Strong-willed children have lots of great qualities. They are determined, courageous, fierce, and spirited. They can also be emotionally intense and sensitive which might lead to more tantrums and meltdowns, and their determination and spiritedness might mean power struggles are a real, well, struggle. This makes parenting strong-willed children a bit tricky.
These kids don't do well with traditional discipline methods which tend to only fuel power struggles. They are not easily controlled or manipulated. The traditional “control over” approach doesn’t go over well with these spirited tots, and they will naturally challenge you.
Learning to decode your fierce child’s behavior is key to reducing power struggles and increasing connection.
Seeing Behavior as Communication
Learning to look behind the behavior to the root cause is an important parenting skill no matter if your child is strong-willed or not, but it can be particularly helpful for parents of spirited kids to realize that all behavior is communication. It gives us a peek into the child’s emotional world and provides clues as to what the child is experiencing in that moment. This is especially important in strong-willed or intense children because they get overwhelmed easily, and their behavior guides us to a greater understanding of them if we pause and pay attention.
When a child’s behavior is off track, it could be because her brain is being overwhelmed by emotion or stress. While we assume that all behavior is deliberate, and even calculated, the truth often is that they cannot stop themselves. Their fight or flight response has been activated, their brain is experiencing an amygdala hijack, and they probably have little control over their actions.
At other times, simple immaturity is to blame, and our own lack of understanding of the developing brain and how it works. Your child may know, for example, that he isn’t supposed to run ahead in the parking lot, but he cannot stop himself from acting on his impulse to run as his impulse is stronger than his reasoning at that age.
This doesn’t mean we let misbehavior slide. It’s a shift from punishing behavior to providing predictability, clear expectations, boundaries, and positive discipline to keep them safe while their brains are still developing.
Here are three ways, or solutions, to handle your strong- child’s behavior.
Choices and Mastery
Strong-willed children like to feel in control. When you think about it, young children have so little control over their daily life, and it must be quite frustrating for them. We can meet them where they are by allowing them to make lots of small and reasonable choices that will feel empowering to them. When strong-willed children are forced to submit, they become oppositional, defiant, and stubborn, but when we give them control where appropriate and use a “come alongside” rather than a “come at” approach, they become less oppositional.
Strong-willed children crave mastery. Allow them to do for themselves what they can, and encourage them to take charge of as many activities as possible. Yes, this means you may have to relinquish control on minor issues. Is it more important that her outfit matches or that she’s happy she dressed herself, even if she’s wearing rain boots, shorts, and a hoodie? It may take five times longer to bake the brownies, but he’ll feel a sense of pride and accomplishment that he did it himself. Whenever possible, let your little firecracker be in charge of themselves and they’ll become more cooperative.
Strong and Clear Boundaries
It may seem like your child wants zero rules, but all kids feel safer with firm boundaries in place as long as they are enforced calmly and lovingly. Be conscious of your tone and energy when explaining and enforcing boundaries.
Start by explaining expectations, not in a warning tone that is projecting your mistrust but in a “heads up” tone. Demonstrate that you believe in him and you’re on his side. “We’re going on this nature walk and I know you get excited and it’s fun to run. I’m not comfortable with that because it’s not safe so I’ll give you a signal or sign so you know when to wait and let us catch up. If it doesn’t work, we will hold hands.” Don’t view holding hands as a punishment but as help. “I love you too much to let you go running off.”
Anytime we talk about strong-willed children, there’s always a concern about their free spirit. We love that our strong-willed kids are fierce, determined, persistent, and non-conforming. We don’t want to “break their spirit,” we just want to tame it a bit.
Unfortunately, this fear of breaking their spirit may lead to a failure to set appropriate boundaries, so we need to rethink how we look at boundaries. Boundaries are love in action. They are like the lines in the road that tell drivers where we can safely navigate. Without them, there’d be chaos. Boundaries keep us safe, so rather than viewing boundaries as spirit-breaking, we can see them spirit-saving. You are more likely to hurt a strong-willed child’s spirit by constantly calling her down or correcting her than you are to provide appropriate boundaries in the first place.
Traditional discipline methods like punishments, threats, and lectures trigger opposition and push-back, particularly in willful children. Positive discipline works better to decrease power struggles and increase connection.
First, work on building trust and a secure attachment, as this will increase your influence with your spirited kid. This can be done through lots of laughter, play, listening, and quality time.
Next, work on teaching your child social-emotional skills. Help them to understand what is driving their behavior and practice the skills they need to regulate their emotions and actions with the Time-In ToolKit.
Finally, focus on solutions. When an issue arises, problem-solve together to find a solution. Ask the following questions: What caused this to happen? How do you feel about this? What could you do differently next time? How are you going to fix this? This is much more effective than losing an iPad. Solutions are better than punishments because children need to learn to fix their mistakes, not just pay for them.