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The Strong-willed Child

13 May

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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.

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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!

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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!

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how to talk so kids will listen, and listen so kids will talk – by John Cowan

29 Nov

from Parenting Magazine www.theparentingplace.com

It’s one thing to talk to your children – it’s another to have a receptive audience. John Cowan gets some tips from the experts on being heard and learning to listen.

There are heaps of parenting books. Most have got some good ideas, but there are very few that you enjoy coming back to. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish wrote such a book: “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen…And Listen So Kids Will Talk.”  I recently reread it, and was amazed at how much of what I had read a decade ago had ‘stuck’. So I realised much of what I believe and teach about parenting came from this book – some of the ideas are so ingrained I honestly thought I had made them up myself!

So here are a few tips on communication. I know they originally came from Faber and Mazlish, but I should warn you that these ideas are coloured and distorted from having spent 10 years fermenting in my brain.

Helping children deal with their feelings

A key concept of the book is based on Dr William Sear’s idea: “A child who feels right, acts right!” Behaviour is a symptom of something going on inside. All kids will occasionally throw up the odd bit of mischief, but if you are enduring persistent, unpleasant, uncooperative behaviour, that child is not feeling well. A child who feels ‘right’ doesn’t need to resort to whiney, aggressive ‘racket behaviour or passive-aggressive sabotage to get their needs met. So how do we help them feel right? One way is to accept their feelings, rather than trying to convince them that they are NOT feeling what they know very well that they ARE feeling.

“You can’t be tired!”

“It’s cold! Keep it on.”

“That didn’t hurt.”

“I’m not interested in your excuses.”

“You don’t look sick to me.”

The overall message we give is, ‘don’t trust your own perceptions – trust mine’. It leads to frustration and arguments. It certainly doesn’t make a child feel loved and accepted. A better response is empathy: feeling what they are feeling. And this is where Faber and Mazlish are brilliant: they don’t just tell you do something (“Be empathetic!”) , they walk you through the process, and use little cartoon examples to show right and wrong was to tackle the issues they raise. So they unpack empathy into three steps: Listen closely, acknowledge their feelings and give their feeling a name. Now, let’s unpack that unpacking:

Listening. We automatically hear the noises our children make but actually listen in a way that is really empathetic takes effort and skill.

 First, actually show that you are listening: lean in, make eye contact and have an appropriate expression. Remove distractions – your kids will never believe you are taking them seriously if you are clicking through channels or scanning a magazine (even a parenting magazine!) while they are talking to you. If they want to talk at an inconvenient time, rather than just saying, “Not now”, make an actual appointment: “I can’t stop at the moment, but I want to hear what you’ve got to say. I’ll come inside after the Fire Brigade have finished and you can tell me then.”

The real heart of empathy is acknowledging their feelings. Language is sometimes inadequate: sympathetic Oooohs and Mmmms are often far more eloquent ways to express that we feel what they’re feeling. Sometimes you might not need any words or sounds at all: closeness and empathy may be enough.

Our body language should say the same thing our words do: if we stand rigid and aloof, it sends a message that we don’t really care. It’s not that complicated, really! Feel the feeling and the body will follow.

Then, give the feeling a name :

“That sounds frustrating.”

“You must have been embarrassed”.

“How confusing.”

Repeat back to them what you understand them to be saying, but don’t be a parrot. Reflect the feelings, but don’t amplify them: “You must be really really REALLY mad!!!”

The aim is to let them know that you hear them, you empathise with their feelings, but you don’t necessarily have to agree with their perceptions of how things are. For example, you can sympathise with their feeling that things are unfair at home, but you don’t need to agree that things are actually unfair. And you don’t have to agree with their negative self labels (“So you’re really fat and ugly.”)

Of course, it is not just our children who have emotions – we have them as well, and sometimes our feelings will be upset when we hear our children express their emotions. What if they say they don’t like their Grandmother, or they hate their bike or they feel the teachers humiliate them? The instinctive reaction is to try to minimise or contradict or criticise their emotion. Wind back your own emotional response: all feelings can be accepted… but not all actions are permitted. They can be upset or angry – that’s permitted – but they cannot hit or damage things or use behaviour that is not permitted.

The book also gives techniques for getting cooperation. I particularly like the way that these methods train children to think and act without needing to be told. These may work in isolation, or you may use several of them in combination.

Describe the issue. Say what you see . It is so much better when they learn to see problems that need to be solved rather than just wait for commands to obey.

“The water is getting to the top of the bath.”

“I see the dog is waiting by the door.”

“There are dirty plates on the table.”

Give information. These might be the rules of your family or just facts about food, hygiene, safety etc. Again, it is encouraging children to think and motivate themselves to action rather just always waiting for orders.

“Apple cores go in the bin.”

“Milk goes sour when it’s left out.”

“Hands are for helping not hitting.”

“It would be helpful to put the plates on the table.”

Say it with a word. Some of us make the mistake of thinking that nagging really works; what it really does is train a child not to act until they have been asked multiple times. Use fewer words with more effectiveness.

“Pyjamas.”

“Your lunch.”

“The dog.”

Personally, I reckon your real goal should be to have the ability to give instructions by ‘eye-brow semaphore’: a flick of the eyes towards what needs to be done combined with an authoritative twitch of the eyebrow!

Talk about your feelings. It’s great when we learn about empathy, but our children need to be trained in it too. They especially need to know that their actions impact your feelings.

“I don’t like to be shoved.”

“Ants bother me.”

“I get frustrated when you talk over me.”

“I object to being spoken to roughly”

Write a note. For those of us who are addicted to nagging, maybe writing notes will help wean us off the habit. A Post It note stuck to their mirror will nag all day for you. In our home, we often use texts, even room to room. Children and teens seem to be unable to ignore texts, whereas they can tune out a parents voice very easily.

“Homework done?”

“Ssh… we’re having a snooze.”

“These need to be put away.”

“Chores.”

“How to Talk So Kids will Listen” is not a magic wand, but it is one of the few tools parents can get that comes close to it!

 

7 reasons parents are doing better than ever – by John Cowan

12 Nov

from Parenting Magazine www.theparentingplace.com

Are parents doing a better job than they were a few years ago? Well EVERYONE KNOWS children today are spoilt, over fed, disobedient, dumbed down, spend too much time on the internet and not enough time doing home work… and of course they all take drugs. So it follows parents today are appalling, a fact quickly confirmed by the majority of in-laws. Actually, I would argue that there are good reasons to believe you are a better parent than many of the parents a generation ago. It’s not hard to find examples of parents doing an appalling job and too many struggle with poverty and other problems but, in general, I think the current crop of parents are great. Here are my reasons:

      1. For a start, you are reading this. Thousands of parents read this and other parenting magazines or browse parenting articles online. Chances are you own parenting books (selected from hundreds of titles available) and you have probably been toparenting courses. I would safely wager you consciously up-skill yourself as a parent far more than your parents’ generation, simply because they never had the opportunity. When I started with The Parenting Place (then called Parenting with Confidence) in the midnineties, we were practically the only parenting organisation on the block. Resources were scarce: we imported books, magazines and speakers from overseas. Parenting education was something a school might occasionally attempt to put on, and these events were usually attended by about three parents, usually the mothers of the best behaved kids in the school.

      2. The second thing I would say in defence of modern parents is that Dads are taking their role more seriously. “WHICH men!?” you might snort derisively. Okay, my gender has a long way to go – Mums are still shouldering the lioness’s share of the parenting burden – but at least we are now feeling guilty about it. They are less shackled by stale masculine stereotypes and are conscious that they need to be involved with their kids. I’ve often met new dads who are quick to show off their prowess at looking after their infant. As the years have gone on I am delighted to see the proportion of men attending our events increase, and our Fathers’ Breakfasts are full of men earnestly wanting to do better.

      3. When I was a kid we rode in the back of utes, never wore helmets on bikes, played unsupervised around creeks and railway lines and had a hearty disregard for hygiene and safety. It was a great childhood… at least for those of us who survived it. Of course, most of us survived just fine, but the statistics definitely show that some didn’t; it was a more dangerous world for children back then. Actually, there are still far too many accidents. Compared with Australian children, our kids are twice as likely to die from injuries and three times as likely as children in England and Wales. If today is an average day, ten kiwi kids will suffer moderate to severe injuries and one child dies from injuries every five days(1). But that rate is a half of what it was in the early nineties(2) and less than a quarter of the rate in my childhood. Well done parents! When it comes to child abuse, the rates are far higher than decades ago, but I think this might in part reflect that it is tolerated less and is reported more

      4. Parents today think more about parenting and have a more sophisticated approach to parenting problems. I cannot cite any research on this but I have had a ringside seat in observing family life over many years, and I am impressed by the competence and knowledge of modern parents. When I was young, there were only two types of bread – white and brown – and only two types of child behaviour – good and naughty. Many in my era were just labelled naughty or stupid, and were whacked and punished, when in fact they may well have had ADHD, learning problems or psychological issues. Parents are much more prepared to look for reasons for behaviour, and to seek solutions apart from punishment. And when they go looking, they can find all sorts of help: school counsellors, psychologists, support agencies and parenting courses. Parents today benefit from the input of hundreds of professionals and dozens of agencies, and I believe they are making a huge difference

     5. I think kids are getting a better education today and parents can take some of the credit. Parents get more involved in education, volunteering and taking an interest. Parents are prepared to support children in their education longer, provide more resources and access extra coaching. Some would say that modern education has been dumbed down, and find old exam papers to show how much more advanced students were in the past. But they are not comparing apples with apples. There were around 1000 pupils in my high school back in the seventies. About half of them left in the fifth form (Year 11); there were only 17 students in the whole seventh form (year 13). Yes, the average senior student was probably better educated and doing more advanced work in my day, simply because all but the most academic had already been weeded out

       6. Parents have always loved their kids – I don’t doubt that for a moment. But it is lovely seeing a generation of parents who don’t mind showing it. “I love you” was something we saw American parents saying to their kids on TV programmes; in good old New Zealand we were a little more reserved, and saved stuff like that for our death beds. As I say, I am not implying that modern parents love their kids more, but I think they are definitely better at showing it.

      7. Parents are older today. I know, we are all older than we were yesterday, but what I mean is that couples are often delaying having children. The median age of first-time mothers has risen from 23 years old in the seventies to nearly 31 in recent years. Compared with young couples who leap straight into procreation, older parents tend to have more money, a bit more maturity and a relationship that has already been road-tested for a few years before subjecting it to the stress of parenthood. Families are also smaller, and though I’m not convinced it makes a huge difference, it probably means there is more to go around.

Please don’t use this article as grounds to boast to your parents that you are a better parent than they were (even if it is true!), but I hope you feel encouraged.

1 Source ACC.
2 http://www.nzchildren.co.nz/hospital_admissions.16 Parenting Spring 2012 php#Footnote_1

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