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  • Writer's pictureK.C. Dreisbach, LMFT

Parenting Strong-Willed Children

Updated: Apr 7, 2022

If you have a strong-willed child, you most likely read this title and almost tripped over your own feet as you dashed for your computer mouse to click on this post. And I don’t blame you! I have a strong-willed one too!

What I’m going to be covering today is the general idea of what a “strong-willed” child is and some simple ways you can begin shaping that personality trait to be used for the forces of good!

What is a “Strong-Willed” Child?

If you have a “strong-willed” child, you most likely figured it out pretty early on. This trait usually shows up in the late months of infancy and early months of toddlerhood, and it shouldn’t be confused with the Terrible Twos.

Strong-willed kids are sometimes referred to as “stubborn,” “spirited,” “hard-headed,” etc. The primary thing to remember about these kids is that this is not simply a “choice” in behavior, but a personality trait. This means that your child didn’t suddenly become “strong-willed” because you failed to discipline them and so now they’re spoiled brats.

Bystanders love to suggest this one, but it’s simply not true. Being “strong-willed” is a personality trait, meaning that your child was born with the propensity to be this way. That doesn’t mean that you can’t shape and mold that trait, however, but it does mean that you didn’t cause it.

Furthermore, being “strong-willed” is not a bad thing! As parents, having kids that fit this character description can really take its toll on us. It’s EXHAUSTING, right?!? But we always need to keep in mind that this personality trait can actually be an asset! Having a “spirited” child is truly not a negative situation, and it shouldn’t be viewed as such. It can be challenging, however, so how do we manage this?

Working with Your Spirited Youngster

Have you ever played with Play-Doh? I held a parenting class once where I gave each parent a tub of Play-Doh. Some parents got small, “travel-sized” tubs, others got glittery dough, some fresh-out-of-the-box, and yet others some older, stiffer dough. I asked all the parents to make me a snake out of their dough. Some rolled in their hands, others on the table, etc. The end result was everyone had a snake, but some were chubby snakes, others long, some short, and some super skinny. There were snakes of all colors.

What was the point of the project?

Raising kids is a combination of Nature and Nurture. The “Nature” of your child is their genetic makeup. This would be the color, freshness, and amount of Play-Doh a parent got.

The “Nurture” of your child is YOU! The parenting techniques you use, your consistency, your own role modeling, etc. This is equivalent to rolling dough on the table, between your hands, etc.

The message of this exercise is that you can all have a well-adjusted, happy child who can successfully function in our society. Your “stubborn” child is no different! Remember when I said you could shape this personality trait? This trait is like the Play-Doh. You can’t change the color/texture/freshness/etc. of the dough, but you can still mold it into something positive!

The following tips are helpful when working with a strong-willed child, but can also be used with any child and personality type! The key to these tips is to be consistent across time; the rules can’t change. I used to tell parents, if your child tests you 100 times in a day, you have to be able to go 101 times! So, let’s look at my keys to parenting strong-willed kiddos, without breaking their spirit.

1. Start Early & Be More Stubborn Than Your Child

Regardless of whether or not you have a spirited child on your hands, rules and discipline should start early on in a child’s life and remain consistent throughout their growth. When my son was 10-months-old, I had already begun applying household rules to him.

Now, you need to be developmentally appropriate. I won’t give a 10-month-old a Time Out, but I might tell him “No thank you. Daddy’s laptop is not a toy for you.” If he reaches for the laptop 30 times in a day, all 30 times I will give him the same message and redirect him to something else. Never give up! Remember, be more stubborn than your child.

Now, if you have an older child, and maybe you haven’t been the best at staying consistent, there’s no time like the present! Start today! Be warned, however, that your child will give you more resistance since they are not used to your new tenacity. Eventually, however, they will realize that you’re not going to give in. As such, they’ll start to get with the program.

2. Allow Your Child a Voice

In our effort to avoid breaking our child’s spirit, this tip is a very important one to remember: allow your child to have a voice!

I'm going to go a step further and suggest that you encourage your child to question you and speak their mind. (Say WHAT?!?)

I know it seems counter-intuitive, but let me explain. My father used to tell me:

“Always question, Krystal. Question your boss, your teachers, your friends, everyone! Even questions me. All I ask is that you do it with respect.”

Your goal shouldn’t be to remove your child’s “stubbornness,” but rather it should be to mold this trait, just like the Play-Doh. Allowing your child to question the rules helps to maintain their spirit. But, by requiring respect as the foundation of how they question you, you help to mold this personality trait into something that becomes an asset to them in their adult lives.

When you allow them to question you, it should spur a meaningful discussion between you and your child on why the rules are what they are. I want to emphasize that a discussion should really occur between you and your child.

Taking the time to hear your child's thoughts and point-of-view, and then sharing with them what you think and why, will have many positive effects on your child, including:

- Helping them to develop confidence in who they are and how they think

- Learn how to express themselves and their ideas

- Develop critical thinking skills

- Learn how to "agree to disagree"

- Learn how to tolerate and accept when others don't share your ideas or opinions

- Learn how to communicate their opinion in a way that is respectful and conducive to a productive discussion

- Teaches them that they can always talk to you about what they think and why because you are always ready and willing to listen

- Fosters and sets the foundation for the parent-child relationship

- Helps to develop leadership skills

- Helps to shape their moral code

That's A LOT of positive stuff!

3. Model What You Want to See

Our children have their own genetic makeup, which is a combination of you and the other individual who helped create them. But just like that Play-Doh, your parenting techniques and your own behaviors are what will define how that Play-Doh is shaped and what the end result will look like.

I teach parents that children are a mirror. They are typically a reflection of us as their parents. Did you ever do something, stop, and say, “OMG! I sound just like my mother!” Even if you don’t want to be your parents, you will still reflect them in some way!

If we want our children to be respectful towards us, we need to treat them with respect too. If we want them to follow our household rules, we should be following those same rules. From infancy, our children watch everything we do, and this begins shaping them into the person they grow up to be.

I hope this post was helpful to you in managing your spirited child. If you loved this article, then consider downloading my FREE mini ebook, Eliminating Temper Tantrums: 4 Keys to Mastering Your Child's Anger Outbursts.

Or, for even better help, consider my Art of Parenting series, available on Apple Books, Barnes & Nobles, Amazon, and more! With 5-stars on Amazon, Bookbub, and Barnes & Nobles, you can't go wrong. Check them out on my website by clicking the link.

(***Note: This article was originally published as part of my "Trials of the Working Parent" Blog Book Tour on 8/29/2017 at "The Terrific Five." It has since been updated and re-posted here.)


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Krystal Dreisbach is a licensed therapist, mindset coach, adjunct professor of counseling, and published author.  Her specialties include depression treatment, anxiety counseling, stress management support, and mindset coaching.  Learn more about Krystal and see how she can help you live a better life.

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