Strong-willed children are often maligned owing to how difficult they are for parents and other authority figures to manage; frequently labelled as disruptive, unruly, or “difficult,” these children also typically possess a range of untapped gifts. When appropriately nurtured, these spirited young people often grow up to be great leaders and visionaries—possessing a great deal of creativity, passion, and drive—but conversely, when harshly disciplined, they can turn into deeply troubled and rebellious individuals. Many gifted children are strong-willed and, as gifted children perceive the world very differently than their parents, it often leads to confrontations.
At the heart of the negative bias against strong-willed children lies the unrealistic expectation that young people ought to be inherently obedient and compliant; words like “assertive” and “stubborn,” for example, automatically take on a negative connotation when the subject is a two year old child but are seen as admirable qualities when the subject is an adult executive. Many children are still victims of outdated ideas from centuries past when young people were expected to be “seen and not heard” and to never question their elders. In short, they were often given little room to act in accordance with their individual natures.
How To Develop A Healthy Relationship With Your Strong-Willed Child
There’s no doubting the fact that strong-willed children can be overwhelming at times; their intelligence fills them with a need to challenge authority figures, their creativity makes them expert negotiators, and they frequently demand a great deal of attention and validation. They can also be hard on themselves: Their innate perfectionism can result in a fragile self-esteem and make them more prone to depression and anxiety. Though these multifaceted children may appear bossy, independent, and self-assured, they remain in need of gentle guidance and empathy.
The secret to managing the extremes inherent in parenting a strong-willed child is learning how to create balance: Parents need to foster trust and allow their independent child the freedom she needs to express herself, while also setting healthy limits and boundaries. Strong-willed children are, after all, still children, and all children need boundaries in order to feel safe and secure.
Calmness is essential to maintaining this balance; parents who are reactive and judgemental will invariably escalate negative situations and bring out their child’s more defiant aspects. Additionally, being intelligent, these children will often learn how to play on a reactive parent’s emotions and attempt to manipulate situations so that they get their own way. (Note that while this sounds negative, at base, it’s not; these children are not malicious, they are simply testing the world around them and the people in it in order to gain understanding.)
As difficult as balance can be to achieve, parents who successfully master the art of parenting a strong-willed child often report that the experience causes them to grow profoundly as people—and say that they wouldn’t change their child for any reason. However, a little preparation goes a long way when trying to effectively parent a child who is spirited and independent; if you’re looking for guidance on how to nurture a strong-willed child while also keeping a stable and healthy home, try implementing the strategies outlined below:
– Focus on the “Three C’s”. Connection, Communication, and Cooperation form the core tenets of dealing with a spirited child—the moment she feels invalidated, ignored, or as though you are her adversary, she is likely to rebel. Practice techniques like compassionate curiosity (investigating your child’s feelings with acceptance and empathy, even when her behaviour is difficult, to uncover her motivations) and active listening (reflecting what you hear from your child and allowing her to confirm or deny it), in addition to simply investing a lot of quality “one on one” time into the relationship. Likewise, when your child is behaving poorly, make sure to avoid labelling her or treating her like a problem to be “fixed;” focus on reprimanding the behaviour itself and explaining why it can’t be permitted.
– Don’t take your child’s rebellious nature personally. Disobedience from a strong-willed child is not meant to be a personal insult, so it shouldn’t be taken as such; your child is simply trying to assert herself and has strong opinions on how situations should be handled. Reacting defensively when confronted with a difference in opinion will make the conversation take on an adversarial tone and your child will become less receptive to your point of view, so it’s essential to take a deep breath and attempt to invite cooperation. Ask your child why she’s having difficulty obeying a particular rule and then request suggestions for how you could help her adhere to it (or offer to pitch in and assist her in completing the task she’s struggling with).
– Calibrate consequences to teach responsibility, not control behaviour. Children who feel “punished” often become resentful and unwilling to change, so using harsh disciplinary measures to curtail unproductive behaviour is likely to backfire. Instead, you should give your child the opportunity to work on her behaviour (such as by saying, “That action obviously hurt your sister’s feelings; what do you think you could do differently next time?” or “How could I help you and your sister be nicer to each other? We’re all happier when we get along.”) You should also try to model honest, accountable, kind, and genuine behaviour as children learn appropriate behaviour primarily through observing their parents. Finally, while limits are important, you should try to impose only those limits which are truly necessary (too many rules and regulations will fetter and overwhelm a spirited child) and you should discuss these limits with your child so she feels as though she has a voice in determining how they are implemented. Create household routines together and keep them consistent.
– Don’t be afraid to get creative. If your child is struggling to adhere to a rule, try thinking “outside the box” and engaging her active mind when creating a solution to the issue. If she quickly gets bored of doing the same routine of chores in the evening, for example, you can write down the names of various chores on slips of paper and then have her close her eyes and draw one or more slips out of the jar so that the job she gets (e.g. sweeping the floor, helping with the dishes) will be a surprise each night.
Though it will take patience and perseverance, it’s essential to remember that the key to helping a strong-willed child flourish is to empower her rather than trying to overpower her. By modelling good behaviour and encouraging her to develop compassion and empathy for others, you will teach her how to use her strength productively and positively.