The Gift of a Strong-Willed Child
[Reprinted from The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline by L.R.Knost. Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood and Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages also available on Amazon and through other major retailers.]
There are some children who are born into the world with the incredible life-gift of a strong will and an indomitable spirit. These children are often deeply misunderstood, and there are rows of books lining bookstore shelves with instructions about how to break their will, how to subdue their spirit, how to force their obedience. What an incredible loss of leadership, passion, and insight this world suffers when parents follow these punitive parenting practices. Not only can we parent these gifted children with gentleness and respect, but the gifts we get in return are priceless!
Take a look at some of the common descriptions used when referring to the characteristics of a strong-willed child:
Demanding, Insistent, Stubborn, Bossy, Cocky, Difficult, Challenging, Fixated, Contrary, Rebellious, Defiant
Now look at some of the common characteristics of adults who are world leaders, CEO’s, entrepreneurs, innovators, world-class athletes, and the like:
Decisive, Determined, Persistent, Authoritative, Confident, Valiant, Gutsy, Committed, Resourceful, Nonconforming, Bold
Note that the characteristics are the same, but the characterizations are negative when applied to a child and positive when applied to an adult.
Other characteristics of strong-willed children that coincide with the characteristics of adult leaders in their fields are:
- They are typically highly creative and intelligent.
- They are usually passionate and intense in their interests and beliefs.
- They often have an insatiable need to know ‘why.’
- They typically learn by doing.
- They tend to have an intense need to test the status quo.
- They are typically highly perfection-oriented, but often that is focused on their expectations of themselves instead of others.
- They tend to need high levels of validation.
- They usually have an intense need to be heard.
- They often have a strong need for emotional safety.
- They tend to be resistant to change unless they feel like they have some control over the change.
- They are often highly sensitive.
- They are typically intensely focused on their latest project or interest.
- They tend to be conscientious and highly committed.
- They are usually intensely independent.
While there’s no doubt that it’s a challenge having a child who seems to challenge everything, there are ways to work with them rather than against them to preserve and nurture their unique gifts. Maintaining a healthy parent/child relationship is vital as you work to find a balance between setting limits with your richly spirited child while not limiting their freedom to stretch and grow and develop into the person they were created to be.
The key to preserving your trust relationship with your child is remaining calm and present and supportive, even while setting and maintaining reasonable boundaries. It is helpful to remember that the most strong-willed children tend to be the ones who identify the most strongly with their parents. So instead of viewing their seemingly constant challenges as defiance or attempts to thwart authority, work to parent from a place of understanding that your strong-willed child is actually on a discovery mission and is doing endless ‘research’ on you by testing and retesting and digging and chiseling to discover all of your quirks and foibles and ups and downs and strengths and weaknesses. This kind of testing isn’t negative unless you make it into a battle of wills instead of responding with gentle, respectful guidance. Taking this stance will help you to keep from seeing the challenges as personal insults and, instead, see the challenges as attempts to learn and grow and understand.
There is no doubt, though, that parenting a child with the gift of a strong will is a constant exercise in patience and self-regulation. The personal growth you will experience is invaluable as you seek to parent with empathy and wisdom and compassion, but it can be draining and will often stretch you far, far out of your comfort zone. Knowing that and being prepared for it will help you cope with the inevitable stresses, and being ready ahead of time with some specific strategies for handling the challenges will help you to respond calmly and effectively.
This is a good place to revisit the Three C’s of gentle discipline—Connection, Communication, and Cooperation.
Connection ~ Maintaining a secure connection with your spirited child is vital. It is the springboard from which all of your interactions with your child will originate, and it is the touchstone to which you will both return, again and again and again, when your relationship gets strained and stained and stretched.
- Play word games, board games, rough-and-tumble outdoor games, silly face in the mirror games. Play is the language of childhood, so make sure to speak your child’s language every day.
- Laugh together. Humor is an undervalued parenting tool. But it lowers defenses, inspires smiles, brings people together, and reconnects hearts.
- Read storybooks, chapter books, travel brochures, encyclopedias, anything that will inspire you to dream together, talk, plan, get excited, share interests.
- Focus more on who your child is than on what your child does. Remember, you’re growing a person, not fixing a problem. So make sure to spend time getting to know the person, not just the child. It doesn’t have to cost anything. Just walk together, talk together, share ice cream cones, spot shapes in the clouds, and enjoy each other.
Communication ~ Children have their own ‘inner world’ of thoughts and plans and problems and worries and hopes and dreams that are occupying their time and attention, so a lack of cooperation is often simply the result of having a different agenda than we do. Getting some insight into that ‘inner world’ is key in guiding and growing them respectfully.
- Listen with your heart. Listen ‘between the lines’ to what your child is communicating through their behavior. Listen and listen and listen some more. That is always, always the first step in communicating with your child.
- Reflect, connect, and redirect. Reflect what you hear, whether it’s communicated by your child’s behavior or their words. This not only validates their emotions and lets them know that you hear and understand them, but it also helps them to understand their own emotions. For instance, if your child is upset that he can’t have a cookie after brushing his teeth for bedtime, try saying, “I hear you. You’re upset because you want a cookie.” Then reestablish your connection, “I like cookies, too!” and offer a solution, “How about we go pick out the two best cookies and put them in a special container that we can take to the park in the morning?”
- Don’t take non-compliance as a personal insult. A strong-willed child is very much their own person with their own agenda. Focus on inviting cooperation instead of demanding obedience. Whether it’s staying in bed or cleaning up or whatever the issue, make it a team effort and come up with a game plan ahead of time. For example, you could say, “You seem to be having trouble staying in bed at night. What do you think would help you to be more ready to go to sleep when it’s time for bed?” or “It’s important to pick up our things so they don’t get broken, let’s put on the timer and work together for ten minutes and see who gets the most picked up.”
- Make a firm commitment not to resort to punishments to control behavior. The resentment that comes from being punished absolves children in their own minds of responsibility. It doesn’t teach them responsibility, and resentment can actually cause a lot of the behaviors you are trying to avoid.
- Communicate daily, outwardly to your child and inwardly to yourself, the positive aspects of your child’s personality. When the focus is on ‘fixing’ a child, they get the message that they are somehow broken, and that is not a healthy self-image to take into adulthood.
- ‘No’ is not a complete thought. It is an imperative, a command. It doesn’t teach. It tells. If you want your child to learn to think like an adult, take the time to explain your adult thinking.
- Remember that children, especially when they are upset, open ‘conversations’ through their behavior, and it’s up to us, the only adults in the relationship, to gently guide them toward continuing those conversations verbally as well as equipping them with the resources to be able to do so.
- Also keep in mind that the social mores of rudeness simply aren’t inborn and don’t apply to early interactions with our children. They are learned by imitating how we as parents behave. Politeness is a heart issue that cannot be imposed by the will of another unless we want it to only be an external façade instead of a heartfelt courtesy. Helping your strong-willed child learn to speak kindly means speaking kindly to your child as well as offering guidance when they’ve been rude such as saying, “That is not a nice tone of voice” or “That isn’t a kind thing to say” and then offering a do-over “Can you try saying that to me again more nicely? I’ll always try my best to be nice to you, and I would like you to try to do the same for me.” (see Appendix B in The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline for more ideas)
Cooperation ~ Always keep at the forefront of your parenting goals that you are seeking thoughtful cooperation, not mindless compliance. That way you will remember to treat your child as a thoughtful individual with ideas and needs and feelings of their own instead of a mindless drone there to do your bidding.
- Set clear limits and explain them in age-appropriate terms. Remember, if you want to invite cooperation, you have to actually issue the invitation to cooperate!
- Limit the number of limits. Spirited children are often stressed children simply because of their own intense emotions and reactions to things, so set them up for success by keeping your limits few and clear and by maintaining them consistently.
- Make sure to let your child have a voice in determining the limits so they feel like they have some control over their lives and so they feel some ownership over the limits.
- Brainstorm together ways of helping everyone to work together. Some ideas are to come up with hand signals or words that remain your little secret codes to indicate when it’s time to leave the park or to do homework or to dial the activity level or noise volume down a few notches.
- Invite cooperation by creating daily routines together. Don’t be surprised if your child ends up being the one who is a stickler for following the routine, even to the point of nagging you to follow it. These gifted children tend to be all-in, fully focused and committed, and they’ll expect you to be the same!
- Cooperate with your child’s needs and personality by working with them rather than against them. For instance, if you know that your child has a hard time leaving a project, give them plenty of time to find a good stopping point when you need them to leave it for a while. Or if you know that your child has a hard time following directions at bedtime, try writing or drawing the tasks that need to be done (i.e. toothbrushing, pajamas, etc.) on ping-pong balls and put them in a small ‘bedtime jar’ so your child can feel some control over their routine as they independently pick out the balls one by one for a ‘surprise’ nighttime order of tasks or take them all out and decide what order to do them in themselves.
- If you are already locked in a head-to-head power struggle, put away your boxing gloves so your child will (eventually!) feel safe putting away theirs. When you battle with your child, you may win a skirmish or two, but you will lose the treasure…your trust relationship. Putting away the gloves means slowing down, breathing through your own emotions, and finding a way to work through the issue together. Remember, you’re the adult in the relationship, but that doesn’t give you the right to overpower your child; it gives you the responsibility to empower your child. That involves modeling the tools of diplomacy—communication, cooperation, compromise—that you want your child to stock in their own emotional toolkit.
Remember, the children who come into the world with their ‘boxing gloves on’ so to speak are often the ones who become the biggest world changers. It’s not easy raising these little world-changers, I know (Believe me, I know. Two of my six are world-changers-in-the-making!), but the rewards are phenomenal!
Award-winnning author, L.R.Knost, is the founder and director of the children's rights advocacy and family consulting group, Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, and Editor-in-Chief of Holistic Parenting Magazine. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood ; Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages ; The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline ; and Jesus, the Gentle Parent: Gentle Christian Parenting the first four books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, and children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series.