If you have a strong-willed child in your family, I’m sure you already know it. You don’t need anyone to point him or her out to you. Typically smart, confident and loyal, strong-willed children show a remarkable capacity for creative thinking and problem-solving, and a nothing-gonna-get-in-my-way determination to achieve their goals.

Like many parents though, this enviable set of traits is probably not the first thing that springs to mind when you think of your child. Most likely, you think first of their iron-strong will, and their penchant for challenging your authority.

For onlookers, that characteristic defiance can provide some entertaining drama:

  • the pint-sized youngster, one table over in the restaurant, who holds his breath till his parents give up urging him to eat the broccoli;
  • the pony-tailed ballerina who throws a tantrum because she’s not allowed to wear her winter boots (not just from the car to ballet class, but during the lesson);
  • the teen at the hot dog stand who argues with his dad for a full 10 minutes over a five-second task: picking his napkin off the ground and dropping it in the garbage can.

As you well know though, everyday life as that parent – the one struggling to guide a strong-willed child to Christlike maturity – is not so amusing. Sometimes it’s crushing. Their defiance can be so relentless, it’s exhausting. So disrespectful, it’s infuriating. So reckless, it’s worrying. So entrenched, positive change seems hopeless.

Such a maelstrom of strong emotions can be all-absorbing. And that’s certainly understandable. But a beaten down, exhausted parent can easily lose perspective. Those intense emotions can keep you focused on yourself: how you are feeling, how you are performing as a parent.

Bringing out the best in your son or daughter, however, begins by focusing first of all on your child – by discovering what makes them act the way they do, and what they need from you in order to leave the dross behind and build on their many strengths.

Hidden needs and motivations

These powerful children are intense, complex and wonderful. Once you begin to understand the formidable inner forces that drive them, you’ll begin to see why your parenting strategies are working – or not. In her book You Can’t Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded), Cynthia Ulrich Tobias takes parents on an insightful journey into the mind and motivations of a strong-willed child. If there’s one catchphrase that describes what strong-willed children need to move in a positive direction, it’s this: Show me respect, and give me a choice.

Strong-willed children crave respect for their perceived right to self-determination

In His infinite wisdom, God gave each of us free will, but the strong-willed child seems to cherish that gift far more intensely than others do. All strong-willed children desperately crave personal autonomy. From their point of view, it’s their clothes, their schoolwork, their life, and they want to make the decisions on those issues, thank you very much. Try to take away control of the things they believe they own, and they’ll fight back like a cornered wildcat.

Does this mean you should step aside and let your child do as they please? It depends what’s at stake. Tobias provides this advice:

"Figure out as early as possible how you can voluntarily give your child some control over herself, even in very small ways. . . . If she wants to carry that dirty ragged blanket into church, swallow your pride and let her have it. Save the conflict for the very important battles you will need to fight later."

Strong-willed children need firm leadership they can respect

Assertive by nature, a strong-willed child is driven to figure out Who is really in charge around here? As a result, they’re internally compelled to defy you – and that will be often – to test if your authority still holds. Or to put it another way, they’re driven to test if you’re still worthy of their respect.

When small issues arise, it’s fine for you to decide to give in; Sure, have it your way, is music to your strong-willed child’s ears. In fact, allowing lots of freedom in small things will make your child more cooperative overall. But when your child defies you on a really big issue, you must win that skirmish. Wear a seatbelt? Not negotiable! . . . Home by midnight? Absolutely! . . . Telling lies? Not any more.

Ultimately, your strong-willed child must understand that you’re the boss, and whatever you say, goes. If they’re ever to learn how to master their strong will and become emotionally mature, a powerful child needs a parent who’s strong enough to hold firm boundaries in place, even as their child is kicking against them.

Phrases like this trigger defiance: You'll do as I say!
A better choice: I give you a lot of freedom to make your own choices, but I love you too much to let you get away with this one. I'm not backing down.

Strong-willed children need leadership that respects them

Here’s where countless parents repeatedly make a mis-step that trips the wire and triggers hostility in their strong-willed child.

"What sets us off," says Tobias (who was a strong-willed child herself), "is your finger in our face as you tell us to ‘do it or else.’ . . . If you use your authority in a way that suggests we don’t have a choice, there’s almost always going to be trouble. We usually don’t respond well when you simply issue orders to be obeyed."

Getting all riled up when your strong-willed child defies you is a big mistake too. When you lose your temper and rant or shout at your child, their instinct is to push back even harder. It’s like handing them a puppet and insisting they not pull the strings. The temptation to see how you dance is irresistible.

No matter how irritated and frustrated you may feel, make sure you speak calmly and respectfully when you engage your strong-willed child. Don’t bark out orders like a drill sergeant. Instead, speak to your child the same way you would address a colleague in a professional workplace. Use words like please.

Tobias offers some very practical tips to keep in mind: Phrase your request as a question that implies a choice for your child. It’s also helpful to ask questions that require a yes or no answer, or to add the word okay to your request.

Phrases like this trigger defiance: Get your stuff off this table!
Better choices: Would you please clear your homework away?
I need you to clear your homework away, okay?
I need the table cleared. Do you want to take care of that now, or just before supper?

For the strong-willed child, the chance to choose whether to reply yes or no – that is, whether to obey you or not – makes all the difference. They may still choose not to obey, and force you to move on to consequences, but your respectful, "choice-based" approach makes that outcome less likely. Try it, and prepare to be amazed!

Strong-willed children need respect for their intelligence and problem-solving skills

Strong-willed children have a genuine need to know why a task is worthy of their effort. Convince them, and you’ve won half the battle already. In large part, motivating a strong-willed child involves showing confidence in their intelligence, rather than insulting it. Even when they’ve slipped up, strong-willed children want freedom to choose how to remedy the situation in the way they think best. So when there are chores left undone or promises unfulfilled, Tobias recommends approaching the issue as a problem to be solved together. When your strong-willed child has input into rules and consequences, they’re more inclined to abide by them.

Phrases like this trigger defiance: You forgot to empty the dishwasher again. Take care of it now!
A better choice: I notice you've been forgetting to empty the dishwasher lately. We need a plan to make sure it gets done, and I'd like to hear your ideas after supper.

Hidden wounds and worries

What parents of strong-willed children often miss is that, while their self-esteem is taking a bruising, so is their child’s. Beneath that tough I-don’t-care-and-you-can’t-make-me attitude may be a seriously wounded heart. It hurts to always be "the difficult one," "the stubborn one," the one rejected by classmates for being "too bossy." Writing in his book The New Strong-Willed Child, Dr. James Dobson reports on an informal but sizeable survey of 35,000 parents that yielded some remarkable results. Among them, this finding:

"The compliant child typically enjoys higher self-esteem than the strong-willed child. . . . Only 19 percent of compliant teenagers either disliked themselves (17 percent) or felt extreme self-hatred (2 percent). Of the very strong-willed teenagers, 35 percent disliked themselves and 8 percent experienced extreme self-hatred."

These assertive, argumentative children know they are not always easy to get along with. Many harbour a dark, secret fear: that you, their parent – the one who professes to love them unconditionally – will give up on them. Tobias takes pains to remind parents "SWCs know there’s a price to pay for making a wrong decision, but they have to know that losing your love will not be part of the cost." When they’re at their worst, tell them clearly that your love will outwit, outplay, outlast whatever they can throw at you.

This is long-haul love that the Lord is asking of you. Remember, if you are having a difficult time re-shaping your child’s willfulness, so too is your child. That’s one feisty wild bronco they’ve been handed to tame. If compliant children need to be praised for choosing obedience – and of course they do – strong-willed children need that praise even more so. Cheer your child loudly at every sign that they’re yanking on the reigns and trying to get their powerful will under control.

Related resources

Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2014 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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