Life With Your Strong-willed Child: From Combat to Co-operation

Ahhh. Winter is here. Don’t you just love this time of year? Excitement about the holiday is growing; stores transform into glittering grottoes of promise; there’s a freshness in the air… wait a minute… a freshness in the air… uh-oh, dropping temperatures can mean only one thing; my kids are going to need to wear a coat. The “Festive Season” has another name in our household – “Coat Combat Season.”

Every time we’re about to leave the house, something like this happens:

ME: Coat on, please.
MY 4 YEAR-OLD: Don’t need one.
ME: It’s really cold outside…
MY 4 YEAR-OLD: Don’t need one.
ME: You do need one. It’s really cold.
ME: You’ll catch a cold if you go outside without a coat.
MY 4 YEAR-OLD: Don’t care.
ME: OK, we need to go now. Put. On. Your. Coat.
ME: Yes.
MY 4 YEAR-OLD: Don’t want to.
ME: Well, you have to…
MY 4 YEAR-OLD: Shouts a lot then possibly cries,
ME: Shouts a lot then possibly cries too. Swiftly followed by regret, guilt and Bad Parent Syndrome (BPS).

This year, I’ve decided things are going to be different. They HAVE to be different. I’ve recognized that I have what is called a Strong-Willed Child (SWC). In fact, I seem to have two of them. Of course, subconsciously I’ve known this since they were born; now, though, I’ve researched the latest techniques to help us live in harmony rather than head-to-head.

How do I know I have a Strong-Willed Child? If you’ve got one, you’ll know it! Here are a few easy to recognize signs:

1. “Not like that! Like THIS!”

Sound familiar? Strong-willed kids have very strong opinions about how things “should” be. They’re not afraid to share them and can be bossy with everyone and anyone, adult, child or object! This very rigid sense of what is “right” and “wrong” can lead to extreme angry outbursts if the world doesn’t conform to how they think it should be. They’ll persist until what’s “wrong” is “righted” and often want to do so independently, without any interfering parent trying to “help them.”

2. “No. Don’t want to. You can’t make me.”

Please refer to the “Coat Battle” above. A strong-willed kid will refuse to do something they don’t want to do, no matter if you rationalize, beg, bribe or shout. They’ll determinedly stick to their guns whatever the consequences. My kids have recently adopted the charming phrase “whatever” – a true patience-tester!

3. “But I WANT it!”

Their determination expresses itself in an entirely opposite way if an SWC thinks they deserve to do or have something. Whether it’s munching on a candy-bar just before bed or winning the prize during pass-the-parcel, there’s no difference between “need” and “want” in their minds. “Want” must lead to “get”… or else.

4. “But, why?”

Everything needs to have a reason. Strong-willed kids are inquisitive and analytical. They’re also able to quickly think of their own reasons as to “why” your reasons are inadequate! I’ve so often found myself desperately blurting “because I say so!” when my clever kid out-rationalizes me! These kids are expert debaters and negotiators.

5. “Come onnnnn!”

Once they’ve decided that something has to happen, Strong-Willed Children want it to happen NOW! They can suddenly explode with a huge amount of energy. But, if they’re not interested in doing something, they’ll transform into a sloth and creep at a pace so slow it is almost undetectable by the human eye. Once they zone in on a particular task, changing their focus is pretty-much impossible. SWCs commit in a big way.

These five characteristics can make our Little Leaders pretty tricky to parent (and by “pretty,” I mean exhaustingly, frustratingly, hair-pull-outingly, why-oh-why won’t you just do it-ingly!), but learning to channel their will rather than break their spirit will definitely be worth-while in the long-run. Extensive scientific research has shown that Strong-Willed Children are the ones who are going somewhere.

These are the kids who are going to make a real difference to the world. Why? Because of all those positive qualities hidden within the descriptions above – determination, integrity, inquisitiveness, passion, energy, persistence, commitment, independence and a strong sense of what’s right and wrong.

How can we encourage these brilliant attributes whilst also helping our kids to learn to co-operate and work with rather than against others?

Here are some ideas:

1. You are not always right! Adjusting our own attitude and expectations.

I once very seriously hollered that unless my child ate 5 more peas she would never, ever have any fun again ever – a very proud parenting moment. Well done, me. Do you sometimes find yourself involved in a deadly serious battle with your SWC, sticking to your guns as if your life depended on it and then wondering afterwards what the big deal was? Remind you of someone a little smaller than you? Yep, you’re a SWP – a Strong-Willed Parent!

I find myself almost daily fighting a fight just because I want to prove that I’m in charge. I’m the grown-up. I know best. My child should respect me and do what I say no matter what. But how is my child going to learn to co-operate if their principal influence, their parents, aren’t willing to co-operate either? Giving up on the idea that we are the automatic authority takes us out of our comfort-zone… and leads us towards a different, more harmonious way of parenting. Give yourself a break; relinquishing the need to always be right and always mightier than your child is actually a big relief. I try to take a pause and remember with compassion that my child is just like me before engaging my weapons. It’s not easy; I don’t always manage it, but it’s worth it when I do.

2. Listen and Learn – Respecting your child’s opinion

So often it feels like your child’s opposing you just for the sake of it. Their refusal to comply often feels like a personal insult. When my daughter refused to put on her PJs, I assumed she was just being “difficult.” After another fight, I eventually discovered that a girl on a sleep-over had teased her that PJs were “just for boys.” Our kids do often have valid reasons for either refusing or insisting on doing something. Your child’s strong will is partly born of integrity. Their reasons are important to them. If you can respect and acknowledge your child’s perspective, they’ll be much more likely to trust and respect you back.

Try introducing a topic by using statements rather than commands. This can help your child to explore for herself why she might be behaving a certain way as well as lead to a conversation about what the solutions might be.

Saying “I can see that you haven’t done your homework yet” raises the topic gently, in a non-confrontational way gently rather than simply commanding “Do your homework.”

Then, it seems obvious, but calmly listen to what your child’s trying to tell you and then validate it by repeating it back to them. It might feel a bit weird at first, but you’ll grow into the habit.

SWC: I don’t want to do my homework.
YOU: You don’t want to do your homework
SWC: No. Homework’s boring.
YOU: You find homework boring.
SWC: Yes. It’s math. Math is hard.

And now you know why the homework is being avoided, you can move on to approaching that challenge together…

3. Ask for their help! Recruiting your Strong-Willed Child to your cause

Use your child’s positive qualities to help solve problems together. They’re determined, passionate, inquisitive, and analytical. Help them to help you help each other! Rather than locking horns, see challenges as something you can solve together.

After you’ve made a statement about what you’ve seen, you can ask questions. This helps to empower your child more than giving advice. Advice can often sound like a command and spark your child’s conflict fuse again. Asking questions helps them to use their own tools to figure out a solution themselves.

For example, “You find math hard. Can you show me which part?”

Or “Today you shouted at your friend when they took your toy. I wonder what we could do next time instead?”

Or “every evening we brush our teeth, go to the bathroom and wash our face. You’ve already brushed your teeth. Great job! What else is there still to do?”

Asking questions helps you to come up with a game-plan together. Sometimes it can be more productive to do this after the fact. If your child is already stressed and angry, their limbic or emotional brain will prevent their pre-frontal cortex, the thinking part of their brains, from being able to analyze or think clearly. They find it hard to see through their red mist (as will you!).

4. Your boundaries are their boundaries – Setting limits together

Clear rules and boundaries are essential. Sit down with your SWC and write or draw a list of what the important rules are. Choose wisely and selectively. More than 10 key rules may drive you both nuts. It’s important to strike a balance between limits and restricting your child’s growth and discovery. Involving them in the decision-making process means they’re invested in the process and empowered at the same time.

To avoid having to use commands to remind of the limits set, you could establish a secret code to communicate. Passionate SWCs are often loud. I use a volume scale to help my son adjust how loud he is. 5 fingers (volume 5) is the loudest (often too loud), 3 is perfect, 1 is a whisper. I can hold up my fingers; he can spot this and also save face in front of others who don’t understand the code.

Schedules can be really helpful. Draw up a schedule together so that your child knows what happens when. This avoids constant repetition of commands; sometimes you can just point to the schedule; sometimes you can refer to it verbally without using a command “bed-time is 7pm on the schedule” or “in our house we decided lunch-time is at 12.30”; sometimes your child will just get on with it herself, knowing that they were part of the decision-making process and are doing the “right thing” at the “right time.”

5. Their call – Giving them choices

Being part of the decision-making process helps your SWC to feel in charge. You know that you don’t want them to have more than 3 candy-canes (!), offer them the choice of 3 or 2. They’re going to pick 3. If they’re refusing to leave the playground, offer them the choice of leaving in 5 or 10 minutes. “10 minutes calmly? Great. Let’s shake on it…”

This is happy boundary setting without commands. If that doesn’t work, recruit them again to help solve the problem: “What would make it easier for you to leave the playground? What would you really like to do before we leave?”

6. Big feelings – Helping them to name their emotions

Big emotions often go hand in hand with a strong will. Your child feels things intensely. To co-operate with and trust you, your child needs to know that you understand her. When they’re turning everything into a fight, it can be incredibly difficult, but try to validate her feelings by expressing that you understand why she’s acting or has acted the way she has.

I find that phrasing this as “I wonder if” or “Could it be” helps to avoid seeming as if you’re assuming you know exactly what your child’s feeling. Otherwise I sometimes find myself in “you always think you’re right; you can’t see inside my head” territory… so…

“I wonder if you’re feeling worried that you won’t be able to do your homework.” Or “You really want that ice-cream, I wonder if you’re feeling very disappointed right now.”

Then you can move onto trying to find a solution together.

“Why do you think it isn’t ice-cream time right now?”

They might reply with a “because you’re stupid.” That’s happened to me.

Try “Maybe… I am having trouble figuring this out. We need to eat lunch before our ice-cream so we don’t get sick. What could we do to figure this out?”

Switch your ego off. It’s OK not to engage in a battle of words and move on.

7. Hands off! Learning by doing and being in charge of their own body

Strong-willed kids are experiential learners. They’ll learn for themselves by experimentation and discovery. I had to grit my teeth and hold myself back when my daughter wanted to put salt on her cornflakes and lick that snail, but she never did it again! “Hands off,” is something I often repeat to myself when I want to intervene. Same thing with that coat. Unless she’s going to be in genuine danger, I let my daughter be in charge of her body. If she doesn’t want to put the coat on, that’s OK. She’ll put it on if she feels cold… eventually! This is also teaching her that she’s the boss when it comes to her body, not anyone else.

I’ve learned to accept that sometimes my daughter wears her coat and sometimes she doesn’t. No tactic works all of the time. She hasn’t caught pneumonia yet and leaving the house no longer involves a battle. It feels like the festive season might be a bit more festive this year. Bring on the snow!

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5 thoughts on “Life With Your Strong-willed Child: From Combat to Co-operation”

  1. Renee,
    My 7 year old daughter has such a STRONG WILL!
    I am signed up and in for anything you decide to design and offer for working with our strong willed children in a conscious, loving, awake way!! Ahhh and breathe 🙂 happy holiday! Kristin Briggs

  2. Thank you so much for these comments. We’re so happy you found the article useful. Watch this space for an SWC-focussed programme heading your way!

  3. I found this post to be helpful reflection of my strong willed, highly sensitive, highly spirited, negativity-biased, prone to anxiety 7 year old. Despite all the reading and counseling, I still feel most days are an exhausting battle. I eagerly await anything you are planning that addresses parenting strong willed children!


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