5 Tips for Dealing With a Strong-Willed Child

Updated on July 10, 2018
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Being the parent of a strong-willed child herself, Vivian can attest that these tips are tried and true. Try them for yourself—they work!

Strong-willed children are easy to spot—the infant who refuses to breastfeed, the toddler who won't nap, the child who insists on picking her own clothes even when they don't match, and the tweener who tests every boundary. Strong-willed children share a magnified craving for independence because they are precocious individuals with a keen intellect, the ability to lead, and innovative ideas. They are tomorrow's movers and shakers. Today, however, parenting a child who needs to dominate and control every situation is very draining.

The daily battle weakens some parents, causing them to become passive and lazy. Giving in seems easier initially, but the false sense of relief only paves the way for epic battles later. Their children will not only be incorrigible but also wildly undisciplined. Maintaining healthy relationships will escape them as adults. Parents with grit dig in and approach the challenge from new angles until they find solutions that work. Like windmills manage to harness the wind for energy, determined parents will discover unconventional methods to rein in their child's strong will and shape it to work for good. The result? Their kids will grow up to be high-earning entrepreneurs who succeed.

1. Stop Yelling

Strong-willed children are hot-wired from birth to be the way they are. It has nothing to do with nurture, but everything to do with nature. You think they are difficult, but they don't see it. For example, if your strong-willed daughter takes her younger brother's toy and throws it across the room, you are angered she is tormenting her brother and disrespecting property. You yell. She has no idea why you are upset because her brother's toy was in her way, and she solved the problem. If the two siblings are playing Legos, she will not be content to build with the thousands of unused bricks. She will present a logical argument why she needs the ones he is using and then rip them from his hands. You yell. Similarly, if she knows it's her turn to be first getting tucked in, she has no qualms about knocking her brother down if he darts in front of her. You yell. Since she thinks her actions are justified, your yelling seems like a personal attack. It hurts her feelings and wounds her spirit. She feels unloved. She just doesn't get it.

What are you supposed to do? Let her get away with inappropriate behavior? Of course not. The key is maintaining a calm and steady voice as you convey your expectations and exact discipline. Calmly explain that toys aren't to be thrown because they could injure someone, break something, and disrespect others. Tell her to pick up the toy she threw and gently put it back where she found it. Next, establish a boundary--if happens again, she will no longer have access to that toy until the next day. When she shoves her brother back so she can be first, remind her physical retaliation towards a sibling is not allowed and then make her go last. If she throws a fit, calmly tell her if she's going to carry on in that manner, she will be tucking herself in until she follows the rules.

For those of us who were at least semi-obedient as kids and knew we either had to listen or bend over for the belt, this new approach of explaining expectations while calmly and firmly exacting consequences seems herniated. Just whack them and be done with it, right? Corporal punishment is usually ineffective with strong-willed kids, even if it works with your other children. Getting their own way is more important. They would rather take the spanking as long as they succeed in doing what they want. If you continue yelling and spanking them when there is no change in behavior, you will eventually feel like an abuser.

Yelling causes you to relinquish control of the situation. When your strong-willed child sees your face turning crimson, steam blasting from your ears, and your wiggling uvula from the shrill screaming, you will notice a smirk form on her face. She won. She did what she wanted while you are spluttering out of control. She is empowered. She has discovered how to push your buttons. She eventually becomes numb and oblivious to your rants. The best way to strike healthy fear in her heart regarding your authority is to remain calm, speaking evenly, while still enforcing consequences.

2. Offer Choices

Strong-willed children are leaders. They want to be in charge rather than follow orders. They are compelled to do the exact opposite of everything you say in order to prove they are in control. Giving them choices structured to your desired outcomes makes them feel independent and diffuses their knee-jerk reaction to rebel. For example, your daughter has a lightweight jacket and a winter coat. If it's 35 degrees and you tell her to wear the winter coat, she will insist the lightweight jacket is sufficient. Establish a rule that the lightweight jacket is fine for 50-degree weather and above. Anything 49 degrees and under requires the winter coat. You check the forecast as your daughter gathers her lunch and backpack for school. Nonchalantly say, "It's only go to be 40 degrees today." She will choose the winter coat from the closet because you didn't tell her to.

Your strong-willed son has been playing in the hot summer sun. He would like a cool treat, and he knows you have popsicles and ice cream sandwiches. You want him to choose the lower calorie option so you offer to bring him a popsicle. Immediately, he insists he'd rather have an ice cream sandwich. Why? Because HE wants to be the one to decide, not you. Rather than engaging in battle, say something like, "Okay, but there are only a couple popsicles left, so you may not get to have one." The unattainable is catnip to the strong-willed child. He will change his preference and pick the popsicle after all. You are in control, but he has the illusion it is his decision.

If your daughter isn't old enough to fix her own hair, deciding on a hairstyle for each day can present a recurrent battle. If you want to straighten her hair, she will want it curled. If you want her to wear it down, she will want to wear it up. Give her choices based on the events planned for the day. If it's going to be 90 degrees, say, "It's going to be super hot today. Would you like your hair in a ponytail or pigtails?" If you are going to dinner and you want her hair down, ask, "Would you like your hair pulled up on the sides, or would you like to wear a headband?" She will feel like she's getting her way, but it will be within the perimeters you have predetermined.

Yes, it is all a battle of the wits. Your strong-willed child is smart, but you are smarter.

3. Set the Timer

One frustrated mom asked, "How do you get your child to sit at the dinner table with you?" The question that should be parried to the mom is, "What made her think that NOT joining you for dinner is an option?" Turns out, strong-willed little Gracie made coming to the dinner table such an ordeal that her parents decided it would be better to let her go play so they could eat in peace. In other words, they caved because it seemed easier at the time. They are paying for it now. Gracie gained ground, and she's not giving it up easily. What should this frustrated mom do? Set the timer! Timers are an invaluable resource for parents with strong-willed children. Kids will obey the beep because it's not mom's voice. If you have a Gracie who won't eat dinner at the table when dinner is ready, calmly tell her, "When you hear the timer beep, it's time to come to the table for dinner. If you don't come to the table then, you will miss out on dinner and have to wait until breakfast for your next meal." Will Gracie come to the table the first time you try this after you've let her get away with NOT coming for so long? Probably not. Before bedtime, Gracie will realize how hungry she is and beg you for a snack. She will cry, wail, and throw such a fit you will be tempted to give her a snack to quiet her. Don't do it! You will only teach her she can skip dinner and hold out for a snack. She won't starve from missing one meal. If she needs to cry herself to sleep, so be it. She is testing you. Each night at dinner time, remind her to come when the timer beeps. It may take a few attempts before she gets tired of going to bed hungry and joins you on schedule, but this is the price you pay for not disciplining her sooner.

Kids love screen time, but every parent knows two hours or less each day is recommended by pediatricians. When you tell your strong-willed child he has been on the computer, TV, or device long enough, he will continue to stall. Set the timer and establish a rule—when it beeps, it's time to get off the screen or lose screen time altogether for the next day. When he hears the timer, he will be okay with following the rule because it's not you chirping in his ear. If he doesn't though, be sure to follow through with the removal of screen privileges.

When you tell your strong-willed child that it's time for a shower, he often resists. "No!," he whines or screeches, "I don't want to get a shower already!" Giving an advance warning and setting the timer will diffuse this nightly ritual. Tell him, "You have 15 minutes until it's time for a shower. When you hear the timer, head to the bathroom."

Using a timer puts the ball in your strong-willed child's court. He gets to choose to obey the timer rather than you directly. He still feels in control, but you are calling the shots.

4. Give Sincere Praise

Strong-willed children can be so contentious you find yourself focusing on all the negative aspects of their character and allowing your frustration with them to eclipse their positive traits. From their perspective, they feel you are always mad, demanding, and unloving. You need to refocus and spotlight all that is right with them--not reconciling this just in your own mind, but expressing it to them in word and deed.

Strong-willed kids are often at the top of their classes and may even be in the school's gifted program. The same focus and determination they use to defy you are the same forces that help them excel in academics. Praise them for their diligence in staying on top of their homework, for resolutely tackling harder assignments with a can-do attitude, and for snagging rewards from their teachers for their efforts. When report cards come home, tell him how proud you are and celebrate his success with a special treat or financial compensation.

Strong-willed kids have a superb work ethic, so assign chores she can do competently and then praise her for a job well done. Whether it is picking up sticks in the yard, weeding, helping cook, or making her bed, let her know how much you appreciate the extra help and being able to trust her to do jobs to perfection. Communicate to her how much you value her contribution to the household and be sure she understands how important she is to the entire family. She will beam from satisfaction and may even ask for more chores because she will want to hear more praise. Strong-willed kids are very tenacious and have the ability to stick with you on tasks from start to finish when other kids would grow weary and quit. Praise her for it and continue to strengthen her work ethic by offering an allowance.

Go out of your way to catch your strong-willed child doing right. Here are some possible scenarios you can applaud:

  • I love how you made the new girl at church feel so welcome!
  • You did such a good job making your bed--I couldn't have done it better myself!
  • You hopped right off the computer as soon as the timer beeped. Great job!
  • I think the cookies we baked taste even sweeter because you helped!
  • You saved me so much time by helping with the dishes. Thank-you! I really appreciate it!
  • Even though your brother destroyed your Lego creation, I am very proud of how you handled that. You didn't get upset or retaliate. You acted like the bigger person.
  • Thanks for helping me with my new phone. You are so good at figuring things out!

At bedtime or while riding in the car, tell your strong-willed child you want to play a game—you're going to see how many things you can list that you love about her. What might those things be?

  • You are so creative and crafty. You have the best imagination!
  • You are a problem solver. No matter what the situation, you work on it until you figure it out.
  • You have a great sense of humor and always make me laugh.
  • You are generous with your time and talent.
  • You are so patient with older people.
  • I never have to worry about you losing your things at school because you are so responsible with your belongings.
  • You are very encouraging and always have something positive to say.
  • You inspire people.
  • You have great ideas and are always willing to share them.
  • You have such a strong faith.
  • You always make everyone feel like part of the group.

Get the idea? Your strong-willed child wants attention, even if it's negative. However, as you continue to shower her with positive words of affirmation, she will prefer your praise above all else. She will modify and redirect her actions to be on the receiving end of praise instead of rebuke. Along the way, you will discover it has become easier to find what is right with her instead of what is wrong!

5. Create Challenges

Strong-willed kids are ultra goal-oriented. Use this to your advantage when you want to modify behavior without a power struggle. For example, gifted kids often keep messy rooms. Einstein was a total slob. You see a mess, but they explore space in a different way to come up with innovative ideas. Since your child might resent you commanding him to clean up his bedroom or toy room, pose your request as a challenge. For example, "I'll bet you have forgotten about some toys that you really love to play with because they have gotten buried in here. I would like to challenge you to see how you could design an organizational system in here that would help you easily see and access all of your resources. Are you up for the challenge?" Heck, yeah!

Maybe you need some quiet time to clean or cook without interruption. Tell your strong-willed son, "I would like to challenge you to make something with your Legos you've never made before. Do you think you could build a Jurassic World or a really big robot?" You won't hear a peep for quite some time.

If you are weary of your crafty, strong-willed daughter picking on her sibling and need a respite, say, "I want to challenge you to create a special picture that I can proudly hang on the fridge", or maybe, "I want to challenge you to send your grandparents a nicely written letter and an awesome picture to go with it." The crayons, paper, and scissors will be flying out of the craft cabinet in no time!

Many kids resist learning how to make their beds because they want you to do it forever. Make it a challenge too. Let's set a timer and see how fast you can make your bed to perfection and then see if we can beat that record tomorrow. The same thing goes for the daughter who spends too long in the shower. Challenge her to beat the timer while still being sure to get squeaky clean.

Strong-willed kids need mental stimulation even when school is not in session. As the old adage aptly states, idle time truly does create evil minds, especially in a strong-willed child! Especially during summer months, have plenty of educational resources in your arsenal. Summer Bridge books are easy to snag and require no effort from you. Enrolling your child in a library program or creating one of your own with incentives will keep him reading too. Surf Pinterest for project ideas in which to engage him. Check out your local recreational complex for camps and special classes. Encourage him to try a new sport or play an instrument. Steer him towards community service projects through your church, or push him to secure a job, if he's old enough. Finding outlets for your strong-willed child to release his energy will decrease his volatility and penchant for instigating at home.

More Tips for Dealing With a Strong-Willed Child

One of the best books on the market for understanding and dealing with a strong-willed child is You Can't Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded) by Cynthia Tobias. This book is a must for your parenting library. It helps you understand your strong-willed child's psyche--what makes him tick. For example, maybe you were raised by parents whose philosophy was, Do it because I said so, and that was good enough for you. No so with a strong-willed child. The book explains how strong-willed children need to know the why behind every request or rule, and the reason must make sense for them to acquiesce. Maybe one of the classroom rules for your child is no note passing. Well, if your daughter wants her friend to sit beside her at lunch and note passing is the only way this can be communicated in time, she is going to pass the note because the rule doesn't make sense to her in that situation. If, however, you explain to her she still can't pass the note because it distracts the students around her who aren't finished with their work, she will be more likely to agree that the rule should be followed.

One of the best tips offered by the book is the suggestion to add the word "okay" to every request you make to your strong-willed child. Come help with the dishes, okay? instead of Come help with the dishes! is less likely to rub your strong-willed child the wrong way. The change in wording is subtle. Instead of your request sounding like a command, it sounds like a question. A question gives your strong-willed child the illusion she has a choice to answer yes or no, and she likes having control. Strong-willed kids don't like being told what to do, so commands are typically met with pronounced resistance. It's time to do your homework, okay? sounds more reasonable to her ears than Do your homework! The added okay will often produce the desired outcome you're seeking. If it doesn't, however, you are still the authority, and you will need to activate alternative methods to ensure obedience.

End Result

There are two paths in life for the strong-willed child--the one taken will determine the type of person she will become. As her parent, you are responsible to see she picks the right road. If the battle of wits leaves you drained, discouraged, and ready to give up and let her run wild, she will grow into a self-centered, undisciplined person no one will like. She will forever wonder why dating relationships fail, why people reject her friendship, and why no one ever seems to like her in the workplace. She will never realize her potential because she will be her own worst enemy. Her explosive personality and character will stifle her gifts and talents. She will blame everyone else for her woes because she won't be capable of self-correction. If, however, her iron will meets yours, iron will sharpen iron. When you enforce boundaries, redirect her sharp intellect towards noble endeavors, help her make smart choices, and build her up with sincere praise, all the while maintaining the upper hand and staying one step ahead, you will have molded and shaped her so she can channel her attitude and strong-will towards good purposes. Her personality and character will earn her promotion and responsibility, and she will be a respected and charismatic innovator people will admire. Are you in control of your household, or is your strong-willed child running the show? Have you lost ground? If so, it's time to take back the territory and get her feet firmly planted on the right path that will lead to a bright future.

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