Getting through to strong-willed children

Getting Through to Your Strong-Willed Child

The battle of wills started as soon as they arrived. The family was just trying to sit down before church began. But their five-year-old didn’t like the seats his mom and dad had chosen. He wanted to sit in another row. “This row is fine,” his mom assured him. But it wasn’t…because he didn’t want to sit there. The service had just started, and so had he.

For the next twenty minutes everyone within ten feet of this family could hear the parents implore this child to behave. “Hush!” “Be quiet!” “Ask me later.” “Not now, we’re in church.” “Leave your sister alone.” “Stop it!” “No, you may not go sit in the balcony.”  “Because I said so!” “Sit still.” “I’m not going to argue about it.” “I said ‘No!’” “If you don’t stop it, there will be no screen time this afternoon.” “Come here.” “Sit down.” “Put that away.” “I’m not going to tell you again.”

Finally, the dad had enough and swooped up his 5-year-old son and started toward the back. The child tried to squirm away from his father’s strong grip. He put the boy over his shoulder like a sack of seed. The child wasn’t getting out of this. Now everyone was watching as the boy was shouting, “No, no, no! Put me down. No! I don’t want to.” This was a battle of wills that the little boy would not win.

Then, just before they got to the back door of the church, the high-spirited kid yelled at the top of his lungs, “PRAY FOR ME!”

At that moment, the entire congregation, from the choir to the pastor broke out in laughter. Even the mom and the two sisters of that little boy went from embarrassment to uncontrollable giggles.

If you are a parent of a spitfire child, you probably have your own story like this to tell. To the parents of a spirited child, I just want to say, “I’m sorry,” and “Congratulations!”

Sorry, because these spirited and iron-willed kids can try your patience and drain your energy. They can exhaust you and make you doubt all of your parenting skills. But take heart. If you have a child that has to do things their way, who needs to argue with you about almost everything, who constantly demands to know “why”, who insists on getting what they want, who moves at their own pace, and who refuses to do things that they don’t want to do…you are not alone. In my experience of leading family and parenting workshops, it would seem that nearly 85% of parents are raising at least one child with strong-willed tendencies. I’ve had some parents tell me that all of their kids are strong-willed.

And congratulations, because strong-willed children often become creative, strong, pro-active, ambitious, inventive, persistent and passionate adults. God has wired certain kids to be strong-willed. Research shows that many of our greatest leaders were strong-willed children. Many parents who have raised a strong-willed child have shared that their kids turned out to be wonderful, confident, courageous and independent teens and young adults. So how do we navigate this period of raising strong-willed children? I’ve posed that question to many friends who are raising or who have raised a spirited child and have received some really good feedback.

1. Recognize that being strong-willed is not a character flaw.

In fact, this is how God created them. One friend shared with me that one of the most critical shifts in her parenting of her strong-willed child was to change her mindset from frustration to amazement at what a strong-willed individual can do in the world.

2. Strong-willed children like doing things for themselves.

They want to have a say in what is going on. They like being in charge of as many activities as possible. Sometimes they will come off as bossy and controlling with friends. They may need to be reminded how this affects relationships with others. They like to determine their own bedtime, even if they are exhausted. If they are allowed to choose they love to cooperate. The more independent they feel, the less oppositional they will be.

3. Strong-willed children learn through experience.

They ignore warnings they don’t want to hear. They are the ones who won’t believe you when you tell them that glass doors on the fireplace are hot. They have to touch it for themselves. When safety is not a concern, it is best to let them experiment rather than trying to control them.

4. Strong-willed children will fight for what they believe in.

They are resolute in their opinions and will dig in their heels if they believe something strongly. One friend asked her son why he needed to argue about everything? He replied, “Because I’m right!” It is easy to get into power-struggles with a strong-willed child. They can be obdurate and argumentative. One friend reminded me that “You don’t need to attend every argument to which you are invited!”Yes, strong-willed children have strong feelings about things and know how to win an argument. They also have the strength to stand up for others. One friend shared that one of the positives of her daughter being so obstinate is that she always stood up for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves. Her daughter will be graduating this spring from law school and will be representing immigrants with legal difficulties.

5. Strong-willed children don’t always seem to care what others think.

But they do want others to care about and know what they think. This aspect of a strong-mined child can be frustrating for us as parents. We want our kids to listen to us.Parents who have successfully raised a strong-willed child have found that it is important to make sure that their kids feel heard and understood. When the child doesn’t feel heard, they often are not willing to listen to the opinions of others.The positive that comes from this iron-willed child is that they will not often be talked into things that they don’t want to do. They have a better capacity to avoid negative peer-pressure and to stand up to bullies. They are convicted of their beliefs and won’t change just because others see it another way

6. Strong-willed children move at their own pace.

Sometimes this pace is fast and furious. Other times it is slow as a slug. But they set the pace. This could be one of the most infuriating things about raising a strong-willed child. You try to explain that if they had simply done the seven-minute task you asked them to right away they would have been done by now. Instead, they will give you a two-hour argument about how what you are asking is not fair.One of the best ways to help kids in this area is to give them some options that they can choose from. “Would you like to go set the table now, or do it in ten minutes when your show is over?” Most kids will choose to do it later. Then you simply say, “Alright, you have agreed that when the show ends you will come right to the kitchen and set the table. Agreed?” This allows the child some control over the timing and pace of when something will be done.

7. Strong-willed children need to follow a routine.

Many parents of strong-willed children have found that following a routine can be really helpful. When a child knows the rules and the expectations, it benefits both the child and the parent. One parent shared that mornings were particularly difficult in that their child never could decide what to wear to school. It became a battle every morning. Then they labeled a couple of shelves with the days of the week. On Sunday night, they would pick out the clothes for the week and put them on the shelf for each day.

Strong-willed children are the Handiwork of God

Every Child Is Unique. Their inimitable spirit is a gift from God. Remember the words of Psalm 139:13-14 – “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” These energetic, high-maintenance, passionate, strong-mined, decisive, demanding, headstrong and iron-willed spitfires are God’s handiwork. Created in his image. Before they were yours, they were His.

Pray for patience and wisdom. Remember that God has given you a special role in your child’s life. Or as one friend shared, “Know that you have the ability to guide your child’s strong-will toward the amazing ability to work hard, stand-up for others and to change our world. Of course, the greatest hope and faith is in God’s plan of creating our children for something wondrous in this world and the next.  We have to believe in our children’s uniqueness and special mission.”
We’d love to hear your comments and thoughts on your strong-willed child and strategies that you have found helpful.

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