Ten helpful ideas for parenting strong-willed kids (part 2)

In part 1 of this story, I shared our family’s reconciliation between practical parenting needs with our daughter’s strong will. Here, I summarize some points for parents struggling with the same behaviors and provide references for further exploration. Enjoy!

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Strong-willed children cannot be made to do anything they don’t want to do, but they can be convinced. If the expectation is reasonable, and your child understands the reasons and loves you, then your kid will often be on your side. Here’s how:

1. Value your relationship above all else and give up control whenever possible. For example, my daughter gets full control over what clothes, hair-dos, and blankets she wears (life-threatening situations excepted). At age three, she is granted these rights and also the responsibility for her choices. For example, she has full permission to puddle stomp, but I don’t end adventures early because she’s wet.

2. Parent in the affirmative. Say yes whenever possible, as in: “Sure, you can have a treat. As soon as you pick up your toys, like we talked about.” Tell your child what to do instead of what not to do and go along with her antics, ideas, and fun-loving nature when you can. Delight in her.

3. Avoid power struggles and direct commands; e.g. whenever you don’t care enough to take it to the death. In moments of small infringement when I got nothing, I often say, “I don’t like it when you do that,” and go on as if nothing happened. Kids have nothing to lose, and their conviction is often stronger than ours. Instead of mandating what your child must do, explain what you will do, the behaviors you will tolerate, and what will happen if you don’t see some cooperation.

4. Save your breath. Adults who give constant feedback risk becoming innocuous background noise. Remember the teacher from Charlie Brown? Waa wah wah waa wah wah. Don’t belabor the point when behavior is marginal or danger is a mere possibility. Your words may then ring true in moments that count.

5. Allow natural consequences to teach your child. If there’s none then think up an appropriate one and offer it as an alternate choice to the behavior you want. Don’t offer choices you’re not 100% ok with and don’t invest in the outcome. Stay neutral. It’s up to your kid to cooperate or take the consequence.

6. Set a few rules, even for toddlers (age 1) that you know you can enforce. Articulate the reasons behind the rules, the music behind the madness. A strong-willed child needs to understand why rules are in place, and have permission to work the available loop holes. She will be looking for them. When your kid discovers situations where the reasons don’t apply, then bend and hope she’ll learn from your modeling. “I see your point,” I like to say. “I can be flexible about that.” Or “Sure you can; as long as it’s not a problem.”

7. If you want your kid to listen the first time then don’t ask more than once. Assume your kid remembers and understands what you said. Choose a consistent cue like “uh-oh” to let your child know that a choice or consequence is coming. You are not required by law to give a warning before a consequence.

8. Try non-verbal forms of communication. Refrain from verbal directives especially in moments when your child is “on the edge.” Open your arms for a hug. Hold up a single finger for “just a minute.” Learn the sign for “don’t touch.” Reach out your hand to hold when you want to leave. Go get him or move to where you want him and start eating, reading, etc. Give him a chance to follow of his own accord.

9. In emotionally charged, right-brained moments (i.e. tantrums), a. Use non-verbal signals to communicate comfort. b. Offer empathy to validate feelings and help your child get calm. c. Be a good listener or talk a non-verbal child through what happened. d. Wait to reflect and request different types of behavior until your child is back at stasis.

10. Decide what qualities you want to cultivate in yourself and don’t let your child push you to become angry, anxious, or mean. Keep your cool. Kindness can be the most effective way to change challenging behavior. Your kid is going to grow up to be awesome.

Suggested resources:

Circle of Security International www.circleofsecurityinternational.com/

Cline FW & J Fay (1990) Parenting with Love and Logic.

Forehand R & N Long (2002) Parenting the Strong-Willed Child.

Shanker S (2016) Self Reg.

Siegel DJ & T Payne Bryson (2014) No-Drama Discipline.

Tobias CU (2012) You Can’t Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded).

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