Parents of strong-willed children often feel exasperated and guilty for the desperate parenting that ensues in response their child’s defiance. Sometimes parents feel guilty because they believe they are to blame for their child’s defiant nature. Although some parents may make critical errors with an extremely passive parenting style, others are only to blame for their genetics. Research suggests that strong-willed temperaments are largely due to a genetic predisposition. This theory helps us understand the origin of the strong willed child’s behavior, but it does not help us know what to do in the everyday conflict with our children. Here are three principles to remember when interacting with your strong-willed child.
1. Choose your battles.
Some parents find themselves either always in a power struggle or always avoiding a confrontation with their child. Either extreme is the wrong approach. If you identify yourself as an extremist, perhaps you should choose ‘three mountains to die on.’ These three mountains are battles you are willing to figuratively die for. Make a conscious choice about what these three mountains are and always go to battle and win in these three areas. Ignore the rest of the battles by refusing to argue with your child about it. This exercise may help you realize that you are choosing the wrong battles. For example, some parents may choose safety as a mountain. Given that you have chosen safety as your mountain, you will have a discussion and perhaps consequences for your teenager who was caught walking alone at night in a bad part of town. On the other hand if this same teenager wants to listen to rock music with clean lyrics, you may decide this is not a battle worth fighting because it is not one of your three mountains.
2. Let your child have the last word because you get the last consequence.
Strong-willed children are very skillful at pushing parental anger buttons. In fact, if parents are ill-prepared they may make the mistake of lashing out at the child and destroying their spirit. This is done when parents use name calling or make statements that can harm the child, such as expressions of regret for having the child. Another common mistake parents make is to talk too much while debating their child, consequently shifting the focus to an enjoyable argument for the child rather than the need for good behavior. Rather than talking too harshly or talking too much, talk less and more quietly, and let the consequence make the impact. Following through with the consequence will adjust the child’s strong will, but keep their spirit intact.
3. Spend time consciously loving your child.
In the midst of all the conflict and limit setting, do not forget to intentionally love your child. Do not blend consequences with family fun time. Although your child needs consequences when they are overtly defiant, they also need your love and nurturance. Think about how your child experiences love from you and regularly give them love. Remember that consequences without love equals rebellion.
Chapman, G. & Campbell, R. (2005). The five love languages of children. Chicago, IL: Northfield Publishing.