuring these experts were right and demand-feeding my baby every hour-and-a-half or so was bad, I did my best to comply.
I tried what the books said verbatim.
My spirited baby was irate. She knew what worked for her and she let me know loud and clear what she wanted. As soon as we went back to the rhythm that worked for her, all was well again.
Since then, there have been countless episodes just like this.
At four months old, she would arch her back when I put her in her grey bucket seat without warning.
At about two-and-a-half, she started insisting on very creative clothing combinations. Think dark navy gumboots with copious amounts of dress-up jewelry on a hot sunny day.
I remember one rainy July day, she decided she wanted to have a yard sale. Nothing I could say would get her in from the rain. It took almost two hours before she admitted it wasn’t the best day to pawn our neglected toys onto the neighbour kids.
The truth is my strong-willed daughter is a girl who knows her mind, learns by doing and is never easily swayed.
But it’s not just her…
It turns out, I’m not just parenting a strong-willed child …
Both my sons are strong-willed too.
Case in point, one day after preschool my son’s teacher told me, “Your son is so agreeable… until he’s not.”
She went on to say that she told my son to clean up the toys he and his friend had been playing with. When he refused, she told him he had to sit on the class couch until he was ready to cooperate.
Apparently, this approach works in a matter of minutes with other students. However, my son was a different story. They entered into a standoff. He refused to comply. 30 minutes later, the end of the school day came and he was still on the couch.
My youngest seems to be cut from the same cloth too. He’s known to wear his fleece penguin pyjamas on a hot summer night out (in spite of me setting out his PJ short set), insists bread cut in triangles tastes the best and, my husband and I joke, has all the makings of a great autocratic leader.
Jokes aside, many wonder what is a strong-willed child? Because, of course, all toddlers test boundaries and want independence. So do most teens. Chances are that if you’re parenting a child with fierce determination, you know it.
Still, it’s important to address…
What is a strong-willed child?
You may be parenting a strong-willed child if your child:
- is challenging,
- doesn’t accept instruction at face value,
- is prone to power struggles,
- asks why often,
- is a natural-born leader or trailblazer,
- is outspoken, and
- has iron-clad focus when her heart is set on something.
Strong-willed kids are spirited and courageous. They want to learn things for themselves rather than accepting what others say, so they test the limits over and over. They want desperately to be “in charge” of themselves, and will sometimes put their desire to “be right” above everything else.
When their heart is set on something, their brains seem to have a hard time switching gears. Strong-willed kids have big, passionate feelings and live at full throttle.Dr. Laura Markham
There are many challenges in parenting a strong-willed child.
Because strong-willed children challenge authority and are fiercely determined, it is impossible to use a one-size-fits-all approach to discipline.
If you’ve tried lecturing, taking privileges away, or putting them into timeout, again and again, you know how futile it can be. In fact, you may often find yourself in a standoff where he or she will not comply.
The truth is, strong-willed children do not respond well to being forced to do anything. Not only that but researchers state that forcing undermines moral agency. Specifically, she is no longer choosing to do right.
On top of that, when we try and force a strong-willed child, we are essentially asking her to push aside who she is and accept our instructions at face value. Though strong-willed children aren’t easy to parent, they are amazing children to raise.
Raising a strong-willed child is an incredible gift.
Though parenting a spirited child is challenging and dynamic, it is also such a rich experience. Most parents want to raise children who will stand up for what’s right and be successful. Studies have that strong-willed children are more likely to become great leaders who are 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. And, they found children who questioned authority and weren’t obedient were more likely to earn more and be more entrepreneurial than their less spirited counterparts.
How can you parent a strong-willed child without breaking their spirit?
The more research that comes forward on these headstrong children, the more we learn that maintaining their spirit is crucial to their lifelong success. The key to parenting a strong-willed child comes down to one crucial thing: trust.
When children feel connected to the adults in charge of them and trust they have the child’s best intentions at heart, they behave their best. Children are more likely to act out when they feel misunderstood or disconnected from us. In maintaining a spirited child’s trust, we open them up to understanding and internalizing our values and rules.
So how do we accomplish this? Positive parenting strategies are necessary. Below you’ll find some wonderful tips on how to reinforce or re-establish the trust between you and your spirited child.
This is how to discipline a strong-willed child.
When disciplining a strong-willed child, start by establishing the family rules together.
Because we want to work with, not against our strong-willed child’s attributes, research favours a Socratic approach. This means:
- establish the family rules in a collaborative manner,
- answer questions about rules and expectations as they come up,
- checking for understanding in the child.
In doing this, children feel empowered, involved, and respected. Therefore, they are more motivated to listen and more understanding when disciplined.
Remember though, you are still the adult. You are still in charge and are leading the discussion and only agreeing to core rules that make sense for the family.
Make their life predictable to avoid power struggles.
Strong-willed children do not do well when their power is taken away. If they can predict transitions, life will go more smoothly.
Predictability will ease transitions. When days aren’t predictable, you can simply let your child know what the day will look like and what to expect throughout the day by front-loading. They will feel more in control and will be less prone to being defiant and willful.
Set clear expectations ahead of time.
Front-loading is setting expectations or explaining what will come before the heat of the moment. For example, when my kids were younger, I told them before we got to the children’s museum they had to stay close to me and tell me before they wanted to switch stations. This prevented a lot of issues. Other examples could also be:
“Yes, we can go take a peek at the toy section, but we aren’t buying anything today.”
Or, “When we get home, the first thing I want everyone to help unload the car.”
When my kids know my expectations ahead of time, they listen better than when corrected in the heat of the moment. Using the example of unloading the car, they are more likely to cooperate and protest less than if I ask after they have left the car.
Connect then direct.
When a willful child is engrossed in an activity, her only priority is to see it through. When a parent appreciates what the child is doing and then tells the child what to do, she listens better. For example, “I love how much work you’ve put into this drawing,” (connection) “It’s time to put away your markers and set the table” (direction). It can help to also let the child know when he can resume the activity. For instance, “After your homework, you can colour again.”
Strong-willed children want to feel in control more than anything. In keeping with this, an ultimatum can be seen as a challenge rather than a sign to back down. Ultimatums beget power struggles. Instead, work with your child to facilitate cooperation. For example, clean up, problem-solve, or do homework together.
Wait for cooperation and delay gratification.
Often, this is one of the fastest ways to get a willful child to listen. The key is to get present, and remain calm but firm. Everyday examples of delaying gratification include:
- not bike riding until my child’s helmet is on,
- cleaning up before going to the park, or
- not watching TV until the laundry is put away.
When what’s next isn’t gratifying, parents must remain firm in the expectation but flexible on how the task is accomplished. In our own home, this could be:
- making cleaning up a game or competition (i.e. who can clean up faster?).
- working together.
- coming up with a plan and dividing work.
Actively listen and 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. Something as simple as paraphrasing what a child has said or labelling her feelings will help her feel more at ease.
Use timeouts only for extreme cases and be available for support during this time.
Timeout shouldn’t be punitive but act as time to calm down and regroup. There should be no timers because it could take a child seconds to calm down and be ready to problem-solve or a lot longer. With my daughter, this means going into her room with her and hugging her through her big feelings.
Then, we problem-solve together. (Find out more about time-ins/ timeouts here.) 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 space. So I step aside for some time. 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 challenging behaviour.
Apologize when you parent out of anger.
Yelling, getting 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, but it also re-establishes trust. Yelling is damaging.
Finally, when disciplining a spirited child, it’s best to avoid:
- Force as it undermines moral agency.
- Punishment and lecturing – both undermine the child’s agency, erode trust, and fail to collaboratively problem-solve.
- And, as previously mentioned, ultimatums.
A final note about parenting a spirited child
Parenting a strong-willed child is anything but easy. There is no quick fix. However, by parenting mindfully and maintaining my children’s sense of trust, I can promote their cooperation. Moreover, I can maintain their spirited nature and continue to raise them into strong leaders who can have a positive impact on the world one day.
Additional reading you may find helpful
FAQ for raising a strong-willed child
- What is a strong-willed child?
Strong-willed children tend to be challenging, prone to power struggles, bright and dynamic, activists for their beliefs, highly emotional when events or decisions don't go their way, are natural leaders, ask why often, outspoken, and have iron-clad determination.
- How do you punish a strong-willed child?
Because being strong-willed is part of a child's disposition and because being strong-willed is a predictor of success, it is better to avoid punishment. Instead, look at misbehaviour as an opportunity to teach, guide and support a spirited child.
- How do I raise a strong-willed daughter?
Though all of these strategies apply to strong-willed daughters and sons, daughters may be more sensitive. As such, it is important to validate her feelings even if you don't agree with her perspective or her reaction. Simply, express understanding for what she says without giving in on something that is non-negotiable. By doing this, her feelings won't get pent up. Moreover, she will trust that you are both there for her and that your rules are consistent.
- How do you get a strong-willed child to listen?
Make sure the child's basic needs are met. A hungry or overtired child is less likely to listen and listen well. Then, get present. If the parent is half-focused on instructing the child, the child will likely half-listen. Make sure you have the child's attention.
When you can, phrase instructions in a positive way. For instance, instead of saying, Don't jump on the furniture. Try, if you want to jump, you need to head outside.
Be open to different ways of accomplishing a given task. For example, a child may suggest making her bed and then cleaning up, or finishing a show and then starting homework.