Parenting a strong-willed, sensitive child is challenging. We want to preserve their spirit while effectively parenting them. This is how to work with your child’s temperament, improve cooperation and celebrate who they are.
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Shortly after she was born, many described my baby girl as an old soul. As an infant, her eyes were wide with curiosity. With a serious expression on her face, it was as if she was analyzing everything.
As an infant, she was a happy baby. However, she got overstimulated easily and was quick to let me know when I needed to take her out of a crowded room.
Her first day of preschool was another example of how her personality plays out.
She had her backpack ready days before the first day of school. Once she was packed, she was furious she couldn’t go to school at that instant. When the first day of school came, she lept with joy. When we pulled into the parking lot, she told me to wait in the car and let her walk in on her own.
Considering the fact she was three and not thirteen, the answer to that demand was a definite no.
I did my best to keep up with my two-year-old son on my hip.
In the classroom, her whirlwind of excitement came to a screeching halt as she saw another girl crying. My daughter’s desire to leave me in the dust tapered. Her big brown eyes got even darker as the empathy she felt for the girl washed over her.
“She’s sad, Mama.”
My daughter didn’t know how to make sense of her dissonant emotions. She was excited to leave me while another child was brokenhearted that her mom had left.
Thankfully, this situation acted as an opportunity for both girls to make a friend before class started. (They left the cloakroom holding hands and were best friends for the rest of the school year.)
This juxtaposition of my daughter’s strong will and sensitivity was one of my earliest memories of many to come.
Now it appears that my oldest son is also highly sensitive and strong-willed.
When a soccer game got too rough, my son made his way to the sidelines, crossed his arms, and refused to get back on the field.
The other day, when my two oldest kids set up a lemonade stand they argued about the best place to set up the stand and whether or not lemonade stands can have drinks other than lemonade. Finally, when no one came to their sale, they were both crestfallen.
Related reading: Parenting a Strong-Willed Child? These are the best books to increase cooperation
Parenting a strong-willed, sensitive child is challenging.
If you can relate to examples like these, chances are you find parenting your child to be dynamic and, at times, exhausting.
There is no autopilot for parenting these spirited, emotional souls. This is because strong-willed children take nothing at face value. They are forever trying to determine what the boundaries are and will always try to negotiate. Then, because these kiddos are sensitive, they are acutely aware of changes in their environment, have big hearts, and equally big reactions.
The good news.
Strong-willed, sensitive children are naturally equipped with some of the greatest predictors of lifelong success. For one, they are naturally tenacious. When a strong-willed child doesn’t get her way, she brainstorms, negotiates, and presses the issue. For instance, when their lemonade stand failed, my children eventually decided to add more items, a price list, and find a higher traffic location (they set up right near a construction site.) As a result, they both came home happy, clenching about $3 in change each.
In addition to being gritty, these children are more inclined to be leaders and stand up for what’s right. Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University explains,
[Strong-willed children] are usually self-motivated and inner-directed, and often grow into leaders as adults. They are more impervious to peer pressure and go after what they want with more gusto. They want to “learn things for themselves rather than accepting what others say, so they test the limits over and over,” and this relates to relationships as well. Such discernment involves not only when they cut their hair, eat vegetables, or choose to wear a coat, but also in whom they decide to trust and in whom they choose to follow or who they allow themselves to be influenced by.
Finally, emotionally intelligent people tend to have better job performance (1). And, highly sensitive people tend to be empathetic, smart, and conscientious (2).
How do you know you have a strong-willed, sensitive child?
Children who have strong-willed temperaments tend to:
- be prone to power struggles,
- question authority and rules,
- be bright and persistent,
- frequently test authority figures (parents, babysitters, substitute teachers, extended family) to see determine what the boundaries are,
- protest readily when expectations seem unfair,
- carry arguments on for longer and farther than one would anticipate (3).
Children who are highly sensitive tend to:
- be very intuitive,
- learn better with gentle correction rather than harsh punishment,
- notice when others are bothered or upset,
- feel emotions deeply,
- picks up on subtle changes (such as the “slightest unusual odour”)
- asks a lot of questions,
- is very sensitive to pain.
You can take the Highly Sensitive Child test, developed based Dr Elaine Aron’s research, here.
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Parenting a strong-willed, sensitive child is challenging. We want to preserve their spirit while effectively parenting them. This is how to work with your child’s temperament and improve cooperation.
5 key strategies that make parenting a strong-willed, sensitive child easier.
- Frame your child’s behaviour. How parents frame their child’s behaviour tends to determine how they respond to it. Parents who approach their children with more understanding and compassion (while still making sure they follow the rules) have children who tend to cooperate more and show lower levels of aggression and anxiety. By understanding your child is strong-willed and sensitive, you have context for why your child may be more headstrong and/or emotional and can coach it in a more contentious way.
- Work with your child’s personality by establishing the family rules together. Call a family meeting and discuss problems as well as goals. Prompt your children to talk about what rules they think are reasonable as well as how they should be reminded when mistakes are made. In this situation, you are still the parent and you are guiding the discussion while collaborating to accomplish peace and cooperation in your household. Setting rules and expectations before an event or scenario (e.g., going to a restaurant, visiting a museum, or going over to someone’s house for dinner) will also increase cooperation and make discipline easier if needed.
- Frontload as often as possible. This means to look for every chance to give your child a heads-up before disappointment strikes, plans change, or the going gets tough. This will make it so much easier for her to be resilient when she feels challenged.
- Make boundaries firm and discipline gentle. Strong-willed children need to know what rules are non-negotiable. This minimizes power struggles and also facilitates confidence in a child. Research shows that sensitive children feel the most vulnerable when boundaries aren’t clear (3). Equally, discipline must be calm and gentle. Studies on sensitive children show that they hold themselves highly accountable for their mistakes (4). In cases of misbehaviour, the best approach is a subtle reminder or in more extreme cases a timeout where you’re with your child.
- When appropriate and with your child’s permission, explain your child’s temperament to others. Some may mistakenly think your child is intentionally being too sensitive or strong-willed. Others may not know how to make sense of your child’s nature. By giving context to who your child is, the adults in your child’s life will be better equipped to take care of and guide him.
A final note on sensitive and strong-willed children
Strong-willed, sensitive children require patience and consideration. They aren’t easy to raise, but their temperament gives them the innate capacity to become compassionate and meaningful leaders. The key is to work with their personality while increasing cooperation. To do so, the adults in their lives must work with them instead of against them, be clear with their expectations but gentle with their discipline, and act as their advocate where appropriate. In doing so, adults are able to guide the child in a way that celebrates who she is. This then gives the child to truly become the person she is meant to be.”
Other articles and reading you may find helpful
Parenting a Strong-Willed Child: 10 surefire tips for effective discipline
Front-Loading, Redirection & Connection: 3 powerful strategies for your strong-willed toddler
How to Empower and Celebrate Your Sensitive Son
10+ Children’s Books That Will Make Your Strong-Willed Child Laugh
“Aren’t they just bad?” Debunking common myths about strong-willed children
Kids Dentist Helper Shivaun says
I’ve read the full article in CMR and it is great. Dealing with your kids emotions is never easy. The important thing is that we listen to them, and let them know they have been heard. Lovely post Alana, keep up the great work.
Thank you so much!
Thank you! I cried reading the full article because it was so good to see written out what I think about in the moment. Evaluating isn’t something everyone does. Thank you for letting me feel that I am doing a good thing for my kids
Thank you so much for this post. My son is highly sensitive and it often presents many challenges. This has helped me to understand how I can help him. So many good tips, especially about trying to give him a heads up before disappointment strikes. Definitely going to try that one.
Thanks a million for an insightful article on positive parenting. This resonates so much with my 5 year old.boy, he is so adorable and helps me in so many ways. Just that I know the trick to handle him.
However, the online school many times leaves him with a emotional meltdown due to unfair situations, which the teacher doesn’t seem to understand.
However, so glad I found this. Because it gives me confidence that I am going the right way handling my child. Understanding their emotions doesn’t equate to pampering.
Lots of love to you and your beautiful souls. 🙂