Not many children like being told that it’s time to go to bed. And sure, some might refuse to lie down until you read them another story. But your kid is next level: Refusing to put on pajamas, turning on all the lights, staying awake for hours until she gets her way.
Strong-willed children are often dubbed “stubborn” or even “frustrating” since they love being in charge and will often test limits. But while there may be some challenges (and more than a few tantrums) along the way, parenting these kids can be an exciting and rewarding adventure. Not only that, but they often grow up to be courageous leaders who aren’t afraid to stand up for what they believe in. But how do you bring out the best in these emotionally charged kids and avoid getting into constant power struggles? Here to help is Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D., a neuropsychologist in New York City who specializes in children and also teaches at Columbia University. Here are her top tips for parenting a strong-willed child, including the best ways to discipline them.
“Strong-willed children are usually characterized as children who are very stubborn and always have to get their way,” Hafeez tells us. If you have a strong-willed child in your family, then you’re probably well aware of this fact already. Read on for specific telltale signs you have a strong-willed child below, but in general, strong-willed children get very upset when they don’t get what they want. They can also resort to aggressive tactics to get you to give in to their demands. “Strong-willed children will not give up when they disagree and love to engage people in power struggles until their behavior tires people out. They also tend to be bossy, impatient and temperamental,” she adds.
But it’s important to note that strong-willed children aren’t bad kids. In fact, there are some pretty cool upsides to these firecrackers. These kids are often smart, confident and creative problem-solvers, not to mention highly motivated to achieve their goals. “Strong-willed children can think outside the box,” says Hafeez. “They don’t fall for the status quo, which can actually be an excellent thing. It might be a nightmare when they throw tantrums as 2-year-olds, but it will come in handy when they use their mind in super innovative, creative ways and become the next Elon Musk.” They can also be fiercely loyal (although it may not seem like it when they’re shouting about how much they hate you at the grocery store). “What’s important to note is that any problematic behaviors are manageable and can be changed with time and behavior modifications.”
5 Signs You Have a Strong-Willed Child
1. They Can Out-Argue You
You asked him to put his book away—a small task that would take no more than ten seconds. But somehow, this turns into a ten-minute argument where you ultimately decide it’s easier for you to do it yourself. The way to avoid these constant power struggles? Give choices (more on that below).
2. They Have Frequent Angry Outbursts
All kids have temper tantrums, but strong-willed children will often experience intense feelings of frustration and aren’t afraid to show it (think stomping feet, loud yelling or throwing herself on the ground). Sometimes this display of emotion may come from not getting their way (i.e., she doesn’t want to leave the playground) and other times you may have no idea what caused it. Routine and predictability can help here, but the most important thing is to try to stay calm in your response. (Easier said than done, we know.)
3. Giving Orders Causes a Major Freak-Out
Few kids like being told to clean up their room, but strong-willed children, in particular, can become totally indignant at being told what to do. And usual tactics like nagging, rationalizing with them or even bribing typically won’t work, either. But the solution is not that you have to put their toys away every night—again, it comes down to offering choices.
4. They Want to Know Why
You may have gotten away with telling your firstborn she can’t go on a bike ride today “because you said so,” but that response isn’t going to cut it with your strong-willed second child (in fact, it might cause him to lash out). These kids demand an explanation, and while it’s tempting to offer whatever first comes to mind (“just because”), you’ll have better luck with a brief reason (“because it’s raining outside and I don’t want you to slip and hurt yourself”).
5. Patience Is Not Their Thing
Standing in line is boring for everyone—ditto for waiting for your turn to roll the dice on family game night. But strong-willed kids are particularly impatient and may even throw a fit when they have to do something according to somebody else’s timetable. Giving options and plenty of practice can help.
Challenges of Raising a Strong-Willed Child
Strong-willed children sometimes behave in ways that are socially inappropriate (like screaming loudly at a restaurant or refusing to budge in the parking lot), which can be difficult for parents. But they can also be hard on themselves. “Strong-willed children aim for success,” says Hafeez. “They tend to be perfectionists.” On the plus side, this means they don’t usually require outside pressure to stay on task or do well in school. “And with the right emotional support, strong-willed children have high potential to succeed and feel proud of their accomplishments.”
6 Tips for Raising a Strong-Willed Child
1. Let Them Take Charge of as Many of Their Own Activities as Possible
“At the end of the day, your strong-willed child wants to be in control more than anything,” says Hafeez. But that doesn’t mean they get to do whatever they want. Instead, give her autonomy over the things that don’t matter so much (like what to wear to a playdate) while saving the nonnegotiables for the important stuff (holding your hand when crossing the street or being honest about who broke the remote). And as for those annoying everyday tasks that your kid needs to do but really doesn’t want to? Reframe them as something they have some sway over. For example, don’t scold your daughter for not brushing her teeth. Instead, ask her, “What do we need to do before we can leave for school?” If she looks confused, tick off the list together. “Each morning, we eat breakfast, brush our teeth and pack our bag. I saw you eat your breakfast and pack your backpack—good job! Now, what do you still need to do before you go to school?” Rather than barking orders at her, she’ll feel like she’s the one calling the shots. “Children who feel independent and in charge of themselves will not try to fight back as much. They’ll also learn responsibility very early on.”
2. Give Them Options
Remember what we said earlier about strong-willed children freaking out if you give them orders? The solution here is to offer choices. By giving her options, she’ll feel like she’s the boss. Just remember to only offer options you’re happy with—say, “Would you rather wear your blue or purple sweater?” rather than “Pick something to wear from your closet” (unless you don’t mind her going to school in her Elsa dress, of course). You can even resort to this tactic to get your kid to do things she really doesn’t want to do, like leave the playground. Try saying, “Do you want to go home now or in ten minutes?”
3. Listen to Them
“A lot of children like attention, and often, we tend to react negatively (by not listening) rather than positively (tending to them),” says Hafeez. Let’s say your child is making a fuss about something. Rather than ignore him, listen to what’s really going on. “While you, as the adult, may presume you know best, your strong-willed child has integrity. They have an opinion they feel strongly about and are trying to protect something that seems important to them.” Try a nonjudgmental response that validates their feelings and reflects their words (“I hear you don’t want to put on your shoes. Can you tell me why?”). This might work to calm your child down and help you come to a middle ground. (“You can’t run in those shoes, so let’s put on another pair instead.”) You might be surprised by what your child tells you.
4. Establish Structure and Proper Sleep
“Young children greatly benefit from having structure, and inadequate sleep is detrimental to your child’s physical and emotional health,” Hafeez explains. And just as your mood can be thrown off if you don’t get your usual morning cup of coffee, kids also thrive on predictable patterns. “Use routines and rules on a regular basis to avoid power struggles,” she says. That means instead of bossing them around (or being a mean mommy), this is just the way things are. Think “The schedule is that bedtime is at 9 p.m., so if you hurry, we can play one more game,” or “In our house, we have dinner before we have our dessert.” Power struggle averted.
5. Make Expectations Clear
Your kid hates sitting in the car while you drive to Grandma’s house, and going to the grocery store with you is total torture. But teaching them patience and how to do things they don’t want to do is a valuable life skill (also, you’re out of milk). To avoid a temper tantrum, let your child know what you expect from them and encourage them to problem-solve beforehand. So try something like, “Your grandma really wants to see you, and it’s going to take up 30 minutes to drive over there. What do you want to bring with you in the car to keep you occupied until we get there?”
6. Practice Makes Perfect
Maybe your kid has a tendency to boss classmates around (“Give me that toy!”). Rather than scolding, try to use it as a learning experience. Say, “Can you try asking for that doll again but in a nicer way?” Talk about how one’s words make other people feel, and lead by example.
How Should You Discipline a Strong-Willed Child?
Stick to your word. If you find yourself being ignored when you tell your child to do something, address the situation directly so she knows you mean what you say. So if you threaten to take away TV time for the day, you must follow through. That way, your child learns you aren’t full of empty threats. (Yes, we’re all guilty of that one, which is why it’s extra important to pick threats you can follow through on, rather than pretending you’re going to cancel a vacation or birthday party.)
Be consistent. Your children need to know you will respond the same way in any situation—and that you’re not cool and casual about shoes in the house one day and wildly angry about it the next. Remember that strong-willed children like to gamble, so if it worked once before, in their mind it will probably work again. To maintain appropriate behaviors, be consistent with your consequences.
Give natural consequences. Natural consequences are a helpful way to teach your strong-willed child to feel responsible for their own actions and stop considering you to be the bad guy. For example, if they break a toy, then they don’t get to play with it anymore. Or if they ignore your advice to bring a jacket to school, maybe they have to stay inside during recess. Strong-willed children learn through experience, so unless the natural consequence of their actions is something dangerous, allowing them to make their own mistakes can be an effective discipline technique.