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Getting Strong-Willed Kids To Cooperate without Punishment

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Dr. Laura,

My 4.5 year old son is strong willed. He is not a child who is naturally compliant. He tests tests and tests some more. He needs firm, clear boundaries. My problem is what to do when he tests them because he will!

Here is an example of a daily exchange in our home:

He misbehaves at the dinner table (throws food for example and laughs), I say "food is not for throwing, it's for eating. If you throw your food again dinner is over."

He throws the food. I tell him dinner is over and remove his plate. He gets mad and starts crying and will hit me. He knows hitting is not allowed and there are no warnings it's an automatic cool down. So I put him on the stairs (his cool down spot) and tell him he needs to cool off for 4 minutes. Inevitably he will not stay on the stairs. He will get up laughing and run away. I go get him and put him back on the stairs. This will go on for anywhere from a few minutes to 20-30 minutes. In between there is additional hitting and tantruming sometimes. It's exhausting.

I know you have said time outs don't work as they are a form of punishment. So in the above scenario what would be an alternative way of handling it?

I find it very confusing as I've purchased multiple books and they all seem to advocate a different approach. I have not and will never use physical punishment, but relying on just reinforcing positive behavior because children really just want to please their parents doesn't resonate with me either. My child needs the boundaries and there has to be some consequences for crossing the line doesn't there?


It is so frustrating when you have a strong-willed child who just will not cooperate. And it is even more upsetting when you read parenting books and the "experts" suggest contradictory strategies!

Most parenting books are based on the punishment model. You tell the child to correct their behavior, hopefully you reward them if they do it, and of course you punish them if they don't do it, to convince them to "do right" in the future. So if your child goes against your rules -- or in your words, "crosses the line" -- you punish them.

So, for example, if your child does not respond to your verbal limits and continues to throw his food around, the conventional approach is that you take the food away. Then, if he gets mad in response and hits you, you give him a timeout. Then, if that creates a power struggle (which it usually does because your child is emotionally worked up and resists the timeout), you add punishments like more time in timeout, or "consequences" -- meaning removal of privileges. If that doesn't work, you keep adding consequences until your child loses all his toys etc. If that doesn't work, ultimately, you have no way to assert your domination over your child except physical punishment. Of course, that might cow a 5 year old, but by the time they're eight, physical punishment no longer works, because your child can physically resist you.

That's when we see many families bring their child to therapy, because the child has become impossible, now that physical punishment no longer works. These kids think of themselves as bad people. They know they can't control themselves, because they really can't. They have never had the help they needed to regulate their emotions, and they are always angry. Their brain and nervous system are always ready to fight and don't calm down well.

They may laugh on the outside but inside, they're hurting and lonely. Their relationship with their parents has been eroded by the ongoing power struggles and punishment. Their unruly emotions continue to drive their bad behavior. Unless therapy can repair the parent-child relationship -- which is not easy -- the child's acting out gets worse. By the time they're twelve, they're often looking for love in all the wrong places and vulnerable to "self-medicating" their rage, anxiety and depression with drugs and alcohol. They are children at risk.

I have never seen any research on this, but my completely unofficial estimate based on my experience with parents and kids is that for probably 60% of kids, you can raise them with conventional parenting, including rewards and punishment, and they seem to come out more or less okay. The other 40% of kids are more challenging to parent for one reason or another. Some of them are highly sensitive. Others have special challenges like sensory issues, or health issues, or they are on the spectrum. 

Others, like your son, are simply what we call very "strong-willed." For those strong-willed kids, it's an affront to their integrity to comply with threats. They regard conventional parenting with its threats and punishments as an attempt to intimidate them (which of course it is) and they refuse to be intimidated. These strong-willed kids are what I call the "Cool Hand Luke" kids. They refuse to be pushed around; they see themselves standing up against that lack of respect. Of course, they will comply with what you ask if they feel connected and understood, just because they love you. But they will not back down from a threat.

Of course, as adults, even the "easier" 60% of kids who are conventionally raised may be prone to fights with their coworkers, or procrastinate so they can't meet their goals, or have a hard time creating a peaceful marriage, or find it hard to exercise self-discipline to lose weight. We don't have statistics on how conventional parenting affects most children. But we do know what the divorce rate is, and the addiction rate, and we do know how many adults ask their doctors for medication for anxiety or depression.        

I believe the high numbers of adults in our society who don't feel quite "good enough" inside comes partly from the fact that no one ever helped them with the emotions that drove them to misbehave to begin with. Instead, they were forced to behave with the threats and punishment of conventional parenting. So they learned to just stuff those feelings that were driving them to misbehave; they never worked them out. They learned to pacify those upset feelings of shame and guilt and loneliness with food, or shopping, or screens or other little addictions, all of which we take for granted in our culture.

But as kids, they obeyed their parents, and tried hard to be "good girls" and "good boys" -- and that gave them a certain amount of positive self-esteem from parental and social approval and from playing by the rules and thus "doing well." In other words, many kids raised this way function relatively well throughout their lives, even if they secretly feel inside like they aren't good enough or completely fulfilled. This is very different from what happens with strong-willed kids who get locked into power struggles with their parents. They may put on a tough front, but they end up with low self-esteem because they assume they must be somehow broken and unlovable. 

So it sounds to me like you're running into problems because you don't have a compliant kid. Instead, you have a strong-willed, probably emotionally sensitive kid. So all that "conventional" advice you're getting is not going to work with a child like this. I'm sorry. I know it doesn't feel fair. But these kids have big emotions and they simply can't swallow them to obey us. In fact, to them it feels like a compromise to their integrity to do something just because you want them to. They are begging for us to connect with them, and also help them with their emotions, so they can cooperate with us. Until we do, they actually can't behave.

Is this more trouble than you would have with an easier child? Yes. But we don't get to choose the seeds we get. Our kids blossom into who they are -- roses with thorns or morning glories who only blossom in the light -- and our job is to provide them the conditions they need to bloom, no matter who they are. So I will tell you what I think is happening with your son and how you can stop fighting with him and help him bloom.

Let's start by considering how this scenario goes with an emotionally sensitive, strong-willed kid. They have big feelings, meaning that they respond with big emotions to everything that happens. They pick up on your feelings, which further complicates things for them emotionally because when you get upset, they feel like it's their fault. They don't know how to work through those feelings, unfortunately. So they "act out." That just means they have feelings they can't articulate, so they act those feelings out. They might, for instance, look right at you, throw their food and laugh.

Why would they do such a thing? Usually, they have some big feelings of fear or hurt or disappointment that are bubbling up. Why would they have such feelings? Because all young humans do. By the time a child is 4, they know you could die. Or at least go away and not come back. They worry about whether they will make it to the bathroom on time, most of the time. They feel incompetent because they are worse at most things than most of the people (i.e., adults) around them. They feel powerless because they feel constantly pushed around. So they are lugging around a full backpack of yucky feelings -- fear, sadness, disappointment, shame, guilt.

What they need is help to "feel" those emotions. Because once humans feel their big emotions, those emotions simply evaporate. But until we are willing to feel our feelings, they stay with us, trapped, bubbling up and trying to surface. Unfortunately, those feelings make us feel terrible. Like throwing up, or peeing in our pants. Seriously, that is what big fear feels like. That's why people pee in their pants when they find themselves in front of a firing squad. And for young kids, as crazy as it sounds to us, life often feels like a big emergency, a matter of survival. So because kids will do anything not to feel those yucky feelings, they stuff them down. But the feelings are always looking to heal, so they keep bubbling up, especially when the child is either triggered, or conversely, feels safe enough to deal with the feelings.

So what do kids (and other humans) do, when those feelings bubble up? They feel under threat. They associate the feelings with whoever is nearby, like their parent or sibling. They do what all mammals do when they feel under threat -- fight, flight or freeze. With freeze, they try to numb themselves -- for instance, they might look blank, as if they have no remorse. With flight, they might take refuge in a screen. But most commonly, they start a fight. The best defense is a good offense. So your son looks right at you and throws his food. He would rather have that fight than feel those feelings.

So at that moment, you can stay rational and keep escalating your limit. But that leads, as you have discovered, to your running out of options, unless you're willing to beat him into submission. And that approach will just make things worse and will guarantee a bad outcome for both of you in a very few years. 

If, instead, you remind yourself that your son needs help with his emotions, you can respond to the emotions that are driving his behavior. You can help him surface them and work through those tears and fears. Afterwards, he will be cooperative and flexible. Really! After kids are able to express some of those feelings that are so uncomfortable for them, those feelings begin to evaporate. So the child isn't being driven by that upset, and is so much better able to connect with us. And that's what makes them want to cooperate.

So how do you help your son work through his feelings? You create enough safety for him to be willing to feel the emotions. For instance, you really connect with him with empathy, all day every day, no matter what he's expressing:

"I hear wish we didn't have chicken for dinner...It's not your wish we could have pizza every night, I bet."

"You are so mad! This isn't what you wanted!"

"It's hard to stop playing when I say it's time for dinner...AND your body needs food to be strong and healthy."

No matter what he says, you offer understanding. It doesn't matter what words you use. What matters is that you see things from his point of view. In fact, you find a way to turn everything into a positive. Whenever he is doing anything right, you express your delight in him. "I see you enjoying your dinner and keeping your food on the plate where it belongs...I love to eat with you and see that big smile."

But don't ignore the "bad" behavior. That's a communication.  "You're throwing your food. What are you telling me? Do you want me to stop talking to your dad and look at you? You can tell me in words. 'Hey Mom, Dad, please talk to me!'"

That connection with you might resolve the entire issue. But it is entirely possible that he is throwing the food specifically to provoke a fight, because he needs to cry. if you start by connecting and he keeps throwing food, then taking the food away is completely reasonable. But be aware that your goal is not reprimanding him, but emotion-coaching him.

So in that moment when he gets really mad at you because you took away his dinner after he didn't heed your warning to stop throwing his food, you create more safety.  That means you don't send him off by himself, which gives him the message that he's all alone with his big, scary feelings. Instead, you set a clear limit on the hitting but you "help" him feel safe enough to cry. So you empathize as you set the limit:"You are so mad at can be as mad as you want, and cry as much as you want, but I won't let you hit me." You stay nearby, but not so close that he can hit you. If he does try to hit you and pursues you as you move away, you hold his arms if you need to. But you keep breathing and reminding yourself that you're safe, so you don't get triggered yourself.

Hopefully, your son will feel safe enough to move past the rage and right into his tears. But since the two of you are in the habit of power struggles, he might not. He might keep trying to hit you. In that case, it's a sign that you need to increase safety even more, with your compassion in the moment, but also by strengthening your relationship with him in general. You do that through daily play that gets him laughing, and through making empathy your "go to" response to him. Think of this as preventive maintenance.

It would take a whole book to give you the tools and strategies for this -- to stay calm, do daily preventive maintenance, and help him with his feelings. In fact, I have written that book, and it's easily available on Amazon. It's called Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. I think it would answer all your questions about how to stop the power struggles and help your son WANT to cooperate. 

I know it probably seems far-fetched to you right now that your son could WANT to cooperate, but that is because you are focused only on the limits and not on the connection and empathy and emotion-coaching. Yes, of course kids need limits -- he can't hit you or throw his food -- but you are missing an essential ingredient if you aren't setting those limits with empathy, and helping your son process the emotions that are driving his bad behavior.  If he doesn't get your help with his emotions, he doesn't learn to manage them, and if he can't manage his emotions, he can't manage his behavior.

Defiance is not a discipline problem; it's a relationship problem -- he is showing you how alone he feels. Your son is acting like this because he needs help with his emotions and he doesn't trust that you're on his side to give him that help. You can change that, with your empathy and connection.

Finally, you ask, "there has to be some consequences for crossing the line doesn't there?" If by consequences, you mean punishment, I don't think so. Our goal is to nurture and lovingly guide our children. There is never any justification to intentionally hurt them (and that is the definition of punishment -- to intentionally cause pain in an attempt to influence someone to do things our way.) 

We DO have influence with our children, but that influence comes from love and connection. When kids feel deeply connected, they will WANT to maintain that connection and they would never endanger that connection by going against us. This is true even for strong-willed children. In that kind of relationship, if our child crosses the line, we go after him and get him, using our loving connection to bring him back inside the bounds of loving connection. We don't cut him off with punishment.

Because with love, there is no line. There is only love.

Dr. Laura

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