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Parenting the Strong-Willed Child

Written by Kelly Bartlett - Calgary’s Child Magazine

“Me do it - own!” That was the exclamation of my one-year-old as my husband tried to help him put the clean spoons back in the drawer. At the time, we thought it was cute how he was able to articulate what he wanted and so adamantly stand up for himself. Little did we know how much the intensity of that moment would permeate nearly every interaction we would have together over the next several years.

Our son is a strong-willed child. His tenacious spirit and persistent personality often challenge our efforts in parenting him. Even the most mundane tasks become a battle, and not a day goes by in which our decisions aren’t questioned or countered. Like us, so many other parents find themselves in a similar situation; their children’s strong-willed temperaments can be difficult to connect with, difficult to guide, difficult to endure.

For parents of kids who are spirited or strong-willed, guiding them through their development while maintaining a connected relationship can be challenging. How is it possible to parent lovingly and effectively?

Here are three leading principles in parenting a strong-willed child that will keep your relationship secure and embrace your child’s strong spirit:

Turn into the skid

If you’ve ever hit a skid while driving, you know that suddenly heading into a different direction while out of your control is scary. Your first instinct may be to think, ‘No! This isn’t right; this isn’t the direction I need to go.' Your instinct might be to jerk the wheel back to your intended path. However, when your car is skidding, what is actually the most effective way to get back on the road? By turning into the skid first. Then you’re able to slow the momentum and gain some traction.

Dr. Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D., and author of Hold On to Your Kids, says that strong-willed children have similar reactions to a hard turn away from a skid. “Counterwill is an instinctive, automatic resistance to any sense of being forced,” says Dr. Neufeld. “It is triggered whenever a person feels controlled or pressured to do someone else’s bidding.” This is actually a positive attribute, as it protects children from being influenced or pressured from anyone to whom they do not have an emotional connection. When you find yourself at odds with your strong-willed child’s energy, find a way to join your child where they are; in other words, turn into the skid in order to redirect that momentum.

Connect with your child by acknowledging their feelings and understanding their perspective:

“I can tell that you’re really upset.”

“You are having such a fun time playing this game!”

“You are sad to say goodbye.”

“You feel very strongly about this.”

“You need to be able to make your own decisions.”

“You are feeling so angry right now.”

“You must feel like you don’t have any control.”

“You really want to play with your friends right now.”

“You were hoping to have a cookie.”

“You love that toy, and you’re upset that you can’t have it.”

“You wish you didn’t have to get dressed right now.”

“You’d prefer to stay home today and not go anywhere.”

“Yeah, I can understand that.”

For strong-willed children, the need to be heard and understood is especially important, as their energy can be so powerful in the opposite way. Coming alongside children through empathy, validation and acceptance allows them to feel connected enough to steer their energy in the desired direction.

Reframe and redirect

Dr. Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline and the founder of the Positive Discipline Association, says that strong will in a child is a great thing to have. “After all, we don’t want weak-willed children!” Strong-willed kids grow up to be assertive, determined adults who know what they need and are confident in standing up for themselves. Dr. Nelsen says that parents should celebrate that they have a spirited child. Then, take every opportunity to guide that child into using their strong will in contributing ways. If not, she says kids will use it in useless ways.

Children need plenty of opportunity to exercise their senses of competence and capability, so create an environment that is conducive to autonomy. From deciding what to wear, to fixing their own breakfast cereal, give children plenty of choices and opportunities for personal power in their lives. Enlist their help in solving small problems as often as you can. Work cooperatively to create daily routines that will help kids take responsibility for themselves. When you find yourself standing rigid against a child’s force of will, remember that parenting is not meant to be a battle of ‘us versus them’. Instead, find a way to work with a child’s spirit by redirecting that willful energy in appropriate ways.

Dr. Nelsen also says the key to relating to strong-willed children is to find a balance of kindness and firmness in everyday interactions. “Many parents know how to be kind… until they get upset. Then they know how to be firm without being kind, and they vacillate between the two; being kind until they can’t stand their kids [who develop an entitlement attitude] and then being firm until they can’t stand themselves [feeling like tyrants].” A great example of using kindness and firmness at the same time is telling kids, “I love you and the answer is no”. First, connect with kids on an emotional level and remind them you’re on their side. Then set a clear limit and let kids have their feelings about it.

Embrace your own confidence

In parenting, attitude is critical. So often, spirited children can suppress any confidence a parent may have because of the nature of their interactions. With frequent power struggles, belligerence, shouts and tears, parents may start to question if they’re making the right decisions for their child. They may not feel competent to handle such exuberance.

Parents of strong-willed children must find their power, not a physical power over or even a cooperative power with a child, but a power within themselves. It’s a personal power and a sense of, ‘I’ve got this.' Children pick up on this confidence (or lack thereof), and can experience a sense of insecurity when they think they are ‘too much’ for anyone to handle. What they need is a parent who is able to accept their willful spirit and the full range of emotions in accompaniment. This internal shift in confidence has a tremendous impact on a child’s behavior; kids begin to feel the inherent strength of boundaries that are set and start to have less need to test them.

So no matter your child’s strength of will, remember that you have what it takes to be the best parent for them: the ability to connect with and support them throughout their development, a positive and accepting perspective of their temperament and the inner strength in knowing that you are their best bet. Above all, communicate to your child, “I’ve got you."

For more reading on raising strong-willed or spirited kids, check out these helpful resources:

Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka
Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline by Becky A. Bailey
Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen
Parenting Without Power Struggles by Susan Stiffelman

Kelly is the author of Encouraging Words For Kids. She is a Certified Positive Discipline Educator and freelance writer with a focus on child development, family relationships and discipline.

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