I am in the unique position of having been a strong-willed child who then also had a strong-willed child. You see, my oldest is willful to his core. He also was and still is a very picky eater. It got to the point that he would be lying on the kitchen floor screaming for chips and throwing his strawberries across the house. Avoiding these kinds of days was at the top of my list.
Six months along with my second child, I was hitting a “Mom wall.” So I scoured the Internet and put together a basic method for parenting a strong-willed child (i.e. keeping my sanity). Some of it is theoretical, and some of it is from other mom friends in my playgroup, but this is what has worked the best in my home.
Parenting Strategies to Try When Dealing with Strong-Willed Children
1. Controlled Choices for Strong-Willed Children
Ideally, avoiding the all-out wars that can start between parents and their strong-willed child is what we’d all like, but sometimes that just isn’t possible. I discovered when my kids were in preschool and early elementary school that if I gave them options, I’d give them the feeling of being in control. The key was offering options that were acceptable to me that I also knew they would like.
For example, snack times were becoming a total nightmare – not just the picky eating, but the resounding, “No!” To help with this, I created a large snack bin in the refrigerator and one in the pantry, letting my child choose from a variety of diverse, healthy options. Grapes, apples, and bananas. Goldfish, Cheez-its and trail mix. With his very own snack bin, just for him, plus pre-approved options, I added an element of control at snack time that didn’t exist before.
2. Calm Conversations with Strong-Willed Children
Sometimes making choices works out well, but sometimes it doesn’t. If you find yourself in a tug of war even after offering choices, try to take a step back and evaluate where you are at. “I can see that you’re feeling frustrated. We’ll wait this out until we’re ready to find a way through” Your child may be getting frustrated (and you probably are too) so try validating that feeling.
Recognize the frustration or any emotion your child is expressing. “Hey buddy, I see you’re feeling frustrated. Mommy’s feeling kinda frustrated too. Why do you think we’re getting stuck here?” This is a great time to explore feelings with older children.
For younger kids, especially toddlers and preschoolers, clearly, you will not be having a delightful and thought-provoking conversation. You may feel a tantrum brewing. For little ones, keep it short and simple. Refer back to controlled choices: “Would you like grapes, apples, or a banana?” Allow a reply, respond accordingly, then ask again if your toddler or preschooler is escalating and refusing to pick a controlled choice.
READ MORE: 6 Simple Ways to Help Kids Cope with Changes
3. Healthy Boundaries for Strong-Willed Children
This one can be a tough one. Sometimes our kids display totally inappropriate behavior, and it’s our job as parents to address it. We don’t need to get into the semantics of those choices, but I think we can all agree that teaching healthy boundaries is important. Head back into a calm conversation, but this time, end it with a firm boundary.
You’re ending the conflict for a minute so you can calm down. This is going to model self-control for your child, who may or may not appreciate the effort here but I promise it’s worth it. “I know you’re upset, but this is not how we act. I need us to wait few minutes and then try again.”
During this time, try to take a few deep breaths and change the subject. Depending on what flavor of “willful” your child is, there’s a sliding scale we’re all just trying to navigate, so hang in there! Perhaps your child will go right back to the problem topic, or perhaps they will happily move along to the new subject with you.
If you’ve got a stubborn, yet willingly peaceful kiddo, lucky you! For me personally, my son lived on red. There was no moving on. There was no changing the subject. Every time I tried this method, he would escalate the conversation. So, here we go…
If your child begins yelling or other unsavory behavior, insisting that we don’t take a break, you’ll want to remain consistent here by saying essentially the same thing. “I know you’re angry, but this is not how we act…” and depending on the previous actions (yelling and throwing a cup across the room are two different things, you know?), you’ll follow through in whatever discipline method you embrace in your home.
For me, it was a continuation of talking it out. For you, it may be redirection or other methods. You’ll sound like a broken record, but once you can loop yourselves back into controlled choices, you are likely to make progress. Often, solutions are found here. Your kiddo will feel empowered to choose, thus relieving the strong will urge to be in control, and you guys can move on.
4. Finding Your Ceiling as a Mom: When is Enough, Well… Enough!?
If your child was a “Little Red Engine” (I’m being nice here…) like my oldest, we would get to a point where we’d cycled through too many controlled choices, then calm conversation, then healthy boundaries, and then back again to controlled choices. There were times when he just would not accept his controlled choice options.
At that point, when possible, I would table the situation for a new day. I would say, “Okay, we’re not feeling any better here. We’ll need to figure this out tomorrow instead. Tomorrow is a new day.” This way, I’d created a situation for us to escape the pattern, but I haven’t lost the tug of war (and he doesn’t feel like he has either.)
There are lots of different ways to handle strong-willed children. Just remember, whichever methods you choose in your home, children with strong voices need to be guided, and not silenced. Hang in there, mama!
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