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How to Parent a Strong-Willed Child

Stop the power struggle, and help them use their determination in positive ways.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a clinical definition for a strong-willed child. Most kids go through a defiant phase. For some kids, defiance and disruptive behavior are related to disorders like Oppositional Defiant Disorder or brain differences like Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. But, whether it’s a phase, a personality trait, or something more complicated, disruptive and stubborn behavior from a so-called strong-willed child can wear any parent down. So how do you parent a strong willed child? It can help if parents consider how the traits of the child, appropriately managed, can be beneficial to a kid’s future.  

Being Strong Willed is a Childhood Strength

Parents have plenty of influence on a child’s behavior. Less so on a child’s personality. But when parents focus on helping a strong-willed child’s behavior become productive, they can grow to become determined and loyal adults. But it requires the self-awareness to understand their emotions and build the capacity to empathize with others. 

“Parents, teachers, and mentors can concurrently strengthen a child’s ability to remain strong-willed by encouraging him or her to speak openly about emotions and think of healthy strategies to cope when things do not go their way,” explains Dr. Leela R. Magavi, M.D., a Johns Hopkins-trained child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist and Regional Medical Director for Community Psychiatry + MindPath Care Centers. 

Your strong-willed child has the potential to help others push through difficult times and see challenges through to the end. That tenacity packs a ton of potential if paired with teamwork and the ability to adjust to changing circumstances.  

“Parents have the capacity to bolster their child’s sense of autonomy, confidence, and resilience. Genetics and temperament may significantly affect a child’s emotional attunement and ability to remain strong-willed, yet flexible,” Dr. Magavi says.

How Do You Teach A Strong-Willed Child Flexibility?

Even seemingly inconsequential interactions allow family life to function as a learning lab for flexibility. Opportunities for compromise abound. Parents can model what it looks like to listen to others and validate their feelings.

“Families can practice voting on what to eat for dinner or what to watch on television, so children can understand the importance of prioritizing everyone’s opinions and beliefs. Everyone in the family may vote for tacos for dinner, while dad votes for pizza; this is a perfect time to explain that if someone has a different opinion, this does not make them a bad person,” says Dr. Magavi. “These themes intersect with equally important lessons such as sharing and embracing differences.”

Granted, there will be significant challenges along the way. A strong-willed kid can be argumentative, flat-out defiant, and is guaranteed to blow up your schedule from time to time. There’ll be times when your instinct is to fight fire with fire, but Dr. Magavi warns that simply trying to assert your authority isn’t likely to help things. 

‘If parents respond with anger or threaten to withdraw love, children mold and respond in the same way and begin to mistrust their environment and primary source of comfort,” she says.”I encourage parents to listen to their children’s feelings and positively reinforce compassionate and prosocial behaviors. When parents remain calm and ignore negative behavior, tantrums and egocentric behavior begin to resolve.”

All of which is easier said than done. 

How Can Parents of a Strong-Willed Child Manage Their Stress?

If you’re going to model the patience and flexibility you want to see from your child, you may need to put yourself in timeout. Not as a punishment, but to allow yourself the time and space to recharge. Finding something positive to focus on and utilizing tools that improve your overall mental health, clear your mind and lengthen your fuse. 

“Exercising and practicing mindfulness techniques could help individuals decrease ruminative thinking,” suggests Dr. Magavi. “Meditation and yoga help release stress, and establishing a sleep routine could help individuals improve their ability to sustain attention and remain productive.” 

And don’t feel as though you have to do all this on your own. Dr. Magavi notes that relying on people outside of your home can help you create a support system and maintain a healthy perspective. 

“Conversing with family or friends could help parents process their emotions,” she says. “Parents may benefit from joining support groups or speaking with a pediatrician or child psychiatrist to understand how to better navigate parenting concerns.  And some people find it helpful to contact a community or religious leader.”

Bouncing your experiences off of other people may even help you find humor in your child’s defiance. Kids can be funny when they’re irrational. And laughter, as long as you’re not laughing at your kid or in front of them, can be a great salve.