Learn How You Can Deal With Your Strong-willed Child

Strong-willed children want to learn things for themselves rather than accepting what others say. This results in them testing the limits again and again.

They are likely to have their own preferences as to what they want and how they do things. They possess a strong determination to achieve something and are persistent in their efforts to do so, which is a positive trait necessary to overcome future obstacles which they may face in adulthood.

Unfortunately, this can be perceived as stubbornness, i.e. doesn’t listen to or follow instructions and defies any kind of changes even if it’s for their own good. Due to this, parents and kids may end up at loggerheads with each other over many different issues.

Parent-child power struggle

Between unmet expectations (i.e. a child listens to their parents) and the harsh reactions and discipline following parents’ frustrations, power struggles are inevitable. It’s easy to lose one’s temper when dealing with a child who is unwilling to listen to what you say.

However, there’s a danger of not helping the child learn, and worse, increases negative behaviours and oppositionality if you engage in a power struggle with them. Getting overly emotional may also lead to parents doing or saying things they regret later on. We keep our ‘power’ by staying calm, so remind yourself who is the adult.

Half the battle is won if you’re open to new perspectives and ways of responding to your child in challenging situations. Understanding the needs and drives underlying strong-willed child’s behaviours and responding to them (instead of what is on the surface) will be the other half – sometimes children appear stubborn because they feel hurt or their decisions/ opinions were not heard.

No to blind obedience

The idea of a child doing exactly what you tell him to all the time may seem great, but blind obedience is unhealthy. It is better to teach him how to be sensible, considerate and co-operative. Breaking a child’s will by forcing obedience is counter-productive in the long run as it will leave him open to be manipulated by others who may not have his best interest in mind.

The most important approach to get a strong-willed child to listen is by working with them as opposed to against them. This changes the dynamics of how you can work together. Connect to your child and tune in to their needs so that you can meet them where they are. Understanding them makes it possible to see things from their point of view, which provides an opportunity for validation and enhances empathy. At the same time, allow your child to experience ‘real world’ consequences as natural and logical consequences can be a more effective teacher than nagging and scolding.

Most people don’t like being told what to do, and this is especially true for strong-willed children. They are likely to dig their heels in if they feel they are being ordered around. Here are some creative methods you could try to get them to come around:

  • Turn chores or routines into games
    ‘Beat-the-clock’ and compete to see who finishes first or who gets the most done, e.g. “Let’s pack up and see who can collect the most toys” or “Lights will be off at 9pm. If you hurry then we may have time for two story books.”

  • Ask for help
    Make young children your “special helper” to complete the tasks. For older children, appeal to their sense of altruism. This can encourage them to be more caring and considerate of others.
  • Positive approach
    Use encouraging, supportive words rather than threats, e.g. instead of “We are not going out until you finish your food” to “As soon as you finish your food, we can go out”. This way, the focus is on what to do to achieve the goal.
  • Play the “yes” game
    Ask questions that your child will answer “yes” a few times in a row to help break down their resistance, e.g. if he refuses to leave the swimming pool, “You love to play in the water yeah?”, “Next time we should invite your cousin along. Would you like that?”, “Today was a wonderful outing. Should we do this again next week?” Your child will also feel heard and understood when you focus on common grounds.

  • Offer options
    Rather than giving ultimatums, simply start the process, e.g.to bring play time to an end, ask “Do you want to put your toys away yourself or should i help you?” then start the routine of packing up while giving options along the way, e.g. “What goes in first? The duck or the blocks?”, “Which box should the train go into, the red one or the green one?”

It isn’t easy dealing with strong-willed children. They have a lot of potential but require a lot more patience and creativity for parents to successfully deal with them. When you find an effective way to channel their persistence in the right direction, it helps them to achieve their potential of growing into highly self-motivated individuals when they grow up.

An educational contribution by Malaysian Society of Clincial Psychology.

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