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Discipline & Guidance

Managing the Strong-Willed Child

Managing the Strong-Willed Child

Some children seem to be born willful. As infants they are difficult to comfort and push the spoon away while being fed. When they become toddlers they are disagreeable about everything, demand their own way, and refuse to cooperate. Tantrums may be a daily occurrence. As they move through their school age days, they seem to lose the ability to hear the simplest requests, arguments are frequent, and defiance is the norm.

There is no doubt these children are a challenge even for the most dedicated and understanding parents. But does that mean that there is something wrong with them? Not necessarily! While it is true many children with strong temperaments also have medical conditions such as ADHD, not all children with challenging behaviors have a medical condition or need medications. (Check with your school and pediatrician to decide if your child needs medical intervention!) Oftentimes what is most helpful are firm limits, consistency, and a good understanding of the child's specific temperament.

What should I know to better understand and help my willful child?

  • Children enter into the world with their own unique temperament. It is an inborn trait that cannot be changed. However, parents can learn to understand it, guide it, and mold it into positive directions!
  • Sometimes a parent's temperament conflicts with that of their child. Naturally this is going to become a battleground if your parenting style is not suited to this particular child.
  • Misbehavior is more about reaction than attention. Children have built in energy detectors. If we consistently give louder and more intense reactions to misbehavior than we do compliance, children will go for the "fireworks" every time.
  • Although sometimes it may seem like it, your child is not out to "get you" or make your life miserable!
  • Children can be taught self-control and parents can learn how to starve misbehavior by not feeding it with our energy.

What parenting techniques work best with strong-willed children?

  • Less talk-more action! Since children with intense temperaments thrive on energy and parents become more energized as the lectures, begging, and arguing escalates, the most productive way to stop this cycle is to keep instructions short and clear.
  • Let your child know what is expected and the consequence if she chooses not to comply. "Amy, you have to finish your chores before lunch or no swimming."
  • Follow through with stated consequences each and every time! Children are natural scientists and they will continuously test to see if consequences are consistent and predictable.
  • Don't nag. If your child knows what is expected of her, a simple gesture can get the message across. "Kay, (point to the sink), dishes!"
  • Be your child's cheerleader! Let him know that you believe in his capability to make good choices. Remember, negative messages are met with resistance and positive ones with compliance.
  • Recognize when you have been caught up in the "negative loop". Negative behaviors lead to intense responses, intense responses feed negative energy and so forth. Pretty soon parent and child have become accustomed to this behavior pattern and can't see any other way to interact.
  • Parents can break this cycle by:
    • Refusing to become involved in arguments and lengthy debates.
    • Believing that things can get better.
    • Seeing your child's intensity and energy as a gift and not a burden. Strong personalities are often accompanied by intelligence, creativity and talents.
    • Redirecting your energy towards recognizing and rewarding positive behaviors. Keep a daily log of positive behaviors and soon you will notice your child is not always misbehaving!
    • Reducing the intensity of your reaction to misbehavior. Stay calm, frame your reprimand without ridicule or shame, and if need be, you can both take a "time out."
    • Finding something to share with your child which can pull the two of you closer together. Concentrate on activities that promote feelings of togetherness.

Learning a new way to interact and setting firm limits is not going to be easy on you or your child! However, the rewards will be beneficial for both of you as your child becomes more self-disciplined and successful!