Parenting Your Strong-Willed Child

Photography: Jessica Lea Photography

By Dr Laura Markham

Do you have a strong-willed child? You’re lucky! Strong-willed children can be a challenge when they’re young, but if sensitively parented, they become terrific teens and young adults. Self-motivated and inner-directed, they go after what they want and are almost impervious to peer pressure. As long as parents resist the impulse to “break their will”, strong-willed kids often become leaders.

What exactly is a strong-willed child? Some parents call them “difficult” or “stubborn” or more positively, “spirited”. But we could also see strong-willed kids as people of integrity who aren’t easily swayed from their own viewpoints. 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.

Often, strong-willed kids are prone to power-struggles with their parents. However, it takes two to have a power struggle. You don’t have to attend every argument to which you’re invited! If you can take a deep breath when your buttons get pushed, and remind yourself that you can let your child save face and still get what you want, you can learn to side-step those power struggles. (Don’t let your four-year-old make you act like a four-year-old yourself.)

No one likes being told what to do, but strong-willed kids find it unbearable. Parents can avoid power struggles by helping the child feel understood even as the parent sets limits. Try empathizing, giving choices, and understanding that respect goes both ways. Looking for win/win solutions rather than just laying down the law keeps strong-willed children from becoming explosive and teaches them essential skills of negotiation and compromise.

Strong-willed kids aren’t just being difficult. They feel their integrity is compromised if they’re forced to submit to another person’s will. If they’re allowed to choose, they love to cooperate. If this bothers you because you think obedience is an important quality, I’d ask you to reconsider. Of course you want to raise a responsible, considerate, cooperative child who does the right thing, even when it’s hard. But that doesn’t imply obedience. That implies doing the right thing because you want to.

Morality is doing what’s right, no matter what you’re told. Obedience is doing what you’re told, no matter what’s right. – H.L. Mencken

So of course you want your child to do what you say. But not because he’s obedient, meaning that he always does what someone bigger tells him to do. No, you want him to do what you say because he trusts YOU, because he’s learned that even though you can’t always say yes to what he wants, you have his best interests at heart. You want to raise a child who has self-discipline, takes responsibility, and is considerate – and most important, has the discernment to figure out who to trust and when to be influenced by someone else.

Breaking a child’s will leaves him open to the influence of others who often will not serve his highest interests. What’s more, it’s a betrayal of the spiritual contract we make as parents.

That said, strong-willed kids can be a handful  – high energy, challenging, persistent. How do we protect those fabulous qualities and encourage their cooperation?

12 Tips for Peaceful Parenting Your Strong-Willed, Spirited Child

1. Remember that strong-willed kids are experiential learners.

That means they have to see for themselves if the stove is hot. So unless you’re worried about serious injury, it’s more effective to let them learn through experience, instead of trying to control them. And you can expect your strong-willed child to test your limits repeatedly – that’s how he learns. Once you know that, it’s easier to stay calm, which avoids wear and tear on your relationship – and your nerves.

2. Your strong-willed child wants mastery more than anything.

Let her take charge of as many of her own activities as possible. Don’t nag at her to brush her teeth, ask “What else do you need to do before we leave?” If she looks blank, tick off the short list: “Every morning we eat, brush teeth, use the toilet, and pack the backpack. I saw you pack your backpack, that’s terrific! Now, what do you still need to do before we leave?” Kids who feel more independent and in charge of themselves will have less need to be oppositional. Not to mention, they take responsibility early.

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