09 Mar 5 Tips for Parenting a Strong-Willed Child
Parenting comes with many challenges. Even before you were gifted the role of Mom or Dad, you likely heard about various difficulties that come with raising children. “Terrible twos,” managing stubborn tantrums, and dealing with moody teenagers. As parents, we expect some bumps in the road as we provide guidance and nurture our growing humans. But if you are the parent of a strong-willed child (also sometimes referred to as a willful or spirited child), it may feel like these “challenges” never cease. It may seem as if their emotions are always at a level 10, and it can be difficult to manage these moments. Trying to get a strong-willed child to follow directions, cope with a disappointment or change, or even manage waiting in line at the grocery store can feel like you’re entering a battlefield.
A strong-willed child is not a “bad kid,” in fact, I would argue that there is no such thing. Despite this, they are often viewed by others as such because of their behaviors and reactions. In the book, Raising Your Spirited Child, Mary Kurcinka describes a “spirited child” as: intense, sensitive, perceptive, persistent, and energetic. This description is pretty spot on. Strong-willed children display intense behaviors and responses to their emotions. They are often sensitive and can also be in tune with the emotions of those around them. A strong-willed child’s persistence, especially when they have their mind set on something, can look like stubbornness that quickly results in a meltdown. Needless to say, these qualities can be a challenge for any parent or caregiver to manage, but you can parent your child and these qualities can go from a challenge to a strength. Read further to learn five tips for parenting your strong-willed child.
TIP #1: Get into “Green Zone”
After enduring a 30-minute meltdown because your child wanted their toast cut into triangles and not in rectangles, it can be difficult to keep your own emotions in check. However, this first tip is an important one. When working with young children, I often discuss emotion regulation in terms of colored zones.
The “green zone” is where we thrive. Our emotions are in check, we feel in control, and we are able to problem-solve without being overwhelmed by external stimuli. In order for our children to maintain (or get to) this zone, it is important that we are there. As I mentioned before, strong-willed children are perceptive and sensitive and may pick up on our emotional state. If we are wound up, they will likely have a hard time calming down. Taking time to calm yourself and reframe how you are approaching your child’s behavior is critical, and can greatly help with implementing the next tip.
TIP #2: Validate Your Strong-Willed Child
Managing frustrations and expressing anger in socially appropriate ways is a skill that strong-willed children find difficult to do. Again, one of the hallmark qualities of a strong-willed child is their intensity. They feel their emotions deeply and express them in the same way. As a parent, you can help your child to learn to express their emotions appropriately by validating how they feel.
Validation does not mean that you have to agree with their behavior, but it does help them to feel heard and understood. What does this skill look like? Let’s say your child is upset and insisting that they are allowed to ride their bike. You have already explained that this is not possible, but you can sense that this exchange is leading to a meltdown. Remember TIP #1 (manage your emotions), and then calmly say to your child, “I can see that you are angry and disappointed that we cannot ride bikes today.” This simple action can help your child to feel understood and helps them to connect with their emotions.
TIP #3: Offering (Limited) Choices
The battle of wills can get real…really fast! Strong-willed children sometimes seem to fight just for the fun of it. Refusing to follow directions, complete what feels like simple requests, and the constant questions (how many times can they ask “why?”, right?) are downright exhausting. This can be resolved by providing a brief, but clear, explanation, validating their feelings and offering limited choices. Using the example discussed above, you might suggest that instead of riding bikes you can read a book or color a picture. Keeping the only 2-3 things is important because it allows you to provide a limit, while also avoiding overwhelming your child. Ultimately, this skill will help your child feel empowered and avoids the dreaded power struggle.
TIP #4: Help Your Strong-Willed Child Problem-Solve to Avoid Major Meltdowns
This tip is really an extension of TIP #3. Offering choices can be a way to problem-solve. More broadly speaking, problem-solving is a critical life skill that all children need to learn. It is also a tricky skill to access during heightened emotional times. You can help your child with this by first thinking ahead and identifying any situations that might be a trigger for your child. For instance, if you know waiting often results in an intense response you might talk with your child beforehand about what is to be expected. This helps them to anticipate the unwanted event and then they can help you brainstorm ways to manage themselves in those situations. When we can anticipate what may happen, we can prepare and help our children feel more prepared and empowered.
TIP #5: Offer Rewards and Praise in Place of Negative Consequences When Possible
Rewards and praise are a powerful tool for any child, but even more so for the strong-willed child. When it comes to parenting a strong-willed child, using rewards in place of giving a negative consequence can do wonders for fostering a positive connection with them. This is not to say that we should ignore unwanted behaviors, but it does mean that we should be mindful to balance the scale and praise all of the positive behaviors that we see. Did your child get into the car after school without needing to be asked the usual 5 times? Praise them! Did they brainstorm a way to manage anticipated frustrations surrounding waiting? You know what to do…lay on the praise. This changes the dynamic between you and your child, and helps you to connect to the wonderful, sensitive, perceptive human being you created!
Although strong-willed children are often seen as more difficult, with the right tools and support they can flourish. Like children with calmer temperaments, a strong-willed child can learn and utilize skills to help them harness their energy and larger than life personality. Our trained and licensed child and family therapists can assist you and your child with gaining the skills to help them flourish.
 NSFS has these categories: ADHD, Anxiety, Divorce, Executive Functioning, Family, Parenting, PRESS, Teen Therapy
Amber is a licensed clinical social worker who earned her Master of Social Work degree from The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She also holds a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Applied Psychology from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Amber has six years of experience working with children, teens, young adults and their families in a variety of settings, including residential, juvenile probation and outpatient therapy.