We recently read this wonderful article that we found really moving. It tells the story of a mother who felt as if she was failing in some way because her children were strong-willed, stubborn and didn’t always do as they were told. She felt completely overwhelmed in her role as a parent, and was struggling to understand what she was doing wrong and why her children felt the need to behave in such an oppositional and difficult manner.
Then one day at church when her children were being particularly difficult and her patience was wearing thin, a sweet elderly women came up to her and told her that her children had great potential and would accomplish great things thanks to their character. This kind comment by a women who had already raised five resilient children of her own gave the author hope that someday things would all turn out ok, and that she wasn’t doing such a bad job as a parent after all.
Now that her children have become teenagers, she realises that the elderly women was right – her children have grown from ‘unreasonable’ children into considerate, self-motivated teenagers whose wilfulness and integrity now serves to strengthen them and all those around them.
As parents to two (out of a total of three) very wilful and spirited children ourselves, we know just how this mother felt. We know that when you’re ‘in the moment’ and your child is being particularly disagreeable it can be difficult to ‘see the wood for the trees’.
Worse still, we couldn’t agree on how to deal with our children when their strong will would show up, as one of us would often give in, while the other felt that this attitude ought to be ‘nipped in the bud’ because otherwise our children would not learn to obey.
This why we found it so essential to find parenting techniques that we could both agree on and that can help maximise the chances of not ‘breaking our child’s will’ and instead help them develop into considerate, self-responsible and resilient adults. The best way to achieve this is to make sure that we do not put our child in opposition and that we prevent power struggles, while nurturing our child’s wilful spirit.
Here are examples of key tools to help parents of strong willed children, taken from our book Kids Don’t Come With a Manual:
It’s really important that parents allow their children to express their emotions and that we empathise with those emotions, even if we consider what’s bothering them to be rather trivial! What we have to remember is that what might seem trivial to us is very real to them, so show that you understand that they’re upset with your tone and body language. This will help them to get over the issue much quicker and will also make them want to share more with you in future.
- Give Choices
Children like adults, need to feel as if they have some control over their lives and this is especially true of strong-willed children. Remember, they are far more likely to respond positively to you if you give them choices and a ‘say’ over what they are and aren’t allowed to do. You can do this by offering them two limited choices (both of which suit you!) such as, “Would you like to leave now or in five minutes?”, or “Would you rather eat your potatoes first or your broccoli?”
- Use Positive Language
No one likes to be ordered around and told what to do, and strong-willed children are no exception. Of course, children need to know that there are boundaries and expectations of them, but there is a far better way to go about this than simply ‘barking orders’ at them. So for example, instead of saying “No, you can’t have ice cream before dinner”, which will only serve to raise your child’s heckles and/or levels of resistance, try “Yeah, sure you can have an ice cream after we’ve finished dinner”. Always try to put a positive ‘spin’ on a situation to prevent it from becoming a power struggle.
- Diffuse the Situation
Try not to get drawn into long explanations or discussions about why your child can or can’t do something. Having to explain yourself time and time again is exhausting, and it is at these times when our patience is running thin when we are more likely to give in to whining and arguing. Instead, simply respond with something short and simple such as “I hear you” or “I know” as this shows that you are listening to them, but that you aren’t willing to get drawn into an argument.
- Focus on what you can control by using ‘I’ Statements
While you would think that you can control your children when they are young, you will soon realise that it’s much better to focus on what you can control rather than force them to do something that they are reluctant to do. So refrain from using threats to try to modify their behaviour because you are likely to meet with tantrums and resistance. Instead, use positive ‘I’ statements such as “I take children to the park who pick their toys up off the floor”, or “I read a story to children who brush their teeth before bed”.
- Plan Ahead!
So many power struggles and ‘mis’behaviours can be prevented simply by having the foresight to plan ahead and anticipate your child’s reactions by doing some kind of ‘prior agreement’ with them. For example, shopping at the supermarket can be particularly challenging, so next time, you can agree prior to leaving the house that you will leave the supermarket if they whine or they throw a tantrum. However, you can get them involved by giving them their own short shopping list. They’ll love that they have a role to play and will be far better behaved with a simple routine in place, leaving you free to shop without having to worry about tantrums and meltdowns!
If you are interested in equipping yourself with these and more tools, you can read the step by step techniques and a whole lot more in our book, Kids Don’t Come With a Manual – The Essential Guide to a Happy Family Life.