Some kids are just easier than others.
They appear to come out of the womb knowing how to say “please” and “thank you.” They rarely cause any trouble. They never make a scene in public. They do whatever their parents ask of them.
As much as you may dream of having a child who fits this description, the truth is that these people-pleasing behaviors are often predictors of long-term behavioral struggles like codependency.
In fact, strong-willed children who are the opposite of “easy” can grow up to be extremely well-adjusted adults—provided they have the right support from their parents along the way.
Autonomy: The Lifeblood of a Strong-Willed Child
If you’re a parent to a strong-willed child, then you already know what a rollercoaster ride it can be.
That’s because for a strong-willed child, exercising their autonomy is as important as getting food, water, air, and sleep. When their autonomy is threatened, they literally feel like you’re removing one of their critical needs.
That unmet need is so strong that it gives rise to incredible emotions that they, as kids, don’t yet know how to manage.
This desire for autonomy is why bed or bath time can feel like a full-fledged power struggle. It’s why your kid will insist on wearing boots to bed until they’re red in the face. It’s why they just can’t seem to take “no” for an answer.
Autonomous children want to be in charge of themselves—and Mom and Dad are always trying to get in the way!
So, how do you manage a strong-willed child without driving yourself up a wall?
How to Parent a Strong-Willed Child
Stop caring about what anyone else thinks.
Parents of strong-willed children often feel embarrassed by their kids’ behavior, especially in public. They buy into the troubling assumption that well-behaved children “shouldn’t” do this to their parents.
It’s important to remember that no kid is inherently bad. They’re not “bad” when they speak their mind, and they’re not “bad” when they react in ways you may not understand.
No parent wants to feel judged. But your fears about how people view your strong-willed child are probably more in your head than anything. And if that’s not the case, it may be time to surround yourself with more understanding people!
Stop worrying about what other people will think of you or your child. What’s important is that your kid feels seen, heard, and loved—whether they fit into society’s traditional mold or not.
Learn to manage high emotions.
Young kids don’t have the tools or experience to manage their emotions. So when your autonomous toddler emphatically insists on pushing all the elevator buttons on the way up to your apartment, it’s not really their fault!
As parents, we must remember what’s developmentally appropriate for our children. If your kid can’t even properly communicate what they’re feeling yet, how can you expect them to control their outbursts?
That said, if you’re dealing with an older child in the throes of intense emotions, give them space to feel what they’re feeling and engage with them compassionately.
Observe extreme behaviors.
If your kid is flying off the handle at the slightest provocation, it may be a sign that there’s a deeper problem aside from just being strong-willed.
Is a peer at your child’s school causing them distress?
Is something in their environment causing an allergic reaction or an irritation in their nervous system?
The brain has no pain receptors, so the only way we know it’s irritated is through behavior. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help if you need it.
Give your child the freedom they crave.
An autonomous child can be so strong-willed and self-determined that they’re misunderstood as defiant. But what they really crave is an ounce of independence at an age where they have very little control over their lives.
Find opportunities to give your autonomous child the freedom they desire. Eating dinner may not be up for discussion. But you can still give them an element of choice in what they eat. Allow them liberty to strike against eating broccoli—as long as they’ll eat kale instead!
Begin questions with “would you be willing to?”
Finally, a tip I like to give parents is to start questions with, “Would you be willing to…?” when asking an autonomous child to do something. You’ll be surprised at just how much your strong-willed child is willing to do when they have a simple choice in the matter.
Raising a strong-willed kid is a challenging but ultimately rewarding experience. Autonomous children often grow up to be strong, capable adults who positively impact the lives of those around them. Keep doing your best to help them get there!
Love and Blessings,
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A 3xTEDx speaker, media contributor, parenting coach, and a mom of two - helping families thrive by using the Guidance Approach to Parenting.