Peacefully Parenting Your Strong-Willed Child

Holding your child with love, not force

Spirited children are often great communicators and can have these mega minds and present the most appealing arguments to support their current cause of the moment. And it’s important that we truly listen and show them that we’re able to be flexible. Yet what they want and what they need, like for all kids, isn’t always the same thing. So yes, they need us to really listen and work with them, yet it’s also important to know where to hold the loving limits. These are kids who can often go at life full throttle without always being able to appreciate, or accept, their limitations, or other people’s limitations, and hence can crash and burn out at times.

It’s important not to put all the blame and responsibility to change on their young shoulders. They feel at the mercy of their strong frustrations and need us to provide relief through our loving limits, our heartfelt empathy and lots of stress-releasing play and laughter. They need to know that we can forgive them and hold their goodness in our minds and hearts even when they are themselves so at the mercy of their very strong emotions and desires. Even when those strong emotions and desires lead to the difficult and even aggressive behaviours. They also dearly need for their strengths, their many gifts and their contributions to be recognized and valued.

Parenting my strong willed son

When my son was young, and even through his teenage years (he’s now 18), I regularly had these moments of “Oops hang on, we need to slow things down”, when I’d realized that we were just doing way too much doing and he was all frazzled. My son gives his endeavors his 100%, yet all that dynamic energy can be exhausting. So at times I’d follow my instincts and put on the brakes, saying no to the play dates, saying no to the skate park, no to then putting on a movie when he couldn’t slow down and wanted more entertainment and excitement. I’d hold steady in response to those big cathartic upsets that would seem so sad and heartbreaking for him because he SO passionately wanted to play with his friend, go to the park, or watch a DVD. And boy does it take a lot of strength, love and will to hold strong in the face of our cherished child being so heartbroken as a result of us saying “no”. Oh my gosh, the passion!

But it was the times when I really put on the brakes that would help him slow down and make his way back to greater peace and contentment. We would sit it out at home, and I would make myself very available to him and pour out my empathy when he found himself sitting in the discomfort of feeling restricted. It was these very times that I’d see him slowly but surely landing back into himself. There would be some upset and then lots of cuddles. Then I would smile as I watched him remembering how much he enjoyed playing for hours with his cars and his blocks, or his Lego, or finger knitting or making his hut in the garden from bits of wood and branches or spending hours doing his art. He’d become so calm and settled again, but still never stop vocalizing while awake!

I shudder to think about the battles that would have ensued for my beautiful boy had he grown up with parents who were focused on forcefully controlling, containing and taming his often larger than life energy, his strong opinions, strong feelings and passion.

The strong willed child is likely to fight or resist cooperation with a lot more determination and wit than most children. Parent and child can get caught in such power struggles filling daily life with stress, conflict and turmoil. Instead of seeing your child as being difficult, see them crying out to feel truly seen and heard.

If you have a highly spirited child, you’ve got your work cut out for you. These kids need loving limits for sure, but they also need lots of warm connection and fun. They need to be treated with care and kindness; they need for our love to be bigger than our urge to react.

Labels can cause children to feel defeated, trapped and misunderstood

It’s all too easy for these kids to become labelled as being too much, too intense, too demanding, too stubborn. These children can pick up very early that adults view them to be difficult, contrary, oppositional, inflexible, naughty, selfish, a handful. And all that labelling can result in children feeling like they’re too much for their family to cope with. Children can feel powerless and hopeless and destined to be “too difficult”, and negative feedback loops of increased stress, pressure and sadness ensue. Stressed parents need to somehow figure out how to keep coming back to the interactions and rituals which increase connection and compassion to keep the balance.

The journey from feeling powerless to regaining your confidence as a parent

The more the parent can see and own how they are contributing to the dynamic, (we’ve all been trained to blame), the more relief they can bring to their child, thereby inviting them into a more cooperative dance where the needs of both parent and child are important and valued. Each time the parent reframes their view of the incident to include consideration of the child’s stress levels, a shift can happen: “That was really stressful for me AND for her, we both get really stuck in being reactive.” Reframing the situation to connect with and care about the feelings and needs of oneself as the parent and the child helps to soften the hearts again. Each and every time that the parent successfully regains compassion for their child (always a victory!), instead of seeing themselves as the victim of their child’s intensity, the parent regains their role as the parent whose job it is to help their child. This process of softening our hearts as parents in very difficult situations is NOT easy, it can be hugely difficult and sometimes can be a project over several hours, days, weeks or even months, but it’s generally what’s most needed to regain more harmony.

Transitioning from traditional to peaceful parenting isn’t without it’s challenges. It’s tricky especially to be in the middle ground where you’ve committed to not yell or punish, yet you’re still grappling to learn and practice the new skills. But hang in there; it’s so very worth it. You’re likely changing patterns that have been passed down through the generations, inch by inch change can happen. Try to be as patient with yourself as you’re endeavouring to be with your child.

Genevieve Simperingham is a Psychosynthesis Counsellor, a certified Aware Parenting Instructor, parent educator, a blogger and public speaker.  She’s been parenting with attachment principles from the beginning, her son is 21 and daughter 16.  She runs the Peaceful Parent Institute in New Zealand and offers live and online events.  Check out her website

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