How to parent a strong-willed child

Do you have a strong-willed child? Parenting a strong-willed child can be a challenge that’s for sure, but also comes with its upsides too. With the right tools in your parenting toolkit, you can raise your strong-willed child in a way that plays to their strengths. With that said, today I’m delighted to welcome back Louise Hoffman Brooks, founder of Parenting Success for this Q&A on how to parent a strong-willed child.

strong-willed child

What exactly is a strong-willed child?

Most parents will recognise that they have a more ‘compliant’ easy-going child – often in contrast to a sibling who does not comply with their wishes or their agenda quite so easily. This more strong-willed child is often referred to as stubborn or difficult, because they often guard their viewpoints and ideas with their life.

But we could also see strong-willed kids as people of integrity – who aren’t easily swayed by other people. Often wanting to learn things for themselves as opposed to readily accepting the ideas of others. They often appear to be ‘testing’ the limits. Desperately wanting to be ‘in charge’ of themselves – while difficult to parent when they are young –strong-willed children often make terrific, reliable and self-motivated teenagers and adults.

What is it about strong-willed children and power struggles?

Let’s face it. When our children don’t readily comply with our wishes – most of us feel triggered. We come face to face with our own upbringing – when compliance was expected, irrespective of how it was asked of us. Therefore, even the most loving parents can be driven to the point of insanity when our child refuses to cooperate.

This often results in a hard against hard approach – where we reach for the one thing that sets us apart from our children; our power – and begin to threaten that ‘if you don’t – then x’. Sometimes we abuse our power to define by saying ‘You are so stubborn – this will get you into a lot of trouble one day’. Or we may in some ways cut off the connection and our love until what we ask of them is done.

While these behaviours are effective – they ultimately erode at our relationship with our child. But most likely your strong-willed child won’t back down as a result. Herein lies the frustration for we parents – because we are acutely aware that we are powerless if we do more of what ultimately disconnects us from our child.

How can parents avoid these types of power struggles?

The first step is to accept that it takes two to have a power struggle. And that it is within our power to avoid a power struggle. We as parents are 100% responsible for the quality of the connection we share with our child. That’s HOW we respond, HOW we react and the tone we use.

The point is never to create a win/lose situation with your strong-willed child. By backing our child into a corner with nowhere to go but to bend to our will – will be too costly to their integrity. Because strong-willed children thrive on agency – a sense that they’ve had the freedom to choose – it is wise of us parents to let this fact guide how we invite for cooperation.

When you get a ‘NO’ from your child – rather than immediately reacting ask yourself;
– Would I want to listen to me right now? Is my tone friendly? Am I distracted and only focussed on the outcome?

Your strong-willed child will likely refuse to be treated like a means to an end – and a way to point this out to us is to dig their heels in.

All of us have good reason to do what we do. Including our children. Even if it can be hard to see in some situations. Sometimes we fail to see what they are doing at the time that we ask them to do something. Getting a better perspective and adopting a habit of pausing before responding is a powerful way to avoid many a power struggle.

How important is empathy in this equation?

Empathy is key to any relationship. But perhaps more so when raising a strong-willed child. As a parent, we may not readily relate to this insistence of staying true to themselves. These qualities might remind us of ourselves / a sibling or perhaps our partner.

Generally, strong-willed children have not been celebrated for these qualities. So ask yourself if you hold any prejudice towards strong will. Was it considered wrong in your family growing up?

The definition of empathy is the ability to recognise and acknowledge the perspective of others – even if it is different from ours. Adopting a belief that all behaviour is meaningful and it helps us stay curious when we encounter seemingly ridiculous behaviour.

Empathy can be hard to muster if we believe that our child is doing this TO us. In order to make our life miserable. Or because they have been born with a ‘rude’ gene. No child has. And all children want to cooperate. And want connection. But some children – strong-willed children especially – will be loathed to give up a connection to themselves in order to receive love and connection from us.

So strong-willed children aren’t just being difficult then?

No. But if that is the belief that we hold – we do well to expose it. Because our actions flow from our beliefs and feelings. Strong-willed children – if raised with respect for their keen sense of self and reluctance to compromise their integrity – often grow up to better withstand the pressures of society and modern life.

The better able we are at listening to ourselves, the signals we get from our body and emotions – the better able we are at setting boundaries and avoid stress, abuse or burnout later on in life.

Sadly, strong-willed children often become labelled and treated as defiant children – in some cases even given a diagnosis – rather than looking at what the ‘defiance’ is there to communicate. Often the defiance is saying something about the communication style in the family and the way boundaries are treated. 

Can you share some practical tips for raising a strong-willed child?

Connection is KEY. As with all children, the more connected our child feels to us, the more likely they are to want to cooperate. This serves an important adaptive purpose – in that it prevents children from being influenced by people they don’t know.

It is a good idea to decide that what is more important is that the relationship is intact – than that your will gets forced through. This is not the same as permissive parenting. This is not done out of fear of the child’s reaction. But out of understanding and acceptance of the fact that your strong-willed child will never want to cooperate with you when they feel coerced or forced to. Most of us will only have to think of a couple of our past power-struggles with our strong-willed child to know that those tactics are futile and end up in hurt feelings and wounded souls all around.

Therefore, as often as possible – and in situations where you genuinely feel there is no right or wrong answer – allow your strong-willed child to choose. Not giving them decision over matters to do with their care and life, but over whether they’d like to do homework before or after dinner. If they’d like a bath or a shower etc.

Remember that your strong-willed child is inner-directed – and will want to arrive at their own conclusions in life. Therefore, when your child refuses to put on their coat before going out the door – they can’t imagine that the warm body heat they are experiencing right now – is going to change when they get out of the door. Therefore, you could say; I know that it’s cold outside. I will bring your coat along if you change your mind. And the less fuss we make and the more we refrain from lecturing the freer our child will feel to change her mind when two minutes later she feels cold.

Of course, choice is not always possible. And in these situations – merely empathising is enough to communicate to your child that you know that this isn’t what they’d hoped. Offering your help rather than holding them under an insisting stare – allows your strong-willed child to comply without losing face. When we merely give our instruction – and show that we have faith in their willingness to cooperate with us – we will see that our children live up to all of our expectations – both the good and the bad ones.

And how should parents discipline a strong-willed child?

Never through the relationship. Withholding love, removal of things that matter to them – is punitive – not aimed at teaching. Your strong-willed child, while hard on the outside and seemingly impervious to hurt feelings, is protecting a vulnerable heart underneath.

Discipline given in the heat of a power struggle is therefore never a good idea – and will most likely only wound – not teach. It is wise to know when to step away as a parent. When to say; ‘Let’s come back to this later’ – and then follow up.

If your child has done something wrong – encourage them to make amends. For younger children it is a good idea to help them right their wrongs without too many words; “Let’s clear it up together’ etc.

Demanding an apology is likely to give rise to more power struggles. Merely saying ‘I’d appreciate an apology when you’re ready’ makes a greater impression – and sets your child free to make the right choice. Even if it never happens.

The point is – children are always doing their best. So when we get consumed with punishing ‘bad behaviour’ we often overestimate what their immature mind is capable of doing – even if they ‘know better’. Cool down – before chatting to your child about any upsetting events.

If you had to give my readers a pep talk on raising a strong-willed child it would be:

Understanding that your strong-willed child isn’t intent on making your life difficult – but has got a keen sense of loyalty to their own feelings, thoughts and beliefs – sets you up for dealing with your child in ways that strengthen your relationship.

Strong-willed children are experiential learners – and will want to test for themselves that the stove is hot. So where possible – allow your child agency – and space to make their own conclusions without moralising.
Connect connect connect! It is through a strong relationship – time spent together enjoying each others’ company that the strong-willed child will feel inclined to cooperate.

Any parting words of wisdom of raising a strong-willed child?

Treasure the fact that you have a child who is inner-directed. A child who is virtually impervious to peer pressure. Who teaches you something valuable about how to lead without abusing your power. And learn to be the bigger person. To have the self-constraint to model that it is okay not to always have the last word, win every battle – and that the ability to change one’s mind and be vulnerable gets you far in life.

Do you have a strong-willed child? What has your experience of raising a strong-willed child been? Do share in a comment below.

Louise Hoffman Brooks is running a workshop on “Raising a strong-willed child” on Friday 7th February at in Cobham’s Medicine Garden in Surrey. For more information see here.

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ABOUT LOUISE HOFFMAN BROOKS

Louise Brooks is a parent coach and family advisor and lives with her husband and two children in Surrey.

Originally from Denmark – Louise has spent the majority of her adult life abroad. She originally came to the UK to pursue a degree in psychology. Always imagining her studies would somehow give her an advantage in the parenting department – she discovered with the birth of her first child, that nothing prepares you for the journey that lies ahead. That it isn’t possible – or even the point – to avoid occasionally feeling powerless, confused, overwhelmed and in need of support. Louise holds, that becoming a parent is just as much about raising yourself as it is to raise the child in front of you.

Passionate about supporting parents to adopt powerful alternatives to constant nagging, ultimatums or threats of 1.2. 3.or else..  Louise’s company Parenting Success – empowers parents through workshops and courses held throughout Surrey – both privately and in schools and corporate settings. You can also work with Louise on a 1:1 basis either in person or via Skype/Zoom.




8 comments

  1. Our first born is incredibly stubborn, he takes after me and we tend to wind each other up. My husband is much better at dealing with his stubbornness, although I’m getting better!

  2. I am the proud owner of strong-willed children and although I wouldn’t have it any other way, it can be frustrating at times

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