How to Discipline Stubborn, ‘Unpunishable’ Children

You might not be able to control their behavior, but you do have control over what they learn.

Originally Published: 
sepia edit of a father trying to discipline a strong-willed child by speaking to her calmly about th...

Learning how to discipline a stubborn child or a child who won’t listen presents parents with unique challenges. Simple requests or gentle reprimands can collapse into power struggles, In those moments, parents may despair that their “hard-headed” child is simply “unpunishable.” And that might very well be the case. But it’s time to shift the paradigm. Discipline is about more than just getting kids to listen and obey — it’s a way for parents to pass their core values on to their kids. And when it comes to disciplining a stubborn child, punishment isn’t the main objective, setting boundaries is.

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The Key To Dealing With a Stubborn Child is Maintaining Authority

“If you have a strong-willed child who doesn’t listen, who doesn’t like boundaries, or who is combative about them, acknowledge that you have no control over their personality, but you do have control over how they learn,” says parenting educator Sharon Silver, founder of Proactive Parenting and author of Stop Reacting and Start Responding.

RELATED: 11 Long-Term Benefits of Discipline for Kids

According to Silver, the first adjustment you have to make is to be very clear that you’re not giving up your authority. “You are drawing a line in the sand and regardless of emotion, it cannot be crossed,” she says. “When your child throws a tantrum or gets angry or shouts at you or acts aggressively, show them where the line is. Be the adult and take control of the action in the situation. Say, ‘I see you’re really angry. How can you make yourself feel better?’ This approach empowers the child and allows them to feel heard.”

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The next step in making peace with a hard-to-discipline child is to set clear rules. “As a family, you need to sit down at a normal time — not during or after a conflict — and make umbrella rules,” Silver says. “These umbrella rules are three simple rules that act as a navigation bar and set up the boundaries for behavior that applies to everything: friendships, school, home life, and public behavior.” These three rules are to be safe, be kind, and be respectful. Make it clear to your child that if a behavior isn’t safe, kind, and respectful, it isn’t appropriate.

Model Changes You Want to See From Stubborn Kids

There’s a caveat: In order for these rules to be effective learning tools for your child, you must practice them, too. There’s a reason why the golden rule has stood the test of time. We treat others the way we are treated so, treating them the way you want to be treated ends the perpetuation of disrespect and conflict. “I like the idea of centering everything around being safe, kind, and respectful because it applies to everyone,” Silver explains. “If a child is screaming at you, ‘I’m not listening,’ or ‘I hate you,’ and you interject, you’re immediately in a power struggle. Don’t interject. Don’t yell. Don’t act aggressively toward their aggressive behavior. That creates enemies in a conflict, and you’re not your child’s enemy.”

The key in those heated moments is to treat your child as an individual. They’re a person with a developing personality that you’re constantly impacting, but ultimately, you don’t have control over it. Remember what your job is here: it’s not forcing them to eat their vegetables or share their toys or do their homework. It’s to raise and teach a kid with the skills to be good to themselves and others.

Read more of Fatherly’s stories on discipline, punishment, and behavior.

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