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Strong Willed Child: Characteristics & Parenting Strategies

What exactly does it mean to be a strong-willed child? For better or for worse, strong-willed children have a very firm sense of independence. While this can manifest itself as children being confident, self-assured, and determined, it also means a dose of stubbornness, difficult behavior, and defiance. Strong-willed children are persistent beings and once their mind is set on an action or behavior it can be a great challenge to divert their attention. As any parent or teacher knows, dealing with the negative aspects of a strong-willed child isn’t easy.

Challenges of Parenting a Strong-Willed Child

One of the biggest challenges of parenting a strong-willed child is that they are remarkably persistent in their pursuits and aren’t keen on being redirected. They are passionate beings and often live at full-throttle. The daily power-struggles and battles associated with raising headstrong children often leaves parents feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. Fortunately, there are ample effective behavioral modification strategies for these children and by taking some time to better understand the factors contributing to strong-willed behavior, parents can better implement helpful ways of dealing with it.

Why is My Child so Strong-willed?

Strong-willed behavior has it’s roots in a child’s temperament. Temperament refers to the set of innate tendencies, traits and style of behavior that you are born with. Early difficulties in temperament are associated with later difficulties in behaviour and strong-willed children tend to have higher reactivity, more difficulty adapting to transitions, inconsistency with moods, and tend to be persistent when they want things their own way. While temperament is part of the problem, it is the interaction between a child’s temperament and their environment that leads to behavioral problems. Temperamental difficulties such as high reactivity means that strong-willed children may indeed be experiencing more intense emotions than other children and having underdeveloped emotional regulation skills means that in these scenarios, the child will act out. Children need to learn the tools to deal with their measure of intensity. Furthermore, difficult temperaments often results in unhelpful parenting styles and techniques. One of the most common is the ever present power-struggle. A strong-willed child’s unbelievable persistence often leads parents to caving in because they are tired or frustrated. As a result, children learn to push boundaries in all sorts of creative ways because it feels good to get their own way. It can become too easy to focus on the negatives of having a strong-willed child, but the very same temperament traits that lead to challenges also have a host of benefits.

Benefits to being strong-willed

  1. Their Persistence is Key: Once a child learns to harness their persistence and stubbornness, the sky is the limit. Strong-willed children tend to spend more time problem solving than their counterparts and it’s that very unshakeable will that brings the world great leaders, thinkers, and innovators.
  2. They are Less Likely to Give in to Peer Pressure: They are more likely to stick with their own belief system and less likely to cave to peer pressure.
  3. They are More Successful: Research has shown that strong-willed kids and are more likely to be successful in adulthood than their peers.
  4. They Respond Better to Environmental Influence: Children with difficult temperaments are more susceptible to positive changes in parenting than other children, meaning that they respond more favourably to interventions and positive parenting strategies than other children.
  5. They Teach Us: Their determination and means of interacting with their worlds host a plethora of lessons for anyone involved. They constantly challenge us to pause, reflect, and reroute how we see the world.

Parenting a Strong-Willed Child

Choosing effective parenting methods when you have a strong-willed child can be challenging. While it may seem easy to assume that adopting an authoritative style over the child and demanding respect may be effective, this actually isn’t the case. Even though yelling at your child may be an effective means to stop behavior temporarily, it is also negatively reinforcing, meaning that the more you yell at your child the more likely you are to do it in the future which ultimately is harmful to your relationship and their development. When a child has behavioral problems it becomes easy to engage in over-disciplining a child. This can look like a constant stream of punishment and ultimately lead to poorer emotional regulation and more behavioral problems in the future. Early experiences for children with temperamental difficulties shape later behavior, so it’s vital to find effective ways to work with your child’s temperament. Strong-willed children don’t like to be told what to do, they are primarily guided by their own will. Therefore, seeking obedience from a strong-willed child can be a futile path. Instead focus on nurturing emotional regulation, building a trusting relationship, instilling confidence, and encouraging your child to develop self-discipline and social responsibility. If your child believes that you want what is best for them, they will better trust your guidance. There may be many tests along the way as they push your limits, but you can both learn to work with each other in a way that brings out your child’s positive qualities and reduces negative behaviors.

Parenting Strategies

  1. Give your child space to learn: Strong-willed children are experiential learners. They don’t want to be told what to do, they want to experience it and decide for themselves. Unless your child is in imminent danger, allow them to learn some of these lessons rather than trying to control their behavior.
  2. Attending to your Child’s behavior: A good teacher praises good behavior and corrects negative behavior. Attending simply means paying attention to your child’s behavior and praising or commenting on appropriate behaviors. Attending helps you learn a lot about the way your child interacts with the world. Letting your child know you are paying attention to their behaviours is reinforcing. Comments such as “you hung up your coat!” demonstrate to your child that you are observing appropriate behavior and will increase the number of interactions you have that aren’t related to discipline or instructions.
  3. Reward your Child: In addition to offering intrinsic motivation such as praise for good behavior, strong-willed children also respond well to being rewarded with activities they enjoy or physical rewards such as hugs and kisses. Choosing activities that you can do together, such as playing a game, will increase the amount of positive interactions you have and serve a a powerful source to encourage good behavior in the future.
  4. Pick Your Battles: Learning to ignore your child’s behavior can be a powerful tool. For instance, if your child has a temper tantrum and you avoid physical, eye, and verbal contact, you have taken away the motivating factors behind the tantrum. Once you start ignoring certain behaviors you must stay persistent and you will see a reduction in that behavior. You should also be selective over what you bother to address. When disciplining your child, focus on the worst/most dangerous behaviours first and work your way down as behaviors improve. Learning to ignore and selectively discipline your child will improve their cooperation whereas fighting with and punishing your child may undermine their desire to protect their warm connection with you.
  5. Positive Parenting: Strong-willed children are often struggling for respect and autonomy. By offering your child respect and empathy you will help them feel understood. Communicating that you understand why something is important to them and offering compromise to their position can be a great strategy that allows the child to feel in control and adopts more appropriate behavior. Implementing appropriate use of time-ins along with time-outs will also help to teach your child that appropriate behavior does have rewards. Overall, structuring a relationship that clearly sets boundaries but also offers flexibility and respect to your child’s needs fosters positive parental relationships and improves outcome for children.

Citations

Spengler, M., Brunner, M., Damian, R.I., Lüdtke, O, Martin, R, & Roberts, B.W. (2015) Student characteristics and behaviors at age 12 predict occupational success 40 years later over and above childhood IQ and parental socioeconomic status. Developmental Psychology, 51(9):1329-40.

Mesman, J., Reinoud, S., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M.J., Van IJzendoorn, M.H., Juffer, F., Koot, H.M., & Lenneke, R.A. (2009) Predicting Growth Curves of Early Childhood Externalizing Problems: Differential Susceptibility of Children with Difficult Temperament. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 37:625.

Snyder, J., Cramer, A., Afrank, J., & Patterson, G. (2005). The contributions of ineffective discipline and parental hostile attributions of child misbehavior to the development of conduct problems at home and school. Developmental Psychology, 41(1), 30.

Van Zeijl, J., Mesman, J., Stolk, M. N., Alink, L. R. A., Van IJzendoorn, M. H., et al. (2007). Differential susceptibility to discipline: The moderating effect of child temperament on the association between maternal discipline and early externalizing problems. Journal of Family Psychology, 21, 626–636.

Weiss, B., Dodge, K. A., Bates, J. E., & Pettit, G. S. (1992). Some consequences of early harsh discipline: Child aggression and a maladaptive social information processing style. Child Development, 63, 1321.

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