Parent: If, in the course of a normal day, your preschooler: Argues with you more often and more effectively than an adult,
Finds loopholes in your parenting better than a lawyer could,
Persuades those around them more effectively than a trained negotiator,
Needs to know the reasoning behind everything going on in the world,
Or commands a room like a major general …
… chances are you have a strong-willed child. And while those personality traits may make parenting REALLY hard, hold on — kids with this temperament do some amazing things.
Here are some tips for you, mom or dad, on how to make sure your strong-willed child has a great future.
The Challenges of a Strong Will
Psychotherapist Amy Morin puts it simply: “Strong-willed kids are simply determined to do things according to their own terms.”
Here are the difficulties that can come with raising a strong-willed child.
Active with a capital “A.” You probably have a strong-willed child if you thought they were trying to escape the womb in utero. Even as infants, strong-willed kids are movers. As toddlers and preschoolers, strong-willed kids are the squirmers, the sheet-kicker-off-ers, the ones you find on top of the kitchen counters and aren’t sure how they got there.
High intensity is their only mode. When strong-willed kids cry, they scream. When they’re happy, they also scream but with a smile.
Their Internal clocks are all over the place. As a baby, your strong-willed child probably didn’t eat or sleep on a regular schedule. Strong-willed preschoolers often can’t tell when they’re hungry or tired and can switch between having a good day and a bad day for no discernible reason.
Overstimulation happens fast. Strong-willed babies startle easily and are very reactive to external stimulation, e.g., lights, sound, touch, food, and dirty diapers. Strong-willed preschoolers are also overstimulated by these things, but probably not ALL of them. You’ll have a picky eater, a choosy dresser, or a child who likes things quiet.
New situations? No thanks. No to new foods. No to new clothes. No to new people. No to a changed schedule. While strong-willed kids will eventually warm up to new things, their immediate reaction is always, “No.”
The whining … the negotiating … it never ends. To put it plainly, strong-willed kids are stubborn. And they will fight you in some very creative, irritating ways to come out on top.
The Rewards of Raising a Strong-Willed Child
You may have read that list and look like this now.
Don’t lose heart! Just because your child is strong-willed does not mean they are a bad kid. Unfortunately, society has coupled “good kid” with the vague, ill-defined requirement of being “well behaved” — which is actually just code for “a child who doesn’t require much from me as an adult.” Strong-willed kids don’t fit that bill, and that’s why they often get a bad rap.
But check this out: A recent 40-year study found that children labeled as “rule-breakers” or “defiant” were more likely to become overachieving, financially successful adults. The things about strong-willed kids that make them difficult to parent actually end up making them very successful adults.
Understand that a strong-willed child isn’t something to be scared of. Raising one just takes some different strategies, but that goes for every child and temperament out there.
Tips for Parenting Strong-Willed Kids
Regardless of how they’ll turn out as adults, moms and dads of strong-willed kids need advice NOW on how to best parent their child without breaking their child’s will or feeling overwhelmed. Here are a few quick tips to send you down the right path.
Acknowledge their feelings. Most of the time, strong-willed kids are upset or unhappy about very reasonable things. Instead of saying, “Calm down, it’s not a big deal,” acknowledge that they are upset for a very good reason. Then, walk them through the process of how to appropriately express that anger or frustration.
Give them some control. If your strong-willed child keeps pushing to control things, then let them! Let them decide which clothes they wear, what snack they eat, and where they can go in the house. Yes, they may look like they raided a clown closet when they dress themselves, but who cares? When they feel like they have control over some things in their life, they’ll be less likely to push you about every little thing and more likely to make compromises.
Offer (limited) choices. Let’s say you decide to give your child control of the food they can eat at snack time. If you don’t provide the options for them, they’ll be fighting you to eat candy and ice cream every day. Instead, give them the power to choose from the list of snack items you’ve already created. They get to make the choice, and you avoid an unnecessary fight. Now, will they try and negotiate a few extra things onto the menu? Probably/most definitely. Don’t let this turn into a fight. Instead, provide them with the guidelines of what’s an acceptable snack and work on creating the list together.
Be direct, clear, and a little stubborn. Strong-willed kids like to argue for the sake of arguing. They’ll push just because they can. (Remember: This will be a valuable skill as an adult.) If you find yourself in an argument loop with your child, give one warning and a consequence. It’s vital to understand this does not work if you don’t follow through on the consequence. So pick one you know will work and follow through with it. The same goes for the “selective hearing” strong-willed kids can get. When they ignore you, give them a warning, a consequence, and follow through.
Help them problem-solve instead of whine. Strong-willed kids are usually very active, so the idea of waiting and being patient can make them feel a little crazy. And the task of entertaining them shouldn’t fall solely on mom or dad’s shoulders. Start young and get them to help you plan ahead for when things get a little dull. Let them choose to bring coloring books or stuffed animals to the doctor’s office, sing songs or count blue things while in the grocery store, or listen to music or read books while driving in the car. If you have a toddler, they’ll need your help to remember to problem-solve. However, if you start working with a strong-willed child young, you’ll watch in amazement as they start taking the initiative to problem-solve all on their own.
Find reasons to praise them. If it feels like all you do is fuss with your strong-willed child, switch the script and start seeking out ways to praise them instead. Did they take deep calming breaths instead of getting mad? Make a big deal about it. Did they think of a creative way to solve a problem? Throw a party. Did they recognize when they were getting overstimulated and tell you about it? Write a letter to the president. (Okay, maybe dial it back a little.) Not only do they get positive reinforcement for their behavior, but your relationship with them isn’t centered only around struggle.
Watch Your Words
This last tip gets its own category because it’s that important. The last thing to remember is to watch the words you use to describe your strong-willed child.
They are not wild, they are energetic.
They are not stubborn, they are persistent.
They are not demanding, they are decisive.
They are not argumentative, they are clever.
They are not picky, they check things out before diving in.
They are not annoying, they are perceptive.
The words you use to describe your child to them and to others sets up a framework for how they think about themselves.
A strong-willed child who thinks their temperament is bad will never grow outside of the negative words used to describe them.
A strong-willed child who grows up believing their personality is valuable has everything they need to persevere through difficult times and inspire others to do the same.
Love your strong-willed child hard (they can take it!), and value their personality as a precious gift. You may butt heads with them now, but a strong-willed child raised in a loving home will shake up their world in amazing ways.
For tips on how to parent a bossy child or anxious child, check our blogs below.
How To Parent: The Bossy Kid
How To Parent: The Socially Anxious Child