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Solutions for Parenting Your Strong-Willed, Stubborn Kid

Parenting tips for power struggles with strong-willed children

Published on: January 17, 2020

stubborn siblings

Strong-willed kids are gifts to the world — future leaders, artists and activists who won’t let pesky things such as authority and the status quo deny them their dreams. But this ironclad will presents unique challenges for those raising them.

In other words: buckle up!

More often than not, I utter the words, “I’m grateful for my strong-willed child,” as a desperate mantra against losing my you-know-what. I strive to be a positive, nurturing parent, but it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture when we’re running late (again), he won’t put on his flippin’ shoes (again) and he’s now lying on the dog, freshly adorning his clean clothes with long white hair… 

Last month at forest preschool pickup, my son started to climb an embankment, searching for a lost stick.

“You mean this stick?” I asked, gesturing to the one strapped to his backpack.

“No, no, no! My special stick! I lost it!”

“Okay, have a look and then we’ll go home for lunch.”

He looked, unsuccessfully, so I (not dressed to be scrabbling through the dirt) went up to help. No stick. Well, actually there were a lot of sticks, just not the “special” stick, which I began to suspect was mythical.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart, it’s not here. Take my hand — it’s time to go home.”

Well, that was clearly the MOST WRONG AND AWFUL THING TO SAY. He exploded into tears: “Noooo!!!! I want my stick!!!” I tried consoling him, but he wanted a stick that wasn’t there, and he wasn’t going anywhere until he found it.

Meanwhile, the afternoon group hiked away and the rest of the parents left with their cooperative children, casting empathetic and relieved (it wasn’t their kid) looks in our direction.

Soon the forest was deserted and silent but for my son’s caterwauling. It was cold and, insultingly, it started to rain. I tried to be sympathetic:

“Honey, I’m sorry we can’t find your stick, but remember, you have all those other sticks at home.”

“Nooooooooooooo!!!!!”

Everything was going downhill, except for my son.

“Look, I’m cold and it’s time to go home. Come with me now.”

“Nooooooooooooooo!!!!!”

“You come with me or there’s no TV tonight.”

“NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!”

I started to walk away (obviously, not really walk away, but I pretended, hoping that he would follow me.) It worked until someone came along walking their dog, and, not wanting them to think I was abandoning my child in the woods, I turned around. He scooted right back up the damned hill.

I played my final card, and I’m not proud of what it was.

“I guess we’ll have to call Papa.”

That worked, but then he refused to walk back to the car, so I actually had to follow through.

“He won’t come? He has to come!” My husband couldn’t see the problem, since he would have simply hoisted the munchkin over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. But 1) I have a shoulder injury and my son weighs 50 pounds and 2) he weighs 50 pounds. I explained this to my husband and he said, helpfully, “What do you want me to do?” Awesome.

I handed over the phone: “Talk to him!”

Suddenly my son was all smiles and happily walking back to the car.

What … just … happened?

Did he listen to his dad because he wasn’t physically there? Who knows? But I wanted to know how I could have handled the situation differently, so I turned to the oracle that is Google to learn some tips.

Pause

As soon as my son started to resist, I showed up to that power struggle with bells on. Forcing myself to pause and take a deep breath (or several) before reacting emotionally would have given rational thought a chance. My obvious irritation only fed the conflict.

Offer win/win solutions

Strong-willed kids respond when we strive to work with them, instead of in opposition to them. They have an innate, burning need to continually test boundaries, and one of the ways they do this is when we give them straightforward directives (“Take my hand — it’s time to go home.”).

If (when) something like this happens again, I’ll try, “It’s time to go home for lunch. Would you like to leave now or in five minutes?” He could save face by choosing and I might get him to come home. At the very least, five minutes would pass in which we weren’t entrenched in a power struggle.

Reflect and empathize

I sympathized, “I’m sorry we can’t find your stick,” but it would have been more helpful to reflect and empathize: “I can see you’re really sad. It’s hard when we lose things we care about.” Minimizing the importance of the stick by referring to how many he already owned invalidated my son’s feelings (i.e., chucked fuel on the fire). He needed to know that I understood where he was coming from and that it was okay to feel that way.

Emphasize teamwork

Being respected and valued as part of a team motivates strong-willed kids to cooperate. The opposite happens when we give ultimatums or threats, which only weaken trust and damage connection. I could share the problem-solving responsibility: “It’s time to go home for lunch. How can we help get you down and feeling better?”

Setting and maintaining important limits for my son while respecting his overwhelming need for autonomy isn’t easy, but it will be worth it in the long run. I’m getting better at pausing and responding instead of reacting, which keeps conflict (mostly) at bay. Some days, especially when we’re on a tight schedule or I’m tired, my attempts at being a rock of serenity can’t quite squelch my roiling pit of frustration. And that’s okay. I do my best (which is all we can ever do) and he knows he’s loved.

There are always bedtime snuggles and the promise of a fresh new day (and sticks!) tomorrow. And, there is wine.

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