When you imagine what the future holds, you may see images of your bright-eyed child learning to walk, learning to talk, and enjoying family activities as they grow and develop into their own unique person.
What you may not have imagined are the challenges that might arise if you’re gifted with a strong-willed child.
Your strong-willed toddler might climb on top of furniture to get a snack they want, their first word could be an emphatic “no,” and most days you might feel like they’re trying to run the show.
Whether you realize your little one is strong-willed in infancy or it takes a bit longer for their strong-willed tendencies to appear, chances are if you’ve got a strong-willed child you’re looking for tips on how to parent them lovingly and effectively.
A strong-willed child is one that believes in themselves and their own ideas and who often has a plan for exactly how they believe things should go.
While some parents (or grandparents or teachers) might call them stubborn, difficult, or challenging, it’s helpful to think of them as children who simply know what they think or want, and who are not easily persuaded to change their minds.
Often, strong-willed children are the ones you see on the playground directing their peers and delivering instructions on how to play their game of choice. They’re the ones at the supermarket dressed in rain boots and a superhero costume in the middle of a sunny July day.
Of course, they’re also the ones who won’t just turn the light out and go to bed as their siblings do.
Strong-willed kids often wake up with a plan for the day, a drive to get things done independently, and a desire to help others around them understand exactly why their way of doing things is the right way.
Strong-willed kids are willing to make mistakes and to learn things on their own, rather than just accepting the rules or lessons that others pass on to them.
Of course this means they’re known for testing limits over and over again.
Strong-willed children are also often deep feelers who experience their emotions authentically and wholly, no matter whom they’re with or where they are.
Parenting a strong-willed child often comes with a learning curve. It may necessitate lots of deep thinking, deep breathing, and intentional parenting. It’s important to see the big picture behind the daily struggle.
So often, the traits that parents find so frustrating when their little one is 3 or 5 or 7 are just the traits they want them to grow up and possess. Their fierce independence, drive to succeed, and creative thinking can cause parenting headaches, but they’re also great predictors of future success.
While parenting a strong-willed child certainly has its challenges, it also comes with big joys and lots of rewards!
Even in the toughest moments, the goal isn’t to break down your child or rid them of the personality traits that make them them — instead you just want to figure out how to work with your child in a way that supports their growth and development.
Check out the tips below for parenting your strong-willed child.
Reframe your thinking
One of the trickiest parts of parenting can be learning to think about things in new ways, especially when the thing you need to think about in a new way is your own child.
As you think and talk about your little one, do your best to frame their personality traits in the positive, even if they can sometimes present challenges to your everyday life.
For example, instead of labeling your child bossy, remind yourself that they are assertive. Instead of telling their new teacher that they are stubborn, let them know instead that they are passionate.
Instead of complaining to your partner that they don’t obey your rules, consider discussing how they’re a free thinker.
While changing how you think and speak about your child won’t necessarily change how they behave, it will help you see all that’s great about them exactly as they are.
Adjust your expectations
As parents, it’s important to constantly revisit and adjust our expectations for our children. Any time something goes awry it’s important to ask yourself not only if your expectations were age-appropriate, but also if they were appropriate for your child.
Sure, some 3-year-olds are capable of completing a craft project just like the pictured instructions indicate but others just aren’t and that’s okay. The same goes for cleaning rooms, sitting through dinner, and many other childhood skills.
When you adjust your expectations to fit who your child is, not who you wish they were, you’re more likely to respond to their needs in more effective ways and help shepherd them through childhood as their partner, rather than their adversary.
Use rules and schedules in a positive way
Sometimes, when parents have a strong-willed child, their instinct is to create stricter and stricter rules and consequences. Often, these parents believe that with more “discipline” their child will learn how to comply with their rules.
In reality, unless you are being strategic with your rules and schedules, they’re likely to cause more strife with your strong-willed child than peace. Instead of micromanaging your child with tons of rules, be specific but choosy.
Consider working together on establishing your rules with your child so they know what to expect and also understand why the rules are in place.
Instead of enforcing that bedtime is needed “because I said so,” consider explaining that bedtimes allow a body to get enough rest so that we have enough energy for tomorrow’s adventures.
Schedules can also be helpful for younger children as long as you’re willing to be flexible. Breaking the day into broad categories (and communicating the schedule) to strong-willed kids gives them the power of knowing what’s coming next.
Providing structure but allowing them to chose what to do during different times such as “outside time” and “learning time” can satisfy everyone’s needs and wants.
Pick your battles
In order to parent effectively and avoid constant power struggles, parents of strong-willed children need to choose the battles they want to fight and be prepared to let go of the rest.
In general, it makes sense to hold tight to rules about health and safety, how we treat others, and how we treat things — beyond that, it’s okay to let go.
Often strong-willed children are seeking control over their lives. If yours wants to wear a tutu and rain boots or mix all the colors of the playdough, you’ll be filling a real need they have when you allow them to make those choices.
Give choices when you can
Sometimes in life, there is no choice. Kids must buckle fully into their car seats, they must wear shoes to school, and they absolutely have to put on their sunscreen before they go swimming outdoors.
When possible though, you should look for how you can insert choice into situations where your kids must do something.
For example, you can ask “Would you like me to clip your top buckle or your bottom buckle first?” “Do you want your red shoes or your green shoes?” “Do you want me to put sunscreen on your arms or legs first?”
Giving kids choices where you can will help them feel in control of a situation in which they might otherwise fight.
Set clear expectations
Setting clear expectations is an important way for parents of strong-willed children to help set them up for success.
Sometimes, strong-willed kids really don’t understand what you are looking for when you set broad expectations. Other times, they’re looking for loopholes. Being specific will help you see the difference and address questions accordingly.
Instead of telling your child to “be good” in the car, for example, talk about what that looks like. “While we’re driving, your body will stay buckled into your seat, with your bottom on the seat at all times. Your words will be kind, and your voice will be quiet. You can read a book, color on your art pad, or watch a movie on your tablet.”
Providing a road map for behaviors while incorporating choice into the equation helps set them up for success.
Use logical consequences
On the other hand, punishing a strong-willed child for the sake of “teaching them a lesson” rarely does anything but build resentment and deteriorate the bond between a parent and child.
Instead of offering punishments that make little sense offer logical consequences that are tied directly to the dangerous behavior.
For example, instead of saying, “If you hit your sister with the hockey stick you lose TV time for a week,” try “If you hit your sister with the hockey stick, it will show me that you’re not ready to play with it safely and I will have to take it away.”
Express and label your feelings
Strong-willed kids often experience big emotions and struggle to find effective ways to deal with their feelings.
Show your child how to express their feelings by sharing your own big emotion. Label it out loud and talk through it as a way to model how to deal with intense feelings.
For example: “I’m feeling so frustrated right now that I can’t find my phone. I can tell I’m frustrated because my face feels hot, my hands are balled into fists, and I want to scream! I’m going to take three deep breaths to calm down and then make a list in my mind of where to look. In the future, I plan to keep my phone in my pocket so I don’t lose it.”
When you label and talk through your emotions, you normalize the fact that calming down is a skill that can be practiced.
Any parent of young children knows that it’s often faster to do something for your child than to let them do it by themselves.
As tough as it can be to sit back and watch the clock as your tot tries again and again (and again) to zip their zippers and button their buttons, doing so will help your strong-willed child feel confident and competent as they move through the world.
Build extra time into your routine to allow for independence and you’ll likely see that, without the time crunch that often leaves you feeling frazzled, your frustration will fade and your child’s confidence and ability to take responsibility for themselves will grow.
Respond with explanations when possible
Strong-willed children often want to know the “why” behind everything, from why stop signs exist to why you chose hamburgers for dinner to why you said “no” to their desire for more screen time.
While some parents see the constant “why’s” as a question to their authority, it’s important for parents of strong-willed children to understand that the desire for more information is just a part of how your little one’s brain works.
To accommodate for the inevitable “why” that comes with every “no” you give, consider responding with explanations before your child even asks. “We’re playing in the backyard because it is farther from the street and I don’t want your baby sister close to the road and the cars that drive by” holds more weight with a strong-willed child than, “No, you can’t play out front.”
When you offer explanations your child will develop a deeper understanding of the rules you set and will be far more likely to accept them as reasonable than to fight against them.
Parenting a strong-willed child can be both beautiful and challenging. While it’s magnificent to know that your little one will carve their own path and won’t let anyone stand in their way, it’s also often tiring to feel like babe needs so much more attention and redirection than other kids.
By following these tips, you’ll be setting yourself on a path that helps you honor the awesome person your child already is while you help them grow into their best self!