Parenting Strong-willed kids: encouraging cooperation without breaking their will
The power struggles are the most annoying part of having a strong-willed child. It’s almost like they fight you with every single thing every single day. You will say the sky is blue and they will argue that it’s a light blue like they need to have the last say in everything and it needs to be that way. I’m sure we have all known someone like this, not just your child.
Stubborn. Argumentative. Rulebreaker. Bossy. Controlling. Inflexible.
These words might be ones that pop up when you think of your strong-willed child.
Day after day, minute after a minute it seems like you’re constantly being challenged by your child like they purposely have it out for you to make your life hard and more complicated.
The word “strong-willed child” is thrown around a lot, and it makes some people’s anxiety heighten, or get exhausted just thinking about their strong-willed child. There is a stigma about having a strong-willed child because it can be hard, but they aren’t ill-behaved children.
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Being strong willed is actually a good thing
There is good news to this, this is actually a good trait for your child to have. We all want our kids to be leaders rather than followers, to have a mind of their own and not be easily influenced by others.
These kids are often misunderstood, even by me. I would always get so frustrated with my oldest because he would argue with me over everything, cry to get his way, not listen and talk back, would not budge no matter what I would say or do.
Spirited kids tend to have bad labels- disrespectful, defiant, demanding, a rebel.
When they are little it can be a chore to parent them, but if they are parented with grace and compassion, they can grow up to be amazing teens- self-motivated and self-driven. They are more likely to not give in to peer pressure, and if parents are willing to accept them for who they are and not change this quality they will grow up to be great leaders.
They are brave kids that want to experience everything themselves, they long for autonomy and want control over themselves. When they have their heart set on something it is very hard to redirect them or get them to change their minds- almost like they are going to prove to you that they will get what they want no matter what.
They are known to battle with us in power struggles, and this is where we can step back and realize we don’t need to attend every power struggle we get to come across, pick your battles.
Nobody likes to be told what to do or being demanded to do something. These kids find it unbearable like they have no control or are not in charge of their bodies or life.
So do we just let them have control and let them do everything themselves? Of course not. Let’s talk about how to protect who they are and these amazing qualities but still encourage their cooperation?
How to put a stop to power struggles
We often get caught up in power struggles with them. It’s almost like we need to prove to them who is boss and that we are right and they are wrong and they need to obey us because we are the parents. That is so easy especially if that is what we grew up with.
We can avoid power struggles when we look at every situation as a win/win situation. There are ways we can collaborate and problem solve where everyone is heard, has a voice, and is satisfied, it just takes a little bit of digging. Rather than laying down the law and closing them off, this will make both of your lives more difficult and create more resistance and power struggles.
Trying to understand their perspective and letting them feel understood while setting the limits, we can set boundaries and still be flexible.
They don’t mean to be difficult, they feel as if they are forced to comply with someone just because they were told to do so, and they are being undermined or they are being compromised.
If they are presented with the opportunity to choose and get involved in the decision making they are more willing and would love to cooperate.
Model and you shall receive
This isn’t permissive parenting. If we think about how we would like to be talked to and have a say in things instead of orders being barked at us, being told what to do, what not to do every day at just about every hour, we can start to understand how our kids may feel.
Before you engage in the power struggle or demand them to show you respect and just do what you say, get into your empathy mode, by bringing a sense of calm over your body, and show them that you truly understand why they are resisting. If you can’t understand why then get curious about what you think maybe the reason.
We all wish that our kids would listen and do what we say, but really do we want them to listen to us or any adult just because we told them to? Or would you rather them listen because they know it’s the right thing to do and they trust what we are telling them to do is the right thing for them? When we are barking orders at them, telling them what to do every second of the day the trust starts to decrease, they may start to get in this fight or flight mode and resist or fight back. This is true with any child, but especially strong with strong-willed children.
Empathy and respect and listen
Just like with any other child, the best thing to do is show your child empathy and respect and listen to your child. Strong-willed kids want nothing more than to be heard and understood. To know that they have a voice and that their voice matters.
We all have heard “If you want respect you need to show respect.” Yes, that even goes with your child. Just because they are kids we can’t expect them to show us respect if we don’t respect them. Respect shouldn’t be given just to adults and we can’t expect kids to show us respect no matter what. We need to talk to them and treat them with the kindness and respect we want ourselves.
Showing empathy is a great way to show them respect. To show them that their feelings over what we are asking them is valid and we understand them.
Listen. We as parents rightfully think that we know best for our kids. Our strong-willed child might have a viewpoint that they can’t part with, something that they think is super important. By listening to and reflecting on what they said will help us understand why they are opposing in the first place.
“I hear that you don’t want to brush your teeth, can you tell me why?’
When you empathize and listen to your child you may be able to get information from them and find out that they don’t want to brush their teeth because last time they gagged and almost threw up ( an example from one of my kids). Even though this sounds ridiculous and like not a good excuse to not brush their teeth, they were heard and now you can problem-solve together. If you ignore what she has to say and insist she brushes her teeth and does not say another word about it, then you wouldn’t have found out what is really keeping her stuck and just turn into a never-ending battle.
View it from their point of view
We often react the same way, and have the same feelings; it just comes from a smaller human being.
So let’s say, you promised that you would get their favorite snack at the store when you went and you came home and it wasn’t there. They get upset and you think they are just being spoiled and need to know that they can’t get what they want all the time, it’s not that big of a deal.
We need to think about when a promise was broken to us. They have feelings about it just as we do. Just like empathizing, look at it from their point of view, you want them to keep their promise and they want the same. So, since you forgot, genuinely apologize that your promise wasn’t kept and that you try to keep your promises, and that you simply forgot, and next time you will make a note to remember.
Constancy in routines are key
Every child strives on routines and constancy and this goes especially for strong-willed kids. There’s something about predictability that tends to keep them feeling safe and know what to expect and what is coming up.
It puts their mind at ease, and since they know what is coming up it helps with power struggles rather than being ambushed with something unexpected.
It helps to have a routine that leads up to a certain event, at 730 we put our pj’s on, 10 minutes of tablet time, 8;00 we read a book, 830 we go to sleep.
I completely understand that establishing these routines can be hard because life happens or if they aren’t used to it they may resist at first, and this is where collaboration comes into play, you can both come up with a routine that works for both of you.
Try not to give in and break the routine because it’s not worth the struggle. Instead, you can remind them that according to the routine you both came up with, is what was decided and it’s important that we stick to our agreements.
Focus on collaboratively problem-solving rather than punishments
Like I have mentioned earlier, working together to problem-solve is so important and works to help them be able to cooperate more because it’s a win/win. They have said in routines, chores, etc. and you still get the cooperation that you’re needing.
Dr. Greene calls this the Plan B. You can read all about it in another post where I talk about it and how it works, called How To Get Your Kids To Do Chorse Without The Power Struggles.
When it comes to getting your strong-willed child to do something, try to support them rather than using force. When it comes to strong-willed kids no amount of force will get them to do what you’re telling them to do because their integrity is telling them otherwise, this just creates more resistance.
But, if we approach them with connection and support they will feel safe and comfortable to cooperate, and won’t feel pressured and defensive. The thing strong-willed kids want more than to have things their way is to have connection and trust with us.
They love to experience life- they are experiential learners
They love to learn and experience things for themselves. It’s almost like if we say no, it intrudes them to want to do it more. Obviously, if it comes to safety and they can get seriously hurt, we need to hold those strong boundaries.
It’s best to let them learn through experience. You may think that they just like to test your boundaries, but this is just how they learn the best. When we can remember this, then it becomes easier for us to stay calm and it doesn’t turn into power struggles.
They love mastery
It’s really easy to be the hovering parent to make sure they are doing what they need and the way we want them to do it. But, let them take control over as many activities as possible. Instead of nagging about them picking their toys up, ask: “What do we need to do before we leave?” If your child looks confused you can go through the list, “Every time we leave we need to clean up our toys, put shoes on, use the toilet. I saw you used the toilet and you have your shoes on, that’s great, what else do we still need to do?” (this is where a routine really helps too).
They won’t feel nagged at, or controlled, they will feel more independent which also increases intrinsic motivation, they take on responsibility earlier, and again it avoids power struggles.
Give them authority over their body
“I hear you don’t want to wear your coat outside even though it’s snowing. I’m going to wear mine, I’m just afraid if we don’t have it with us you will end up getting cold and want it, and we won’t be able to come back home to get it. So, how about we bring it with us just in case.”
Yes, you may be right, but we don’t want to show off or rub it in their face even if they do end up asking for the jacket. Again they like to learn from experience. It’s hard for them to imagine being so cold when they feel warm right now.
This can also go for picking out clothes. Even if it doesn’t match but they really love it, who is it hurting? They get to learn how to pick clothes out, be their own person, how to get dressed and be their unapologetic self.
Or an example that I came across on FB, a teacher said “I’m sorry for your daughter’s pictures we tried to get her to smile. The retakes are next week.” The mom looked at the pictures and laughed and said, “no need to retake them, this is who she is.”
Or my oldest didn’t want to fix his hair nicely for school pictures, I didn’t force it because that is who he is and he likes his hair the way it was. Who am I to change who he is because of what others may think?
This all helps them to listen to their body and not be pressured to do something because someone else is doing it or tells them to do it. But, we can also let her know that it’s ok to change her mind when they receive new information- realizing it is cold outside and would now like the coat on.
Connection is a huge part of parenting. Kids need to feel connected and safe to be able to trust us and what we tell them to do or not do. They won’t cooperate if there is no connection. When we yell or nag their body- their nervous system is telling them, something isn’t right, why are they pushing this so much, and that is when the resistance comes in.
We need to be calm and feel safe for our kids to feel safe and calm to be willing to cooperate.
In my Reactive Parent’s Guide To Calming The F!@# Down, I teach parents just how to do this even in the most aggravating situations with our kids. If you’re a parent that is tired of yelling and wants to learn how to stay calm when our kids are getting under our skin to get the cooperation you want, then be sure to get your guide HERE.
WHAT TO DO NEXT
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