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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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, I spent most of my intermittent free time reading parenting books. I wanted to be the best mom possible and as such was doing my best to absorb and apply all the information I could.
I tried to put her on a schedule rather than demand-feeding her because she was nursing at one-hour intervals.
Well, I tried what the book said verbatim.
The result? My budding strong-willed child 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, I have witnessed countless episodes just like this.
At four-months-old, she started arching her back if I put her into her car seat without warning.
At about two-and-a-half, she started insisting she wear what she likes. Think gumboots on a hot sunny day.
I remember one year, she decided she wanted to have a yard sale on a rainy July day. There was no amount of reason that could get her in from the rain. It took almost two hours before she admitted it wasn’t the best day to pawn our forgotten toys off on the neighbour kids.
My strong-willed daughter is a girl who knows her mind and isn’t easily swayed. But it’s not just her…
It turns out, I’m not just parenting a strong-willed child …
But it’s not just my daughter that’s like this, both my sons are strong-willed too.
Case and 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 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.
The baby, who isn’t even two, seems to be cut from the same cloth. Just one of many examples includes our exchange yesterday.
Me: “Okay, let’s get your shoes!”
Him: “No, shoes! Boots!”
Related reading: These are the best books for parenting a strong-willed child
What is a strong-willed child?
You may have a strong-willed child if your child:
- is prone to power struggles,
- is challenging, bright and dynamic,
- will stand up for what he believes in at all costs,
- has a meltdown or gets angry when she doesn’t get her way,
- is a natural leader,
- asks why often,
- can be described as outspoken
- has iron-clad determination when he has his heart set on something.
The many challenges of parenting a strong-willed child
Because strong-willed children challenge authority and are fiercely determined, it is impossible to parent them on autopilot. If you’ve tried lecturing, taking privileges away, or put 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 when a child is forced, she is no longer a moral agent. 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.
The incredible gift of parenting a strong-willed child
Though parenting a strong-willed 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 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 more research that comes forward on these headstrong children, the more we learn that maintaining their spirit is the key 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.
When our children feel like we don’t understand them or are disconnected from them, they’re more likely to act out.
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.
The Best Strategies for Discipling and Parenting a Strong-Willed Child
Start with a ‘Socratic’ approach.
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.
Make their life predictable.
You can do this by having a well-established routine. Or, simply you can let 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. Also, it lessens their cognitive load and makes it easier for them to face other challenges with more ease.
Connect then direct.
When a strong-willed 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.
Provide warnings before changing activities or leaving an event.
There are days, or parts of the day, that are less predictable than others. For instance, give your child a two-minute warning before transitioning from one activity to another. This allows him or to feel a greater sense of control.
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 parent.
Label 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 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.