What exactly is a strong-willed child? Some parents call them "difficult" or “stubborn,” or more positively, "spirited." But we could also see strong-willed kids as people of integrity who aren’t easily swayed from their own viewpoints. Strong-willed kids are spirited and courageous. They want to learn things for themselves rather than accepting what others say, so they test the limits over and over. They want to be "in charge" of themselves, and will sometimes put their desire to "be right" above everything else. When their heart is set on something, their brains seem to have a hard time switching gears. Strong-willed kids have big, passionate feelings and live at full throttle.
Many children who get labeled "strong-willed" are actually highly sensitive. They react strongly to things and their nervous systems dysregulate more easily. When something upsets them, they over-react and dig in their heels. So if you have a strong-willed child, consider whether your child would be more cooperative if you increased their sense of safety and helped them to feel heard and supported.
Strong-willed kids are prone to power-struggles with their parents. However, it takes two to have a power struggle. You don't have to attend every argument to which you're invited! If you can take a deep breath when your buttons get pushed, and remind yourself that you can let your child save face and still get what you want, you can learn to sidestep those power struggles. (Don't let your four year old make you act like a four year old yourself.)
No one likes being told what to do, but strong-willed kids find it unbearable. Parents can avoid power struggles by helping the child feel understood even as the parent sets limits. Try empathizing, giving choices, and understanding that respect goes both ways. Looking for win/win solutions rather than just laying down the law keeps strong-willed children from becoming explosive and teaches them essential skills of negotiation and compromise.
Strong-willed kids aren't just being difficult. They feel their integrity is compromised if they're forced to submit to another person's will. If they're allowed to choose, they love to cooperate. If this bothers you because you think obedience is an important quality, I'd ask you to reconsider. Of course you want to raise a responsible, considerate, cooperative child who does the right thing, even when it's hard. But that doesn't imply obedience. That implies doing the right thing because you want to.
Morality is doing what's right, no matter what you're told. Obedience is doing what you're told, no matter what's right.
- H.L. Mencken
So of course you want your child to do what you say. But not because he's obedient, meaning that he always does what someone bigger tells him to do. No, you want him to do what you say because he trusts YOU, because he's learned that even though you can't always say yes to what he wants, you have his best interests at heart. You want to raise a child who has self-discipline, takes responsibility, and is considerate -- and most important, has the discernment to figure out who to trust and when to be influenced by someone else.
Breaking a child's will leaves him open to the influence of others who often will not serve his highest interests. What's more, it's a betrayal of the spiritual contract we make as parents.
Does peaceful parenting work with strong-willed children? YES! Peaceful parenting has three big ideas:
- Regulate your own emotions. This is essential in parenting strong-willed kids because it de-escalates the situation and creates safety, which settles your child's nervous system. And it models for your child how to manage their own emotions.
- Connect with your child. Connection is the only influence you have with a strong-willed child, since they can't be forced to comply.
- Coach your child to be their best self. This includes emotion-coaching to help your child with big emotions, and setting up the environment so the child can thrive (meaning reasonable bedtimes, more autonomy, routines to help your child feel secure, etc.) It also includes setting limits effectively, which means clearly, firmly and with empathy: "You really don't want to clean up your toys and get ready for bed. I hear you. AND it's time! Let's work together." What doesn't work with strong-willed kids is waffling on your limits. What also doesn't work is punishment, because the child gets focused on how they've been wronged, rather than what they could do differently, so they become more oppositional and less cooperative.
So yes, Peaceful Parenting is the best parenting approach for strong-willed children. That said, strong-willed kids can be a handful -- high energy, challenging, persistent, sensitive. How do we protect those fabulous qualities and encourage their cooperation?
12 Tips for Peaceful Parenting
Your Strong-Willed, Spirited Child
1. Remember that strong-willed kids are highly sensitive.
That means their nervous systems get dysregulated easily, which is a fancy way of saying that they need your help to feel safe and stay calm. When your child gets forceful about something, that's your cue to take a breath and calm yourself down.
Listen to your child so they feel heard, and won't have to escalate. You don't have to change your position, but you do have to verbally acknowledge your child's viewpoint. Your child does not need to get everything they want, but they do need you to understand.
Most important, when your child is being forceful, remind yourself that this is not an expression of strength, but of your child feeling vulnerable. The more you can connect and reassure, the safer your child will feel. That means less opposition and defiance. Remember, defiance isn't a discipline problem. It's a relationship problem. And you are half of the relationship! When you change -- meaning you stay calm and warm even in those tough moments -- your child changes too.
2. Your strong-willed child is an experiential learner.
That means they have to see for themselves if the stove is hot. So unless you're worried about serious injury, it's more effective to let them learn through experience, instead of trying to control them. And you can expect your strong-willed child to test your limits repeatedly--that's how he learns. Once you know that, it's easier to stay calm, which avoids wear and tear on your relationship--and your nerves.
3. Your strong-willed child wants mastery more than anything.
Strong-willed kids can't bear feeling powerless, so autonomy is essential to them. Let your child take charge of as many of their own activities and decisions as they seem ready for. Don’t nag at her to brush her teeth; ask “What else do you need to do before we leave?” If she looks blank, tick off the short list: “Every morning we eat, brush teeth, use the toilet, and pack the backpack. I saw you pack your backpack, that's terrific! Now, what do you still need to do before we leave?” Kids who feel more independent and in charge of themselves will have less need to be oppositional. Not to mention, they take responsibility early.
4. Give your strong-willed child choices.
If you give orders, he will almost certainly bristle. If you offer a choice, he feels like the master of his own destiny. Of course, only offer choices you can live with and don’t let yourself get resentful by handing away your power. If going to the store is non-negotiable and he wants to keep playing, an appropriate choice is:
"Do you want to leave now or in ten minutes? Okay, ten minutes with no fuss? Let's shake on it....And since it could be hard to stop playing in ten minutes, what can we do to make it easier for you in ten minutes?"
5. Give her authority over her own body.
“I hear that you don’t want to wear your jacket today. I think it's cold and I am definitely wearing a jacket. Of course, you are in charge of your own body, as long as you stay safe and healthy, so you get to decide whether to wear a jacket. But I’m afraid that you will be cold once we are outside, and I won’t want to come back to the house. How about I put your jacket in the backpack, and then we’ll have it if you change your mind?”
She’s not going to get pneumonia, unless you push her into it by acting like you’ve won if she asks for the jacket. And once she won’t lose face by wearing her jacket, she’ll be begging for it once she gets cold. It’s just hard for her to imagine feeling cold when she’s so warm right now in the house, and a jacket feels restrictive and hot. She's sure she's right -- her own body is telling her so -- so naturally she resists you. You don't want to undermine that self-confidence, just teach her that there's no shame in letting new information change her mind.
6. Avoid power struggles by using routines and rules.
That way, you aren't the bad guy bossing them around, it’s just that
"The rule is we use the potty after every meal and snack," or "The schedule is that lights-out is at 8pm. If you hurry, we’ll have time for two books," or "In our house, we finish homework before screen time."
7. Don't push him into opposing you.
Force always creates "push-back" -- with humans of all ages. If you take a hard and fast position, you can easily push your child into defying you, just to prove a point. You'll know when it's a power struggle and you're invested in winning. Just stop, take a breath, and remind yourself that winning a battle with your child always sets you up to lose what’s most important: the relationship. When in doubt say:
"Ok, you can decide this for yourself."
If he can't, then say what part of it he can decide, or find another way for him to meet his need for autonomy without compromising his health or safety.
8. Side-step power struggles by letting your child save face.
You don’t have to prove you’re right. You can, and should, set reasonable expectations and enforce them. But under no circumstances should you try to break your child’s will or force him to acquiesce to your views. He has to do what you want, but he's allowed to have his own opinions and feelings about it.
9. Listen to her.
You, as the adult, might reasonably presume you know best. But your strong-willed child has a strong will partly as a result of her integrity. She has a viewpoint that is making her hold fast to her position, and she is trying to protect something that seems important to her. Only by listening calmly to her and reflecting her words will you come to understand what’s making her oppose you. When your child resists taking a bath, for instance, start with non-judgmental acknowledgment and curiosity:
“I hear that you don’t want to take a bath. Can you tell me more about why?”
You might elicit the information (as I did with my three year old Alice) that she’s afraid she’ll go down the drain, like Alice in the song. It may not seem like a good reason to you, but she has a reason. And you won’t find it out if you get into a clash and order her into the tub.
10. See it from his point of view.
For instance, he may be angry because you promised to wash his superman cape and then forgot. To you, he is being stubborn. To him, he is justifiably upset, and you are being hypocritical, because he is not allowed to break his promises to you, but you broke yours to him. How do you clear this up and move on? You apologize sincerely for breaking your promise, you reassure him that you try very hard to keep your promises, and you go, together, to wash the cape. You might even teach him how to wash his own clothes so you're not in this position in the future and he's empowered. Just consider how would you want to be treated, and treat him accordingly.
11. Discipline through the relationship, never through punishment.
When you want your child to change course, think in terms of support rather than force. There is no amount of force in the world that can get a truly strong-willed person to acquiesce. That just increases their resistance, because their integrity won't let them back down just because they're being threatened.
But if you give them enough support, and they feel enough connection, strong-willed kids will usually agree to do what you want, instead of what they want. Kids cooperate because there's something they want more than getting their way in the moment -- they want that warm relationship with us.
The more you fight with and punish your child, the more you undermine her desire to protect that warm connection with you. Remember that kids don’t learn when they’re in the middle of a fight. Like all of us, that’s when adrenaline is pumping and learning shuts off. So instead of trying to teach at those emotional moments, take a deep breath and connect. If she's upset, help her express her hurt, fear or disappointment, so they evaporate. Then she'll be ready to listen to you when you remind her that in your house, everyone speaks kindly to each other. (Of course, you have to model that. Your child won't always do what you say, but she will always, eventually, do what you do.)
12. Offer him respect and empathy.
Most strong-willed children are fighting for respect. If you offer it to them, they don’t need to fight to protect their position. And, like the rest of us, it helps a lot if they feel understood. If you see his point of view and think he's wrong -- for instance, he wants to wear the Superman cape to church and you think that's inappropriate -- you can still offer him empathy and meet him part way while you set the limit.
"You love this cape and wish you could wear it, don't you? But when we go to services we dress up to show respect, so we can't wear the cape. I know you'll miss wearing it. How about we take it with us so you can wear it on our way home?"
13. Connect, Connect, Connect.
Connection is 80% of parenting for all kids, because until they feel connected, they won't accept your guidance. But this is especially true for strong-willed kids. My strong-willed daughter told me when she was 21 that if someone else had raised her, she might have become a criminal. I don't think that's true, but she was, indeed, a challenging child who could never be intimidated. She only followed my "civilizing" influence because she loved and respected me. Connection will always be the most effective way to influence your strong-willed child.
Does this sound like Permissive Parenting? It isn't. You set limits. But you set them with understanding
of your child's perspective, which makes her more cooperative. There's just never any reason to be mean about it! As the Dalai Lama
said, "Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible."
Here's why Permissive Parenting sabotages your child.
This also isn't authoritarian parenting, which backfires with strong-willed kids because they rebel.
What's Wrong with Strict Parenting?
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