Before we discuss an approach to parenting a strong-willed child, let’s take a step back and ask:
Is there even such a thing as a “strong-willed” child?
Some readers will be nodding their heads vigorously.
“Of course there is, just meet my daughter!”
There are, however, different perspectives:
One is that a strong-willed child has the gift of an indomitable spirit, something to be nurtured. Their strong-will is viewed positively as “confident,” “determined,” “decisive,” “non-conformist,” etc. Let’s call this perspective Positive Child.
There are two alternative perspectives that I’ve come across:
Problem Child – For some, the term “strong-willed” is viewed with cynicism. It is seen as a euphemism for “demanding” or “rude” or “defiant” or “difficult” etc. According to this paradigm, the child is a problem. Parents worry that they need to break the child’s will, subdue their spirit, and force their obedience. This may come with good intentions, eg, wanting the child to develop a healthy respect for others, or avoiding them turning into a “bad apple.”
Problem Parent – According to this view, weak parents who are incapable of asserting and holding boundaries claim their child is “strong-willed” as an excuse to justify their uncomfortable and unacceptable behavior. Really, the irresponsible parents are to blame for allowing the child to usurp power.
These paradigms do not see a child with the innate and positive quality of strong-will. Instead, they see a problem – the child, the parents, or both.
I subscribe to the Positive Child view, believing that strong-willed children are a wholly good yet challenging force. Their spirit is a gift to be nurtured. (But keep on your toes, parents, raising them will force you to up your game and will stretch you to the limit!)
But while I view strong-will as an asset, I don’t dismiss the other two ‘problem’ perspectives. Far from it. I believe there is wisdom in each.
What wisdom can empathic parents glean from “Bad Child” perspective?
If your child behaves or communicates in a rude or threatening way, then it doesn’t serve anyone to ignore, accept, or shrug it off as their strong-will.
But here’s the thing:
A punitive parenting approach sees the child as the problem and focuses on ‘fixing’ the ‘aberrant’ behavior, normally through intentionally unpleasant external forces.
An empathic approach assumes the willful child is dealing with challenging and uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Their behavior is seen as a symptom and attention is given to the internal motivation. Does this mean ignoring or accepting it? No. It’s just that parents try to learn what is going on for the child. This is done through connection, communication, and inviting cooperation.
And what about the “Bad Parent” perspective, what can we learn from this view?
It is vital that we set and maintain reasonable boundaries with our children. If we struggle to do so, then our children can feel unsafe and insecure.
And here’s the thing:
Strong-willed kids will push and test boundaries like no other! If they sense uncertainty, ambiguity, or, indeed, no boundary at all, then you can expect challenging behavior.
So remain reflective and honest. It can be useful to ask, “are my children calling out for clearer, more confident boundaries?”
At the same time, don’t dismiss your child’s strong-willed nature as a ‘problem’ of your making. Certainly your nurture influences them, but don’t discount their nature. If they are genuinely strong-willed, then learn about it and work with them.
Through empathy and paying attention, we can come to know our child’s innate personal qualities. Then we can distinguish between their innate strong will and when actually they are reacting to something uncomfortable in their environment (eg, a new sibling or unclear boundaries). This will help us to “see them” and respond authentically, respectfully, and usefully.
With all this in mind, here are three broad principles which will help you to support and enjoy your strong-willed child:
Connection – Maintain and keep coming back to connection with your spirited child. If you operate within separate internal worlds, then you’ll ‘miss’ them and lose sight of where they are coming from. Stay connected and you’ll ‘see’ them and be able to relate to them effectively.
Communication – Actively listen, read between the lines, and express empathy. This will help you to stay connected and gain insight into their ‘inner world.’ By understanding where they are coming from you can best serve them and avoid misunderstanding.
Cooperation – Respectful cooperation is far better than mindless compliance. Look for the win-win. See your willful child as a thoughtful individual with ideas, needs, and feelings. This will build trust and harmony.
Strong-willed children usually challenge their parents. They force you to raise your game, and they constantly push you beyond your comfort zone. But with this comes an opportunity to stretch and grow, both as parents and people. What is more, if you are supportive and nurturing, they have the potential to be a tour-de-force for positive change in their own lives and the world.