Inspired living

10 ideas for raising strong-willed children

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Credit: Ariel Lustre

If you are raising a strong-willed child, take heart — you are one of the lucky ones. These children, while challenging as toddlers and youngsters, can be fabulous teenagers and responsible, active citizens as adults. With these children, the idea is to keep the strong will without breaking their spirit and it’s a fine line to walk. The right mix of parenting and lots of patience will see you through.

These kids are generally full of energy and strongly opinionated. They may be seen as determined or even “stubborn” and can easily get caught up in a power struggle with their parents or siblings. They have their own opinions about most things, know how to form a good argument and will test the boundaries often.

Children with a strong will generally come with big, passionate feelings.

However, given the right balance, they can be courageous, express their big, passionate feelings in the right way and be responsible and independent. As adults, they are often leaders. These children are also intrinsically motivated and take calculated risks to succeed in most things.

Here are 10 ideas for raising a strong-willed child well.

  1. Don’t get into power struggles

Avoid power struggles with your strong-willed child at all costs. It’s easy to get drawn into every fight or argument they want to have and it can go on and on.

However, as the adult with a fully formed rational brain, you can calmly stop the power struggle at any time with the words, “Stop now. That’s enough. We’ll talk about it again when we both have calmed down.” Knowing when to back down is just as important as knowing when to capture a teachable moment.

You also need to choose your battles with these kids. Be prepared to let some things slide — those things that are not going to wreck your day or theirs. My husband would send my daughter back to get dressed some mornings at the age of four because her outfit didn’t match or she didn’t have the “appropriate” clothes on for the day. He soon realised it wasn’t life threatening to take her to preschool with a stripy pink top and red leggings. She had chosen them herself and was proud to wear them but when they got into a power struggle it would delay departure in the mornings by at least 20 minutes.

  1. Set good routines

These kids thrive on a good routine. They like to be in control of the situation and to know what is happening so they can think more clearly and have a plan. A good routine is especially important during mornings to get out of the house and at bedtimes when everyone is tired at the end of the day. If you start right from the beginning, both you and your child will know what’s going to happen.

When our first daughter started school, she made a list of the morning routine of getting up, getting dressed in her uniform, eating breakfast, brushing her teeth and hair, putting her shoes on and going to the car complete with pictures and smiles on faces. She would tick off each one as she did it until the routine was embedded. Because she knew the plan and was in control of it, there was little need for the dreaded power struggle in the morning before school.

  1. Set clear expectations/boundaries & be consistent

You will have certain rules in your house and for your children. Make sure your kids know what the rules are — especially the strong-willed ones. They will likely test the boundaries as these youngsters often need to learn the hard way through experience, but with rules you always have them there to fall back on.

Being consistent with your boundaries is also important here. If your rule is that the kids eat dinner at the table every night and then take their plates to the kitchen sink, remind them to do it every night. The one night you are lax, they will know they’ve “got away with it” and will test the next boundary.

  1. Teach & coach emotions

Children with a strong will generally come with big, passionate feelings. Our job as parents is to help our children recognise these feelings and put strategies in place to deal with them.

Anger, fear and disappointment are the big feelings that frighten our kids and cause temper tantrums or outbursts. The time to teach our kids about their emotions is NOT when they’re having them. It’s capturing that teachable moment later in the day, maybe when you put them to bed. Talk about what happened with the emotion and how you could do it differently.

Knowing when to back down is just as important as knowing when to capture a teachable moment.Children with a strong will generally come with big, passionate feelings.

A practical way to teach emotions is through creating a red/green feelings chart with your child.

Here’s how. Draw up three columns with your child. In the first column, work with them to list all the “red” or uncomfortable feelings like anger, fear, sadness. In the third column, work with your child to list all the “green” feelings like happiness, calmness, excited. In the middle column, help your child list five or so ideas that will help them move from the “red” to the “green” column. It might be as simple as to have a cuddle with Mum or Dad, read a story, listen to music or bounce on the trampoline. Or, once kids are a bit older, it may involve drawing a picture or writing it down. This is appropriate from age 4 or 5 onwards.

  1. Give lots of cuddles

Cuddles and kisses shouldn’t be used as a reward but used as a signal to say, “I really do love you” — and these kids need reassuring more than most. They need to know they are significant to us and belong to the family unit.

A mum was telling me last week about her 11-year-old son who was disappointed when he got Home from school because he didn’t get chosen to be school captain or prefect but his three closest friends did. She was putting him to bed that night and talking to him about it. He stopped and rolled over. He said to her that he didn’t want to hear any more words of advice and wasn’t looking for a “fix” but just wanted her to “be” with him. He wanted a cuddle, not reassurance or talking.

The more we can “be” with these kids and not “fix”, the more strategies they will learn on their own to deal with setbacks, challenges and emotional outbursts.

  1. Shaming, belittling or punishing doesn’t work

Because these children want to feel significant and recognised more than other children, shaming, belittling and punishing crush their spirit. They desperately want to please their parents and the people around them and they love to do well. If we say they’re bad and doing the wrong thing all the time rather than saving correction for a more important time, we are doing these children a disservice. If we are using smacks, yelling and shaming, this is not building their self-confidence and strength of will but teaching them only to obey.

  1. Time outs don’t work

For a similar reason as above, time outs don’t work for these children when they are young. For an outburst or doing the wrong thing, we would generally put our children into a time out, away from us and the rest of the family. However, this is when their emotions are at their biggest and they need us.

A great alternative is a “time in”. Make a space in the room you spend the most time in with your child, like the playroom if you have one, and set it aside as a time-in space. It needs to be inviting and their choice and might have a few cushions and some music. It’s a space for them to chill out and take the much-needed time away yet still close enough to belong.

These kids desperately want to belong to the family unit or the group and putting them in time out takes this vital step away. Knowing how to teach the consequences of an action while maintaining significance and belonging is the tricky balance here.

  1. Slow down, listen & connect

Slowing down, listening and connecting is easier said than done in this high-paced, hurry-up culture we now live in. However, our children live in the moment and we need to meet them there.

The more we can “be” with these kids and not “fix”, the more strategies they will learn on their own to deal with setbacks, challenges and emotional outbursts.

My daughter bought her journal home from school yesterday that had all her writing in it from the whole school year. She was so proud of it and had come such a long way in her writing. That day though I had spent the whole day with the packers at our house moving out and we’d just got back to our hotel after attending the Christmas concert at the kids’ school. My mind was on getting the kids showered and fed before my call with a journalist and to get them to bed at a reasonable hour.

My daughter desperately wanted to show me her beautiful work. I tried to shrug her off with the pressing demands ahead — however, I stopped. I took 18 minutes out of the night to sit with her and share the amazing work she’d done. Those 18 minutes didn’t ruin my night or the kids’ night and we shared a beautiful time together looking at all the fun things she had written about over the year. If I hadn’t taken this time it could have been a very different story. I’m thinking power struggles, tantrums and fights. When we take the time to slow down, listen and connect with our kids, life is much sweeter for everyone involved.

  1. Give children responsibility & independence

Since these kids thrive on mastery and control, they love responsibility and independence. Let them have it.

Obviously, it will need to be age appropriate but teach them early to dress themselves, put their own shoes on, tie their shoelaces, zip up zippers or get a drink of water. Make their play spaces easily accessible with Lego, playdough, paint and blocks so they can independently play and explore on their own.

If you have a secure backyard, let them explore it on their own. If we do everything for these children and play with them every second of the day, they will expect it. They are very capable of doing it on their own.

By the age of 9 or 10, if these kids have been allowed to develop their independence and responsibility, they will be able to walk to the corner store and buy an ice-cream or go into the service station and buy a carton of milk while you wait in the car. Start as early as you can to foster their independent and responsible streak.

  1. Put your kids to work

A household runs on organisation and jobs. Strong-willed children value the opportunity to feel significant and do “adult” jobs and also be part of the running of the household.

So let them fold the washing with you from the age of 4 or 5. (You obviously need to let go a little here because it might not be perfect, but with practice and guidance their folding will improve.) Unpacking the dishwasher, hanging out the washing or putting it in the dryer are all good jobs. Packing the toys up at the end of the day and making their beds in the morning are important to teach early and setting or clearing the table or at least putting their own plates in the kitchen are simple jobs that contribute to the household and also make them feel like they are significant and belong.

The most important thing to remember about strong-willed children is that all the effort you put in now to be a calm, loving, sensitive parent will pay off when they are active, engaged, responsible adults.