In the previous post, I discussed what a strong-willed child is and What Doesn’t Work with them. It’s important to remember that being strong-willed does not make a child “bad” just like it doesn’t mean that a parent is bad either. Every child is unique, so it’s all about finding the verbiage and behaviors that help you to help them express themselves.
10 Tips for Raising a Strong-Willed Child
What Does Work:
1. Gain their attention
Many parents who have a strong-willed child wonder if their child has ADD/ADHD. They seem easily distracted and it can be a struggle to get through to them. This could be true or not. Please talk with your pediatrician or physician if this (or anything) is a concern. I am not a Doctor and will not diagnose. But I would like to share something that helped my son.
I can freely admit my frustration as it seemed like my son was ignoring me at times. This regrettably led me to lose patience (and my cool). Once I take a step back and really watch my son, I can see that by the time I have finished my first sentence, there are times he has already checked out. His mind is already on something else and he isn’t even aware that I have been trying to still talk with him.
It’s important to get your child to focus on you and for you to fully gain their attention. We do this by saying, “I need you to look at me with your eyes and listen with your ears.” He enjoys grabbing each ear and “clicking” them “on.” A strong-willed child, especially at the age of 2, is not equipped to listen to a long, drawn out lecture. Think bullet points, nicely short and sweet, and they’ll stick with him, as well as even remember and put into practice whatever you needed to say.
And try to get to their level. Crouch down so that he or she can look directly into your eyes. Or pick them up. Standing above them might reinforce your authority, but that’s exactly what pushes away a strong-willed child.
2. Give Choices
One of the biggest tools in your arsenal is simply making your child believe that they are actually in control. I mean it. Ask pointed questions to let him feel in charge of his or her life, but make sure the options are things you are already okay with. For example, when it’s lunch time, don’t ask him “What would you like for lunch?” It’s too broad of a question and could result in a temper tantrum once he asks for something you don’t have. Instead, give 2 choices that you’re willing to make, “Would you like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or grilled cheese?”
This also helps when there is something that they need to do (but aren’t doing it). For too long, the struggle to get our son to do something he’s told would turn into a long, drawn-out saga, escalating from my asking him nicely to him yelling “No” and me fighting to keep him in his time-out chair. There would be threats in there of “If you don’t pick up your toys by the count of 3 then…” and crying and yelling from both sides. Not pretty. Not constructive.
Realizing that part of this was his temperament, I started giving him choices here too. This was as simple as staying calm and saying, “You get to choose. You can either pick up your toys like Mommy asked OR you can sit in time-out.” (Let me add that he is still held responsible for picking up his toys after the time-out. Sitting in solitude away from anything fun is a big motivator for my son.) Another instance is “You can either let me change your diaper OR you can get ouchies on your hiney.” Sometimes I have to remind him of past times when I’ve learned of a messy diaper too late and he’s gotten a rash. (Your child might be different, but mine is very sensitive down there.)
Smile. Okay, so I know that there is a difference between parent and child, but think about other relationships. Who do you want to be around? Someone warm, friendly, and inviting? Or someone who is constantly nagging, yelling, or barking orders at you? What was the draw to your partner? I met my husband after he tossed a candy bar at me. I looked around to see where it came from, and there he was smiling at me. He was so cute, I just had to know what he was all about. Our kids want us to smile at them too!
I challenge you to make it a point to have your children “catch you” smiling at them. I couldn’t believe how many times I wasn’t actually smiling at my son! We would laugh as we played, but there was countless times where I just wasn’t showing him how happy I am to be around him! It’s sobering to observe. Now that I’m aware and smile at him more, I’m thrilled to see how many times he smiles at me! It’s contagious!
4. Keep Things Positive
Try to put a positive spin on everything you can. The tone of your voice can make a difference to a strong-willed child. Remember that they will react to however they’re treated. You yell, they yell. You talk sweetly, they talk sweetly. Model to them whatever behavior you would like them to repeat.
And because they are incredibly determined, if you have to derail their plan, try to explain why to help them understand before they have a chance to lose their cool. Or at least give them a plan they can count on. My son has always struggled with times he needs to sleep. Whether you believe in cry-it-out, hug-it-out, co-sleeping or whatever, sleep can be a difficult time for a child who has his own plan. And the word difficult is putting it nicely. But if he feels included in the changes and is aware of what will be expected, it helps.
What helps has been giving him a frame of reference. “Right now is snack-time, then it will be time to change your diaper and get pajamas on, then time to read books, then time for bed.” Each time we complete a task, I give him some positive affirmation for listening and obeying, and then remind him what’s left on the agenda. He likes to know what to expect.
7. Identify Triggers and Adjust
Another example is when he needs to have his diaper changed. This is a GINORMOUS trigger for my son. Let’s take a walk in his strong-willed shoes for a moment…
You’re two years old. You’re playing with your trains, just zooming along, having a blast in your own little world. Then all of a sudden your Mom comes along and says it’s time to change your diaper. What you really hear her saying is that you have to stop playing with your trains. Then you panic, thinking that you might not see your trains again; after all, you have to go to a completely different room to have your diaper changed. And you remember times in the past when she sneakily had you take your nap right after changing your diaper since you were already in your room. As these feelings boil within you, they spill over into a temper tantrum as words don’t come easy in the moment.
It’s not easy for the child. And it certainly isn’t easy for the parent. Something that should only take 1-2 minutes turns into a drawn out process when it really could be handled quite simply. All my son needs to hear is “We’re gonna change your diaper and then you can go right back to playing.” That’s it. The guarantee that he can play (or eat or whatever he was doing) some more. That’s all he needs. Easy-peasy.
8. Big Helpers
Another way to keep things positive is to remind him or her that you need their help. “Can you help me pick up your toys? Can you be a big helper and hang up your coat?” My strong-willed son loves feeling independent and enjoys having responsibilities. Remember that these are children who want to feel in control. Giving them something they can control makes them feel understood and appreciated when they receive thanks. Involve your child in everyday chores.
- We took a couple of bars out of a Swiffer sweeper and let him clean our hardwood floors
- He also assists in emptying the dishwasher (after I’ve removed knives, of course)
- He enjoys dusting, especially the legs of dining room chairs (that I dislike doing myself)
- There are always shredded pieces of his dog’s toys for him to pick up and throw away
- Bed-making (and picking up any stuffed animals that fell off the bed) is easy for toddlers to do
9. Understanding Feelings
I know I’ve written about it in other posts, but if you need some help in assisting your child with their feelings, it’s worth it to check out “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” on PBS. (Episodes are also on Amazon Prime.) Normally I wouldn’t encourage TV for young children, but the benefits of this show for children AND parents is staggering.
“Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” talks about feelings in a way that helps kids understand what’s going on with them. If you can learn the songs and sing them at applicable times, you’ll not only be helping your child identify their feeling, but also walking them through it. A lot of outbursts (read: temper tantrums) are moments when their emotions are bigger than their vocabulary. The more you normalize it and give coping mechanisms, the fewer the times they will lose their cool.
We’ve worked on this with my son, and while there are still outbursts, he’s able to let me know when he’s angry, frustrated, mad, sad, disappointed, excited, and jealous. He’s learned to take deep breaths or count to 4 or give himself a hug to calm down. I owe a lot to Mister Rogers’ vision and rebirth of his “Neighborhood.”
Combine this tip with the first one mentioned, “Gain their attention,” and you’ll have your strong-willed child sorting through their feelings, and he or she will be navigating around their own temper tantrum themselves.
10. Additional Tips
While I’m sure a child behavior therapist or expert with a Ph.D. could add more to this topic, these are some tips that have been invaluable to me. It’s also worth mentioning that children should have a regular sleep schedule and balanced meals. Some outbursts are avoided if you plan ahead. Keep a snack on hand to help a child not get hangry. Make plans at times that allow for him or her to get in a nap.
And try not to be too hard on yourself. Oh, the tears I have shed taking tantrums personally or thinking that I’m a terrible mother. Hang in there. It’s not always easy, but it is definitely worth it. Treasure each hug, kiss, and “I Love You” and remind yourself of them when it gets rough. And don’t forget to look back at how far you’ve come after trying out these tips and seeing what works. You’ll be encouraged.
What tips do you have that weren’t mentioned? What chores do you have your child do? Let me know in the comments below!