Well, let’s think for a moment about our idea of a “strong-willed” child. What images come to your mind when you think about this term?
Difficult? Stubborn? Spoiled? Defiant? Controlling? Attention-seeking?
These are dangerous assumptions to project on a developing young child, and if we find ourselves associating these words with our “willful child”, we should rethink the way we define this child’s problems.
Strong-willed children have behaviorally challenging issues, not because they want to rebel, but because, to put it simply, they do not know how to behave properly, due to their lack of skills in certain areas.
So remember not to take it personally when your child displays his difficulties in negative ways. You are there to help your child to learn the skills he/she needs.
Labelling our children with challenging behaviour will not do any good – for them, or for us as parents. We just have to identify what skills they are lacking and work with them on how to build those skills.
What are the characteristics of a strong-willed child?
Children, in general, exhibit similar struggles in their behaviour, because they are all in the process of developing physically and mentally. But even though strong-willed children have more behaviorally challenging issues, it is dangerous to regard them as though they carry certain troublemaking characteristics. This way of thinking could possibly lead us to think they are difficult kids who have negative personality traits.
Even as grown-ups, most of us have difficulties that we continue to struggle with and try to work on daily – such as weight management, eating habits, anger issues, and drinking problems. But none of us would be happy to be labelled as obese, unhealthy, psychotic, or alcoholic, to name some examples.
The point is, we all struggle in certain areas, as humans. And for children, it is a bit more obvious, since their brains have not yet fully developed, and they have not had time to go through the necessary trials and errors to figure things out. And of course, some children are bound to be more lacking in certain areas than others.
Children who struggle with behaviour issues show deficits in areas such as emotional regulation, self-control, expressing their thoughts verbally, transitioning from one activity to another, agreeing with others’ opinions, and so on. It is important for us to pay attention to these specific traits, so we as parents can identify our children’s areas of difficulty. Then we can help them learn the necessary skills to overcome the challenges they are facing.
How do you discipline a strong-willed child that won’t listen?
Children generally have a hard time accepting consequences, but this is more so for strong-willed children. It seems they have a particularly difficult time accepting someone else deciding anything for them.
When I face a challenge with my strong-willed child, my goal is to let her see the problem and solve it on her own terms, while I guide her as to what might work or not work – and sometimes neither of us knows, until she gives it a go.
But the important point is that I do not force her to follow my decision, but simply help her to see the problem and focus on coming up with a proper solution. Even if her idea does not work right away and we wind up back where we started, she is more tolerant than when she has to follow someone else’s decision.
This is the general idea behind parenting a strong-willed child, though as we parents all know, sometimes it is also necessary to lay down some rules and boundaries our children are not happy about.
Before thinking about disciplining our strong-willed children with consequences, we have to focus on whatever essential skills they might be lacking – so we can find ways to make sure they master them. This way our strong-willed child’s daily life will become much easier, and their self-esteem will not be damaged in the long term.
So, what are some of the possible lacking skills to look for?
These lagging skills can vary from child to child, and your child might show lacking multiple skills. Each time your child throws a fit, think about the cause of the issue and place and when ignoring the negative words and actions but see the cause of the anger.
Let’s explore a few examples of possible difficulties your strong-willed child might face.
Skills possibly lacking in your strong-willed child
1. Sensory difficulty Skills possibly lacking in your strong-willed child
This is one of my child’s issues. When my child wears clothes made of fabric that is too stiff, not stretchy enough, or with a tag that is too rough against her skin, she tends to be on an edge. I was able to identify the rough tag issue at quite an early stage by noticing that she kept scratching her neck and wincing, but it took a while longer to catch her mood spiral down every time she wears an uncomfortable fabric.
Now it takes more time to pick out new clothes for her, to read more information about the fabric and elasticity, to avoid anything with scratchy lace altogether, but it is worth the added work. It is an instant reward every time my child puts on comfy clothes.
2. Difficulty maintaining focus
Many parents might struggle with this lacking skill when they have to supervise homework. More often than not, the homework time, which is not so exciting for any child to begin with, collapses into (an episode of) yelling and tears.
Every child has a different attention span. You just accept it and work with it.
I let my child dance while solving math problems, if she is in the mood, as long as she comes up with an answer in a reasonable amount of time. Yes, at first, I could not understand why she could not sit still for more than a few seconds at a time. Then I saw how fast and accurately she could calculate in her head, way above her grade level. Before that point, we had spent so much time struggling over her sitting position and fidgeting that I could not even see her ability.
But now I remind myself, what does it matter if she dances or wiggles, as long as she is solving the problem. If it helps her concentrate, so be it.
Think about the ground-breaking new work environments at places like Google and some of the newer tech start-up companies, where their offices look like adult playgrounds with balls, swings, slides and lots of colours. They do not put their creative employees in a gray cubicle – instead, they let them move around freely to unleash their imaginations and solve problems.
But what about at school? She cannot afford to be an exception. That’s where my anxiety as a mom kicks in, worrying about whether my child will stand out in the wrong way.
That is why, as I mentioned earlier, I have to incorporate activities my child is not keen on doing at times, to increase her self-control. Since I generally try to involve her in decision-making and listen to her ideas to solve problems instead of forcing her to do everything my way, she is less oppositional toward the small set of rules we do have in place
3. Lack of social skills and understanding social cues
A lack of social skills and understanding of social situations can lead to a lot of difficulties for children when it comes to making friends, or meeting new people and getting along with them. On top of that, this lack of skill could mislead others to perceive them as rude or unfriendly.
I deal with this subject more in-depth in the next blog post, Why some kids have lack social skills, so please read further if this applies to your child and you are looking for additional information.
4. Difficulty transitioning
You might have experienced a time when you tell your child that it is time to leave the playground and they just lose it, or you say you have to drop by the store on the way to grandma and grandpa’s house, and your child throws a fit in the car.
This happens with some kids more than others because kids are still learning how to handle transitions, and they need extra time to prepare and process.
You might have to explain the schedule multiple times in advance and give your children however much time and warning they need.
For example, “We’re going home to eat dinner in 10 minutes.”
“Now, 5 minutes left. We are leaving as soon as you finish that sandcastle.”
“One minute left. Start to end the game. Okay?”
“Time’s up. It’s home time.”
5. Unable to follow a routine
This might surprise some parents, because many parenting books recommend setting a routine for your child to make children feel more secure and thrive in the safety of boundaries and routine. But that does not mean kids follow the routine in one go. Some might fight endlessly and need extra help, especially if they have difficulty transitioning, as we discussed earlier.
But what happens if your child cannot stand any routine?
It will be extra time-consuming, since eating, washing, and sleeping – not to mention registering for any activities outside the home – will be challenging. And even if you manage to drop your child off – whether at daycare, school, or an extracurricular activity, your child will be the sore thumb in that group – leaving you in constant communication with the educators or tutors. I explore this topic further in another post, so please check it out.
6. Lack of emotional control
When some children get frustrated, they tend to explode – big, and for a long time. This is because they do not know how to handle that overwhelming emotion, and most have not developed any coping mechanism to soothe themselves.
7. Difficulty empathizing with other people
This is one of the harder problems to accept, when your child does not feel bad after witnessing his friend fall down and graze his knee – or worse, even laughs at his friend’s misfortune.
I should point out here that this lack of empathy can be related to the difficulty with understanding social cues and the lack of social skills discussed above. Many lacking skills can be correlated to each other, which can cause problems to snowball. That is why we as parents have to guide our children and help them to tackle each lacking skill one by one.
Exposing children to emotionally challenging situations seems to help them understand and process their emotions. For example, reading books that explore emotions, or watching movies that tackle challenging topics, so that your kids can indirectly experience the main characters’ emotional conflicts.
These activities offer many chances to talk with your child about empathy and the different emotions that come with experiences such as the death or sickness of a pet or family member, a birth, wedding, or friend’s birthday, and so on.
How do you set boundaries with strong-willed children?
Enforcing boundaries with strong-willed children can escalate emotions and trigger an explosion. One way around this is to not present the boundary as a vertical communication, from you to your child.
Instead, help them to see the problem and how it concerns you, and help them to find the best solution in their own words, by encouraging them to talk about the issue and brainstorm together.
For example, “I see you get angry before dinner, and I think you might be irritated because you’re too hungry before dinner time. I can’t move dinner time to earlier, because then you will be too hungry to sleep. But I also do not want you to stuff your belly with sweet snacks. What about a healthy snack that you like?”
If your kids answer something silly (like chocolate, or gummy bears, etc), then you could encourage them in the right direction by saying something like, “I know those are yummy, but you get to eat those at other times, so what about yogurt or cheese? Bananas wouldn’t be bad.”
If your child comes up with his own alternative that is acceptable, then say yes. “Sure, Rice Krispies would be okay too. Good idea.”
The most important thing to remember is that when you have a strong-willed child, you have to take a democratic approach. If you see your child lacking skills, then address that and find a solution based on discussion with your child.
This will not be a one-step process. Your child might not cooperate, and might not even voice his/her own thoughts at first. You might have to persistently encourage your child to talk about it by suggesting some ideas. Or you may have to revisit the issue again and again until you come up with a solution you both agree to.
Show your empathy, express your concern, and explain why it is important to improve, making it clear that the issue is caused by a skill he/she needs to learn, not because he/she is a bad person.