Do you have a strong-willed child and would like an everyday guide to the Top 10 Best Tips for Parenting Strong Willed Kids?
Our expert, psychologist Don MacMannis, Ph.D., is an expert in this field and offers some very helpful advice for you.
Have you ever been in the store, the mall or a restaurant and seen parents who are at a loss for what to do when their child acts out? It seems like many parents today are looking for ways to create healthier boundaries in the family—especially with strong willed kids. And, they ask for peaceful ways to do this.
Spend some time in public where families are hanging out and you’ll see moms and dads asking their kids to do things (or stop doing things) ten times with no obvious results.
Strong willed kids naturally experiment and test limits as they spread their wings and develop a sense of themselves. It comes with the territory. They are just doing what kids do.
But since we know that a lack of clear limits in families often results in kids with behavior problems, it’s crucial to learn to create healthy boundaries— ideally when they’re young. Fortunately, there are a number of effective ways to accomplish this and turn things around:
- First, be clear about rules
Some rules are obvious—things like no hitting, kicking, or name-calling. Other rules vary according to schedule such as bedtimes, behavior expected at mealtimes, chores, cleaning up, time allowed for TV or video games, getting exercise, etc. Family meetings are a good time to sit down, name and negotiate these things together.
2. Focus on the positive
Using a lot of love and supporting or “reinforcing” appropriate behavior reminds your child that they are loved for who they are. When you devote time and attention to positive actions, you decrease the level of conflict and increase your child’s self-esteem.
It also increases the effectiveness of any occasional punishment or consequences you use because it strengthens your bond with them. Positive interactions add to the “bank account” of your relationship, whereas negative ones can bankrupt you.
3. Use a variety of reinforcements when parenting strong willed kids
To reinforce children means to praise, thank, smile, hug, or give them something they like. One of the most powerful reinforcements for younger children is adult attention. There are also many other non-material reinforcements that work great with kids, but try to avoid always having to give them something material. That can become expensive and lead to a reliance on material things to get them to behave.
Whenever possible, request the behavior that you want from your child rather than what you don’t want. An example of this might happen around an expectation that they should help with household tasks. “You are such a good helper. As soon as we both clear the table and put the dishes away, we can play a game.”
Another effective technique to weaken minor misbehaviors is to praise a child who is behaving in front of one who is not. For example, you might want to thank a child who arrives promptly to the table when asked, rather than scolding the one who is lagging behind and ignoring the call to dinner.
4. Keep sleep a priority
It’s an unfortunate fact that kids who are no longer napping but haven’t reached the age of puberty can’t “sleep in” to make up for the sleep debt that they’ve accumulated from previous days. And strong-willed kids seem to be especially sensitive to a lack of sufficient sleep or to inconsistencies.
Some parents make the mistake of insisting on appropriate weekday bedtimes for their kids but will waive these same rules when there’s a sleep-over or because it’s a weekend. As fun as these times can be, sleep loss can be a prescription for irritability and stubbornness.
5. Use age-appropriate consequences
Punishments should be given sparingly, and only after trying positive ways of dealing with a situation. In addition to reinforcing desirable behavior, you’ll want to devise a strategy for dealing with misbehaviors when they arise.
For mild behavior problems, consider ignoring your child when they occur. Feed them with your attention and those behaviors just might grow. Disregard them and they can often vanish.
Also, make sure not to threaten anything that you won’t be able to carry out. Kids learn very quickly when their parents say what they mean and mean what they say. It’s also unfair and builds resentment when the rules change according to your emotional temperature and the kind of day you had.
6. Kneel down to your child’s level
It helps to look your child in the eyes and tell them in simple words what you expect. That way, it’s crystal clear that your message has been calmly sent and received.
For example, before entering a store, explain that you are going in to get a sandwich, not candy, and you will picnic in the park if there’s no fussing in the store. Don’t buy candy when asked. Calmly say no each time, and perhaps change the subject or look away.
7. Reduce negative emotions
An important reason for the use of incentives and consequences is to reduce negative emotions. One of the most common traps for parents is to yell at their children.
The strong feelings and anger that you might have are very understandable. Few things can be as upsetting as an out-of-control, ungrateful child who is “in your face.” (Somehow they don’t seem to keep in mind all the ways we have sacrificed ourselves for their benefit).
But there are lots of disadvantages of getting snared in an anger trap. The first is that you’re modeling this anger instead of emotional self-regulation. It helps to teach kids how to have feelings without letting those feelings get the best of us.
Secondly, regardless of their misbehavior, when you get angry with your child they might well retaliate because of the tension that they are reflecting.
Neuroscientists are very clear about this—emotions are contagious. Although your child’s upset won’t necessarily get expressed directly or immediately, it’ll come out somehow—for example by taking their good, sweet time when you’re trying to get them out the door quickly.
8. Be detached from outcomes
What works best is to actually parent from a place where you’re not as invested in how your child is behaving, but simply arranging and sticking to consequences. “Nathan, would you like to pick up your toys like I asked, or would you rather spend some time in time-out?” “Juniper, do you want to stop talking to me like that or shall I take away some time from your TV tonight?”
No big drama, no standing over them—no attachment. The sweet paradox is that the more you don’t care how your child behaves and let the consequences work, the more they will start to step up to the plate and care about their actions through their own motivation.
Think of the image of the police officer who pulls you over for speeding. Officers don’t warn or scold you, guilt trip, hit you, or repeat themselves. They just give you a ticket. And if that’s not enough, the second one costs even more. That’s not a bad model to use as a parent. With the use of consequences, we are simply preparing our child for the real world.
9. Don’t repeat yourself with lectures when parenting strong willed kids
When a negative behavior occurs for the first or second time, provide a brief explanation to your child as to why it’s not okay. But most kids don’t need or respond well to repetitive explanations or lectures. They tune out. When problem behaviors are repeated and talking solutions have failed, the best strategy is to create a few simple rules with prearranged and agreed-upon consequences.
10. Have family meetings
If and when you decide to revise your parenting style or practices, be sure to give your kids advanced warning— some informed consent. Hold family meetings to talk over the changes you’d like to make and ask them what they would like to change. As much as they are able to make reasonable and responsible contributions, include them in the creation of new rules, reinforcements, and consequences.
Conclusion: When parents consistently set loving and clear boundaries, even strong willed kids can learn to have respect for others, build greater self-control, develop the ability to tolerate frustration, and become more responsible for their actions. Wouldn’t it be great to avoid the conflict, power struggles and nagging so that you can enjoy more of the time you spend with your kids?
As you take on parental authority in a firm and loving manner or take it back after having lost it, your child can go back to being a kid again—relieved to let you do the job of parenting. Kids who are raised to consider other’s feelings feel better about themselves and will better serve the world. We certainly need them now more than ever.
Don MacMannis, Ph.D. is a child and family psychologist and Clinical Director of the Family Therapy Institute of Santa Barbara. He has specialized in the treatment of children and families for over forty years.
He teaches parents how to easily and peacefully raise spirited, strong willed kids in his online course (where parents get additional Q and A time with Dr. MacMannis). Find out more about Raising Spirited Strong Willed Kids in the How to Learn Academy
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