How to Discipline Stubborn, ‘Unpunishable’ Children

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

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

Parents of strong-willed children have a unique set of challenges when it comes to discipline. Simple requests or reprimands quickly turn into power struggles where no amount of reasoning will cause them to give an inch. At these times, it can seem your child is “unpunishable,” and that might very well be the case. But when it comes to discipline — the system parents use to pass core values on to the child — punishment isn’t the main objective.

“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,” parenting educator Sharon Silver, founder of Proactive Parenting and author of Stop Reacting and Start Responding, says. In short, you can’t change who your child is, but you can make adjustments so that they have the opportunity to learn about who they are and be the best version of themselves within the boundaries you set.

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How do you create those boundaries? 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 your 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. Is your anger a one or full ten on the scale? How can you make yourself feel better? Do you need to breathe or take walk? Do you want to talk about it?’ This approach empowers the child and allows them to feel heard.” The more a child feels heard the more they will be willing to listen.

The next step 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.

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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 towards their aggressive behavior. That creates enemies in a conflict, and you’re not your child’s enemy.”

“As an adult who has learned safety and kindness and respect, it’s your responsibility to walk into the eye of the storm and come out the other side with your child,” Silver says. “Reassure them. Say, ‘I’m always here for you. I’m listening. I am your parent and nothing changes that.’ When you can’t control yourself and you are the authority in your child’s life then how can you expect them to control themselves?”

The key in those heated moments is to treat your child as an individual — a person with a developing personality that you are constantly impacting, but not in control over. It’s not forcing them to eat their vegetables or share their toys or do their homework. It’s about teaching them that they deserve to have the best for themselves, and choosing to eat their vegetable and share their toys and do their homework allows them to have the best for themselves. Hold in your mind what your job is here: To raise and teach a kid and encourage them to develop into good people who are capable of living a good life.

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