Some children seem to be naturally compliant, while others fight every issue.
Jenny Hale explains what motivates your strong-willed child and how to make the most of their strength and potential.
If you are lucky enough to be a parent of a strong-willed child, at times you will feel blessed, because you love their decisiveness, their confidence, their sense of justice and their ability to stand alone and believe in themselves!
At other times you will feel exhausted, powerless, bullied, guilty and overwhelmed; in fact, you will probably feel that you are being punished for the hard time you gave your own parents! Fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree, and you usually don’t have to look further than a mirror to find the source of your child’s iron will.
Welcome to the world of raising a child with strength, gutsiness and an exceptional amount of determination.
When the parents of a strong-willed child come for a coaching session with me, I tell them they will need to do an ‘advanced’ parenting course. I say this in fun, but the reality is that parents of such strong children need every tool in the box and the flexibility to choose which tool for which time.
Strong-willed children are not naturally compliant. They are not wired to blend in, to cooperate, to adjust or to see a situation from another angle. They want to win, they often seek out fights and they don’t know how to back down easily. They have an enormous need for respect. Sometimes they don’t even get on with themselves!
If parents take the child’s behaviour personally and decide that their child is out to make their life a misery, war will be declared and there won’t really be any winners. Understanding these children is the first step in working with them, and the key insight is that they are just ‘wired’ differently – they were born this way! Both parents will agree that it was evident very early on, and many mothers will say they even had an inkling when they were carrying this baby!
Strong-willed children learn where your ‘buttons’ are and will push them mercilessly. They will jump on the ‘tender spots’ so that parents end up doing and saying what they don’t want to do. For example: a five-year-old might discover that if she defies her mother and refuses to leave the playground, she gets a very interesting reaction. The mother feels powerless, ashamed, alone and bewildered, and those strong emotions prompt behaviour that matches the five-year-old’s. Lots of threats, warnings, shouting, bribing and emotion. The dance begins: children of this ilk dig their toes in and will match their parent, emotion for emotion.
Parenting a strong-willed child is the biggest invitation to grow that you will ever have. When parents learn how to disarm their strong feelings, take stock of the situation and calm down, parenting strongwilled children will be much easier.
Your style has got to be robust. Children respond to adults who have calmness and composure. If you remain pleasant and firm under fire, the messages you send are, “I am in the control seat. Everything is okay here. Your needs will be met but I will not be pushed or bullied”. This settles children down. They learn they are not so powerful that they can disconcert the big people in their world, and their world feels a lot safer because of that. For example, if mum refuses to give 7-year-old Bryce another round of ice-cream, he may try some other avenues to get her to change her mind. He may accuse her of being a mean and horrible mother, he may yell and cry, he may pursue her around the house – but if she is pleasant, resolute and calm, eventually he realises, “My Mum is firm, she is strong and she does what she says she will do.” Deep down, he appreciates that – but it is VERY deep down, so don’t expect him to express it!
Once children have settled the most important question – who is the leader in the family? – they can get on with being a child, and parents can get on with enjoying them.
Positive action suggestions
Just remember: strong-willed children like to throw out regular tests to see if you will still remain calm and robust.
Let them learn by the mistakes they make. Strong-willed children don’t like being told what they should do and what they did wrong. It takes away some of their need for power and dignity. It may be tempting to over-explain all the instructions on how to make a cake to your ten-year-old, and to constantly check up on them and micromanage them each step of the way, but if we do they either lose interest or rebel. Wherever you can, let them run with their idea. If the cake does not turn out well, try very hard not to say, “Well I told you that would happen if you didn’t measure the flour properly!” These kids will learn a lesson all on their own from the consequences, and they will learn it well.
Invite them to solve problems. Strong-willed children thrive on exercising their brains with problem solving. They want a friend to come to play, but today won’t be convenient: invite them to work out a day that does work for everyone
Give them choices. They enjoy the dignity of being asked to choose which option they prefer.“Would you like the blue cup or the red cup?” “Would you like a ride to bed on my back or on my feet?” “Will you be sitting nicely with us at the table or are you going to choose to play on your own in your room?” Choices engage a child’s thinking and allows them some freedom which they need to thrive.
Rehearse areas that are difficult. Strong-willed children often have problems finishing an activity they have been enjoying. They can be overwhelmed with disappointment and upset at the sense of injustice that parents were stopping them before they felt they had finished.
Before they play at a friend’s house, or you take them to a favourite park, rehearse what they need to do and say when it is time to leave. It might sound like this: “Talia, when I say that it is time to leave the park, you need to say, “Yes, okay Dad. Thanks for the lovely time I have had.” These children need a script to replace their original one of, “I don’t want to leave! I haven’t finished yet!”
Use a rule as your reference point. Strong-willed children are very sensitive to discrimination. If you were to say, “James! Stop throwing the blocks around!” he may feel that you are saying that just to ‘get’ at him. However, if you said, “James, we use blocks for building with – that’s our rule,” James can separate himself from the command and see it as a stable family rule.
Maintain regular routines and rituals. These children absolutely need daily rituals like a bed time story, a back rub, a song you sing in the car and a special plate you use for their afternoon tea. These pleasant, positive interactions are the things that will shape their personality, and so they shouldn’t be withdrawn as a penalty for misbehaviour. These patterns of loving interaction are predictable, comforting and remind them that your love for them is unconditional: their behaviour cannot push you away. Strong-willed children do seem to sabotage the good times available to them and test parents’ resolve and unconditional love. Special events need to be maintained. Strong-willed children need to see that their parent will still take them out for a special one-on-one date on Saturday morning, regardless of whether they got a great report at school or a terrible one, behaved perfectly or was a perfect terror all week. Of course there will be other incentives and penalties, but they shouldn’t impinge on these regular interactions that are not given as rewards or taken away as punishments. That is because these children need to be loved unconditionally.
Reserve some energy to be playful. Ther is a trick with these children – they can be disarmed easily! They love us to be funny, to use a silly voice, to pretend we are them, to make inanimate objects like the toothbrush talk – anything that is not too serious or stern. Strong-willed children often seem to be simmering, building up steam for a fight; but when we hold the toothbrush and the toothbrush starts to talk – the fight goes out of them. They smile – and parents and children stay on the same team. Of course, this creative playfulness takes some energy – energy that is in short supply because strong-willed children are so exhausting – but fighting takes energy, too, and playing is much more fun!
Potholes to avoid
There are some things parents do that can make things a whole lot harder. See if there are any of these that you can drop from your repertoire.
Stop the lectures. Strong-willed children never get lectures! When you go over the same ground and tell them one more time what you think, why you think it, how disappointed you are, what they should remember, what you did when you were their age – you are probably just adding fuel for some more drama. Lectures are not going to work. The only advantage is they might calm adults down, but a lecture is ineffective in teaching a child what to do next time.
Refrain from using ‘fighting words’. How dare you speak to me like that! There are no more treats for you until you learn some respect!” Fight invites fight. A strong-willed child hearing these words is likely to think, “I don’t care about the treats, I just must win!” Often, they can’t even remember what the fight is about, they just know there is one and they must not lose. By contrast, ‘Thinking-words’ create much more engagement. “As soon as you can speak respectfully to me, I will be happy to stay in the room and listen to you.”
Avoid the harsh, shrill tones! Our tone of voice communicates so much more than our words. When a parent’s voice is tense, high, loud or screechy – children react. The ‘stir’ in our voice creates stir in them! Whatever tone of voice parents use will be echoed back to us so it is worth speaking pleasantly as much as possible.
Avoid too much control. Strong-willed children need generous doses of the ‘hands off’ approach. They want to hear, “You will be fine. Just come and get me if you need some help.” Instead, they tend to get lots of organising, monitoring, judging, fixing, mentioning, improving and evaluating! They feel like they can’t breathe! Giving them morecontrol tells them they are capable and have got what it takes. Do try to step back: leave the bed they made bumpy because they are still learning, don’t speak for them when someone asks them a question, or let them choose something to wear that you may not like. A good place to start: ask their opinion and then listening to it without opposing it with your own ideas.
Do not threaten! Theats send a clear signal to a strong-willed child. The message is, “My parents are losing control! They feel powerless and are using threats of punishment as a last resort! They have run out of options and are hoping that the threat will frighten me… well, they have picked the wrong kid to try that on!” Kids need to know, up front, what consequences will happen if they do certain things. Then they need to be given the consequence with certainty and confidence, and without anger or fluster. They do not need to be harsh or cruel, just logical and consistent.
Be careful about what they hear you say! Speaking positively about your child works magnificently… but the opposite is also true: if they hear you express negative opinions of them, then that can have a devastating effect on their self esteem. Never underestimate how much your kids pick up from your conversations with other people, even if they seem to be attending to something else. They will hear and absorb. If the message they are hearing is that they are a nuisance, a bad child, wearing you down, difficult or unmanageable – they will feed off that and live up to the words.
Be wise with your use of “NO”. When strong-willed children hear the word ‘no’, they often interpret it as ‘NEVER!’ Maybe the parent has just said ‘no’ to having a friend around to play, and they wail “I NEVER get to have a friend to play!!” Be firm and remind them, “No for this time, but not for every time. Let’s plan a time when a friend can come.”
And now for a word of comfort
Strong-willed children bring delight to parents, family and teachers alike. Their strength is inspiring. They don’t need approval from others to make good decisions. They can become wonderful, contributing citizens. And if you are the parent of one, your journey will be easier if you work with the grain and let your strong-willed child regularly know you are very fond of them!