Parenting a Strong-Willed Child: The Dos and Don'ts

So, you’ve got a little one with a strong sense of self? Congrats! I say that without an ounce of sarcasm. Inside every strong-willed child is a determined spirit deeply connected to their personhood. 

And if you’re thinking, yeah, it’s great and all… BUT… send help – well, I get that too. Raising a strong-minded child is a joy and a challenge. They are the children that will keep you honest, keep you growing. And even though it may be difficult to handle a child with a determined spirit, if you parent with sensitivity, not only will you get front row seat to the remarkable mountains they scale through sheer will, they might just teach you a thing or two about your own boundaries and comfort levels.

Driven and self-guided, strong-willed children strive for what they want and are usually unaffected by influences that ail their peers like media, social pressure, and more. Provided that their parents don’t try to take away their will, strong-willed kids often grow up to be trailblazers.

What exactly is a strong-willed child?

A strong-willed child has a particular set of personality traits that can be seen as both a positive and a negative – depending on who you ask. Some might call them “difficult” or “stubborn,” but those with a more strength-based perspective might recognize them as spirited, courageous, and full of integrity.

Sidebar: Let’s take a pause here to remind ourselves that children become who and what we see them as. Your voice becomes their inner voice. It’s why I always advocate you to see your child’s traits (no matter how frustrating it might make you feel) as something to be honored and celebrated. Now back to the regular program…

Strong-willed kids are determined to learn things for themselves and enjoy testing the limits. They want to be their own boss and may be more focused on being right than anything else. These kiddos often have powerful emotions and live life to the fullest!


Common struggles of Parenting Strong-willed Children

After the description above about the strong-willed child, it’s to no surprise that it’s common to have constant power-struggles between the parent and the strong-willed child.  If this is you, you need to remember two things:

1. You don’t have to accept every invitation to a power-struggle.

        Your child is meant to push your limits. In fact, it’s their way of asking if you’ve got things covered and sure of what you’re doing. They need for their own security. Getting comfortable and clear with your boundary setting is essential to any parent, but for those raising strong-willed children, it’s a vital component to relating with your child. When those limits are pushed, remind yourself why you set those limits, why they are necessary, and stay regulated while you state, “Yes, this is the limit. It’s not going to change.”

    2 . You are building trust and respect.

    Nobody enjoys being told to do something, but those with a determined nature find it intolerable. To prevent clashes between parents and their kids, it’s essential to make them feel heard while also enforcing boundaries. This can be done by showing empathy, offering choices, and recognizing that respect is reciprocal. Again, it’s good practice for parents to look for a positive outcome for both parties, but it’s absolutely essential for parents of the strong-willed child. Finding a way to work as a team or find a win/win solution keeps strong-willed children from hitting their low tolerance for directives and also models how to fight well – through negotiation and compromise.

    Should you break a child’s will?

    Before we talk about breaking a child’s will, let’s review:

    It’s not that strong-willed children are simply being difficult; they don’t like to succumb to someone else’s will. It’s an attack on their strong integrity and personhood. When given the opportunity to self-direct, or if they can’t do that than at least be heard and understood, they’re more than happy to work collaboratively.

    I often hear parents suggest that a child’s will need to be broken. After all, the world is not going to bend to your will every time. While that’s true, there are many things we can do to support our strong-willed child in this journey navigating interpersonal relationships that does not fall under quick and absolute obedience. Because absolute obedience isn’t what you want either, is it?

    Asking for obedience is like asking your child to stop listening to their gut. You want them to have access to a healthy connection with their inner voice. It’s what helps children in middle childhood side-step peer pressures or influences from sources that their gut tells them question.

    Of course, parents aim to raise a responsible, kind, and collaborative child who will do what’s right, even when it’s difficult. This doesn’t, however, mean they should be obedient; instead, let’s help them make choices that are considerate and moral because they want to.

    There are two key elements to having a strong-willed child want to be collaborative with you. Those are:

    • Trust
    • Connection

    We can build BOTH by showing our child respect. The respect your strong-willed child wants is for you to know and accept them as a person. There’s no greater need than for a strong-willed child to be seen and loved for who they are. Especially when what they want and how they think doesn’t exactly align with what you want or how you think. When you can do this, you can be 100% honest with them. There is no trickery, no bribery, no coercion. When they are faced with limits that make sense, is consistent, and they see that you are capable of holding those limits even when they can’t stop their impulses every moment to meet those limits – THIS builds trust and connection.

    Bottom line: Both needs CAN be met.

    Strong-willed children are built of something else because they are meant to stand up control, oppression, and injustice – for themselves and for others. Power struggles may come up; instead of seeing this as an issue, sensitive parents can see this as an opportunity to reflect on their limits and boundaries.

    To truly bring a strong-willed child onto your team and collaborate with you, you’ll need to build trust and a deep connection with them. Respect is the ingredient you need to parent your strong-willed child so that when you say, “I need you to be on my team and work with me”, they are much more likely to say, “OK”. They are leaning on all those little deposits of respect, trust, and connection you’ve built with them in all those small moments.

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