Ask Dr. Bronwyn
Strong Willed Children
- Written By
- Dr. Bronwyn Charlton
- Loris Lora
All kids are born with an innate ability to challenge rules and to push limits. In some children though, this drive is especially intense and parenting them can begin to feel like a constant negotiation or invitation to a power struggle. Strong willed children are hardwired to question everything, insist on experiencing and figuring out things for themselves and snub the simplest commands.
Not surprisingly, given the endless challenges to their authority, many parents of strong willed kids resort to yelling and coming down harder with threats of punishments to get their little lawyers to comply. While other weary moms and dads eventually begin to opt for the path of least resistance and find themselves caving to their child’s will, far more frequently than they’d like.
But neither upping the controlling-ante or just giving in to strong willed kids does them any favors. In fact, both options only exacerbate challenges, with controlling parents increasing the likelihood of rebellion and permissive ones inadvertently teaching their kids that rules don’t apply to them and that “no,” doesn’t necessarily mean no.
The thing is though, that without yelling, threatening and throwing out consequences parents of strong willed kids are often at a loss as to how they’d ever get them to do anything.
Fortunately, thanks to research, there are many, better alternatives.
Pick your battles. When you find yourself constantly in a battle of wills with your child, ask yourself why you’re there. Is it a blip on their timeline of development, or something really worth exerting your influence over, like whether or not they hold your hand while crossing the street. The more controlling you are, the weaker your influence, so choose your battles wisely.
Be prepared to back up your rules. No one hates arbitrary rules more than strong willed children and the more information you provide, for the reasoning behind a limit, the more likely your child will comply.
Give a Do-Over. There’s nothing like a do-over when things go south, and you want to get back on track. Let your child know beforehand that a “do-over” is a chance for everyone to start over. Everyone makes mistakes, but no matter how many annoyances, frustrations, misunderstandings add up, do-overs ensure that they don’t have to become the outcome, since they offer a concrete strategy to turn things around and begin again.
Set limits with When…Then… Think about a typical power struggle you have with your child. How many things do you tell them what to do or what not to do? How many reminders do you give? Warnings? Since each one increases the likelihood of a power struggle, next time, try WHEN… THEN… instead. By controlling the order of things that normally happen anyway, you’ll provide more motivation for your child to do what you’re asking them to do. “WHEN you take your shower, THEN you’ll be able to watch your iPad.”
Take the fight for power out of the power struggle. After you state what you need from your child, ideally using the When…Then… strategy, walk away. Walking away allows your child to save face, since there’s no audience.
Follow through. If instead of staying firm you cave, then the opportunity to teach your child there are outcomes to their choices will be lost. All they’ll end up learning is that there’s a chink in your armor.
Be on their team. Be firm but have compassion. If they don’t make a good choice, and miss their “then,” express compassion and confidence. Say something like, “I’m sorry you missed the chance to have your iPad time. I’m sure you’ll be able to get your iPad next time.”
Check how controlling you are. Being overly strict backfires in the long run. It’s beneficial to allow your child more freedom as they demonstrate that they can make good choices. But do so on your terms so that you maintain your parental authority.
Create a decision-rich environment. Cut down on power struggles by creating a more decision-rich environment or one that doesn’t always insist that things be your way. We all need to feel like we have choices and control over our circumstances, and you can give your child a boost of positive power and a chance to practice decision-making skills by offering age-appropriate choices, within boundaries that you establish.
Listen and validate. Letting your child have a voice and connecting with compassion, e.g., “I see your point,” not only can defuse things, but also opens the door to problem solving.
Stop yelling. Yelling doesn’t equal power and it certainly isn’t indicative of being in control. Next time your child’s got you feeling like you’re about to “flip your lid,” take a few deep belly breaths and try to calm your brain so you can calmly respond with your thinking brain, instead of reacting with your emotional one.