Parenting a strong-willed child is full of ups and downs. These children are outspoken, prone to power struggles 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.
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She screams, “I don’t like you anymore!” as she slams her bedroom door.
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.
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:
- wildly outspoken,
- easily upset when they lose control,
- meltdown if an event or experience deviates from their expectations, and
- prone to power struggles.
For instance, when dinner is something new, I say to stop playing and come to dinner right away, or their tower of blocks fails to stack well, they can be quite difficult to deal with.
Here and there, outsiders will weigh in, mistakenly thinking a good dose of punishment will set my willful children straight.
Here is the problem with using punishment or using power to end their power struggles
If you’re parenting a strong-willed child, you have likely at some point entered into a cycle of timeouts or tried to force them to comply. I have fallen down this slippery slope too.
The truth about using force as a means to discipline is if it worked, it would work. There wouldn’t be an endless cycle. The child would listen after you forced him.
Punishment and consequences demand the strong-willed child obey the parent. Submission is not and should not be the goal of parenting a strong-willed child. Here’s why.
The more research that comes forward on these headstrong children, the more we learn that maintaining their spirit is the key to their lifelong success.
In fact, it has been found that strong-willed children are more likely to become great 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.
Parenting a strong-willed child: how do you successfully without breaking their spirit?
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 internalizing our values and rules.
So how do we accomplish this?
Positive parenting strategies are key. Below you’ll find some wonderful tips on how to reinforce or re-establish the trust between you and your strong-willed child.
Related reading: Stop Yelling at Your Kids with This Simple Strategy
The Best Strategies for Parenting a 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.
Connect then direct.
When a strong-willed child is engrossed in an activity, their only priority is to see it through. When a parent appreciates what the child is doing and then tells the child what to do, the child listens better.
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 transitioning from one activity to another. This allows him or her to feel involved in the process and not overtaken by you.
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 explain why.
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.
Ultimatums often provoke power struggles, are a threat, and erode the trust and connection between the strong-willed child and his parent.
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 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 his space. When he’s really worked up, he can lash out. 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, 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 is damaging.
Parenting strong-willed children is anything but easy. And as such, there is no quick or guaranteed fix. It requires that I parent proactively and actively work to maintain their trust in me. Following these strategies has opened them up to listen, be more respectful and understand I am their trusted person.
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