How To Manage Your Strong Willed Child

Hi! We have an issue that we need help solving. My wife has seen and read your articles and enjoys your writing and feels you have good things to say. We are parents of a 3-year old boy and 9 month old girl. The reason for our letter is our strong willed child. We love him very much, but lately we are at a loss how to deal with him. He is defiant and out of control, he hits us when we tell him NO, and the house has become -at times- an unpleasant place. What can we do to help him improve his behavior and restore some peace in our home?

Thank you for your question. The best way to deal with a strong willed child is the following:

1. Have the right parenting philosophy:

Our goal as parents is to teach our children enough life skills so that they can manage one day on their own and be productive members of society. Strong willed children already have a strong dose of the independence they need to make it on their own and it should be recognized as a strength. Remember that many great people were strong willed and mischievous. It is a sign of good character, creativity and persistence.

Many times parents think that we need to subdue our children and always make them listen to what we say. This is not the case. We should cultivate a child’s independence. It does not have to be at the expense of maintaining our authority as parents in our homes.

2. Try to figure out what triggers the difficult behavior:

Is it jealousy of his little sister?
Does he have trouble transitioning from activity to activity? Is he tired, hungry?
Does he need extra attention? Does he have trouble processing and following directions?
Does he have trouble expressing himself with words? Is he with too many unfamiliar people?

There are many different things that can cause misbehavior. Once you find out what his triggers are you can start to reduce or eliminate the causes for misbehavior. You can set your child up for success.
For example if he has trouble processing directions you would give him a visual cue, show him the door or his coat if you are leaving, tactile cues, touch him and make eye contact so you know he has heard you and give him warnings 5-10 minutes before you are ready to go.

3. Let them be involved in planning:

Get him used to problem solving and sequencing his activities “Bedtime is at 7pm. How do you want to work out getting ready for bed?” When do you think a good time is to start if you want to play around, brush your teeth, get into pajamas and read a bedtime book?”
The object is not to have military precision when going to bed. It is just an exercise in helping him take charge of his time and his responsibilities.

4. Positive Reinforcement:

Anytime he behaves well you want to mention it with descriptive language. He does not have to do anything out of the ordinary:
“You held my hand when you crossed the street, That is called being safe and taking care of yourself.”
“You asked for a cookie with a please, that is using good manners.”
“You shared your toy with your friend that is called being kind and thoughtful.”

5.Give choices:

Strong-willed kids need to have a say in what they do and how they do it. Anything can be a choice, even things that may seem silly to adults.
“Do you want to brush your teeth now or in 5 minutes?”
“Do you want the blue or the red cup?”
“Do you want to play with the legos or the ball?”

6. Stop the Hitting:

When he hits:
Accept Feelings
“You must be so angry and you can’t tell me with words, so you are hitting.”
Focus on the Positive
You know how to be respectful. Remember yesterday I told you to get the ice pops for your play date and you did it right away.”

I can’t be with you when you hit. I have to move away
Show you have faith in his ability to be correct his misbehavior:
“I know next time you will use your words to tell me how angry you are.”

When it is calm talk to him gently about the incident:
“Remember before you were so angry, you seemed very upset because I ran out of the juice that you liked. Next time it is better to use words instead of hitting, “Mommy I am so angry that you didn’t have my juice, can you buy some as soon as possible!!!!!” and when you calm down an even better way of saying it is, “Mommy please remember to buy me the juice that I like. It is so hard to remember to use respectful language when we are angry but I know you will try next time”

7. Get some rest:

Dealing with a strong willed child is exhausting. You need to be on your toes mentally and physically. It is hard to think creatively on how to manage their behavior when you are tired and overwhelmed. Give yourself lots of breaks, and try to get a good night’s sleep. Try to work together with your spouse and support each other when one of you has spent a lot of time with the strong-willed child. Often, if I see the morning is not going well, I will say to my husband, “ I don’t have the patience to deal with the whining this morning, are you able to take over? “ More times then not he is able to do it.

When we have strong-willed children it is hard to remember that they so badly want to behave appropriately but they don’t have the necessary basic people skills or emotional intelligence to do so. All children desperately want their parents approval and some children just don’t know how to achieve that. We need to instruct them gently and respectfully to improve their behavior so that they can succeed at behaving.

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  1. I have a 2 1/2 year old, and she is very independent and strong willed. Giving her choices seems to help her to comply with my directions better. What are more good ways to get the child to follow through with your directions? For example directions to eat meals, pick up toys.

  2. Adina Soclof says:

    Thanks for your question.
    You can use choices for almost anything even when eating meals and picking up toys.
    You can say:
    Would you like cereal or eggs for breakfast?
    Which choice of vegetable would you like carrots or green beans?

    When picking up toys you can say:

    Would you like to clean your dolls or the lego?
    Would you like to pick up 5 or 10 toys?

    The key with strong willed and independent kids is to not give them direct commands because they are sure to dig in their heels. Also remember that when they don’t have a choice about something, you can say, “I try to make sure that you make your own decisions, this time I need to make the decision for you.” I will write more in a post.
    Thanks so much for writing!

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