So many of you have asked me when I would start writing these notes again so I am back! I have lots of new topics that have come up over the summer and already this fall. I hope you enjoy this common topic of raising strong willed children as it can be a big challenge. And if you are wondering if your kid is strong willed, other words used to describe kids like this are “stubborn, bull headed, persistent, difficult, or free spirited.”

How do I raise my strong-willed child?

Strong willed children are strong willed year round. But, when it comes to starting something new, such as school, they can dig their heels in even deeper than usual. Let’s take Corey, he is a 6 year old boy in kindergarten. His parents came to see me last month when they anticipated the transition from schools to be a challenging one. They wanted to both laugh and cry as they discussed the challenges that they have with him. They describe Cory as being so tough sometimes that they want to “break him.” I knew what they meant by that but it is ill advised to try to break the will of a child like this. Not only is not good for the kid in the moment but also for their future. Strong willed children can grow up to be amazing teens and adults- you just have to get it through through their childhood!

Corey is the type of child who wants to do things his way. He doesn’t really want to be taught things, he wants to figure things out for himself. Corey also often wants to be right and if he has his mind set on something there is no stopping him. Corey’s parents basically say that from sun up to sun rise days with Corey can be one big power struggle.

I was excited to be working with Corey’s parents. I know what it is like to both treat and parent this type of child so I was excited to challenge them in a new way…to give up the fight! Strong willed children really do not like to be told what to do, so parenting them is all about being creative in setting limits and boundaries that the child perceives he has some control in. I will share with you some of my top tips that worked with Corey and many other strong willed children.

Allow them to test the limits – this type of child does not just rely on being told about things, they must do them for themselves. They are usually creative and curious which can also mean that they get into things that they have been told they shouldn’t. So, instead of resisting what you likely already know they will pursue, allow it. Even encourage testing the limits and boundaries. In Corey’s case he wanted to ride his bike without training wheels, his parents did not yet feel comfortable with that but after talking about it we decided to go ahead and let him try. We risked that the worst thing that would happen is that he would fall and scrape his leg. Parents of kids like this have to become more tolerant of risk than the average parent.

Encourage independence – Corey didn’t like it when they were doing something or going somewhere that his parents reminded him of things like getting dressed, putting on shoes or even eating. So, after talking about it we came up with a strategy to create a picture chart that he helped make that showed all the things that needed to be done in an average day. It was laminated and he was “in charge of” the dry erase marker that allowed him to check things off each day. He much preferred this to being told what to do and took great pride in checking all the boxes.

Offer choices – whenever possible Corey’s parents offered him choices. They would ask him whether he wanted waffles or eggs, broccoli or green beans, bath or shower. At first they thought it felt excessive but when they realized that a whole day or two had gone by without the usual power struggle they were sold. It isn’t foolproof but the majority of the time a child like Corey feels in control just enough to accept a forced choice. They don’t respond well when not given choices.

Show empathy – your strong-willed child is not trying to be difficult, they are navigating the world the way they experience it, as something to be mastered. Saying statements like, “It must be hard for you when…you can’t figure that out…or when I say no…” go a long way with kids like this. It signals to them that you aren’t their enemy but rather that you understand that them. Corey’s parents learned to listen even better to Corey and realized that he sometimes had valid points. They were able to reinforce his feelings or thoughts yet teach him different ways of expressing them because they went into situations with the intent to see it from his side and not have to be right all the time.

Take a deep breath – parenting a child like this can be exhausting, frustrating and even embarrassing at times. The only way to calm yourself down in these moments are to take a breath and walk away. Corey’s parents started doing this, they would even announce to him that they needed a timeout. When they re-engaged with him they said they felt so much better able to implement the strategies that they were learning.

Parents of kids like Corey- there is a sweet reward for your hard work. These kids tend to grow up to be creative, innovative leaders. When they are older they are already the masters of negotiation since they have lived most of their lives in constant negotiation! Parenting them can be joyful when you have the specific tools and patience that you need to raise them. Happy Parenting!

About the author

Sheryl Gonzalez Ziegler, Psy.D. holds a Doctorate of Psychology, is an Author, Speaker, National Media Contributor, Non-Profit Board Member, Girl Scouts Leader, Girls on the Run Coach and Advocate for children. She has been treating children and families for over twenty years with areas of expertise in anxiety, trauma, divorce, stress management and depression. Dr. Ziegler is the author of the best selling book, Mommy Burnout: how to reclaim your life and raise healthier children in the process, the winner of Best Parenting Book of 2018 as awarded by International Latino Book Awards.

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