5 Tips For Surviving Your Strong-Willed Child

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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When my son was a newborn, he’d do this cute thing where he’d shake his little fists in the air while drifting off to sleep. It was one of those involuntary newborn reflexes — like those jerks, startles, sneezes, and eye-rolls that infants do. Little did we know it was his first act of defiance.

Even as a baby, he fought us on everything. Everything. Each time we tried to put him in a baby sling, he’d straighten his legs as if to stand and climb right out. He fussed while nursing, napping, in the car seat — pretty much all the time. He fought sleep with a vengeance. We read all the baby books about sleep, but whatever we tried, it took him at least an hour to fall the eff to sleep.

Parenting advice, in general, just never worked for him like it seemed to work for other kids. When he was a toddler, everyone was buzzing with the idea of “redirection.” The idea is that if you don’t want your toddler to play with something because it’s dangerous, breakable, or just plain annoying, you’re supposed to “redirect.” As in: “No, don’t play with those sharp scissors! Here’s a Spider-Man toy instead!” And then your kid is supposed to forget about the scissors and play with Spider-Man.

But my son would be stuck on the first thing, the thing he couldn’t have. He couldn’t just forget about it or be “redirected” — no freaking way. And it wasn’t just toys. He would hold onto his idea of how things ought go with a vice-like grip, arguments rolling off his tongue as soon as he had enough words to form sentences.

Conventional parenting methods might work for most kids, but they were useless with my son. But he’s not a bad kid. He is well-behaved at school and saves most of his angst for his family at home (which I try to justify as a sign of love). Most of the time, actually, he is pure delight — extremely smart, articulate, and affectionate.

He is passionate about the people and things he loves. He enjoys hanging out with family and has a best friend whom he is devoted to. If there is a book series he likes, he will read it all in one sitting. He’s a big fan of computers and video games and taught himself how to make PowerPoint presentations when he was 4 years old (really!).

When things are going the way he wants them to, he is a joy to be around. But when things don’t, he can easily blow up. He’s a hothead with a short fuse and often has trouble listening to and considering different points of view.

He is 8 now, and each year his stubbornness becomes a little more manageable. All stubborn kids have different quirks, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but here are a couple of things that have helped us over the years:

1. Try to make your strong-willed kid feel like they get to participate in decisions.

When we need our son to do something and we expect resistance, we try to make it feel like he has a say in the matter. For example, when we set up an allowance system, we sat down with him and discussed responsibilities. We had him help us type up a list and decide how to phrase things. Ultimately, we had the final say, but he got to feel like he had collaborated with us and therefore had some control.

2. Don’t compare your strong-willed kids to other kids.

Some children will listen to reason better than others. Some children are more flexible than others. Just because your child isn’t as compliant as another child doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong. My strong-willed son came out with his jaw clenched and his legs kicking. That’s just who he is.

3. Remember that most strong-willed kids will blossom into powerful, confident adults.

Think attorney, activist, entrepreneur. Standing up for what you believe against all odds is a true gift. It just kind of sucks when you’re the next leader of the free world trapped in a 5-year-old’s body. Or when you’re the parent of that kid.

4. Give lots of unsolicited love and praise.

My stubborn child is also my most vulnerable child. He doesn’t always come to me for the affection he often so desperately needs. So I have to seek him out — wrestle him to the ground and cover him with silly kisses. Sometimes when he’s really acting out, I find that the cure is to make sure I carve out extra chunks of one-on-one time with him.

5. Try your best to manage your own frustration.

I find that the more intensely I react when an argument erupts, the more heated the argument becomes. It is very easy to become infuriated with your strong-willed child, but it is important to manage your feelings. Mindfulness, meditation, therapy (and let’s be honest, wine) have saved my sanity. Also, remember that at least some of that stubbornness comes from at least one of your child’s parents (I’m not naming names here!), so have a little empathy and compassion.

I’m sure that when my son enters the tween and teen years, the tables will turn again and I’ll have to come up with a whole new approach. But I hope that he will continue to feel that his parents are a safe haven — that no matter what limits he feels he needs to push, what principles he needs to stick to, and he can come to us to work them out.

Like all parents, I hope that I am teaching my son not only how to manage his BIG feelings, but also that he is loved without condition for the beautiful, fierce, thoughtful, bright soul that he is and has always been. Strong-willed, stubborn emotions and all.

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