There is nothing more daunting than staring down your strong-willed child after asking them to do something. You know that you are headed for a power struggle. You know that there will be yelling, stomping of feet, and the need for some top level parenting. These moments often require some form of discipline but figuring out how to discipline a strong willed child can be baffling.
There are ways to handle all of the power struggles and arguments. But, before we jump into the topic of disciplining a strong-willed child, it is important to talk about parenting a strong willed child.
Parenting Strong-Willed Children
If you are parenting a kid who falls into the strong-willed category of children, then you know how stubborn, set in their ways, reactive and defiant they can be.
Hopefully, you also recognize the positive side of their strong-willed personality as well. They can have incredible drive and focus when they set their mind to a task or an opinion. They never just blindly follow along – they always ask why. (Think of how important this will be during their teenage years!) And, strong willed kids are great at speaking up for what they want and need.
Shifting Your Parenting Approach
When you learn to approach your child with all of their positive qualities in mind, it can really help you find more effective discipline strategies. And even more importantly, approaching your child from their strengths will reduce the need for discipline.
For example, if you were to simply ask a strong-willed child to stop playing on their device (when they were intently focused on the game they were playing) you would most likely end up in an all-out battle of wills. That child is not going to want to stop until they have won the round, saved their game, or some other “excuse” to not have to stop playing.
There are lots of parenting strategies that you could use in these types of situations including:
- Providing compelling distractions
- Choosing the right timing to ask your child to do things
- Using humor
- Teaching and using listening skills
Often one of the best ways of handling a strong willed child is to shift your parenting strategies. Stubborn kids require parents who are creative and flexible. If this is something that is tough for you, one great resource would be The Be Heard Method. This is a course on teaching kids to listen better that helps you also address your role in getting your kids to listen and comply. You can learn more about The Be Heard Method here.
How to Get Your Strong-Willed Child to Listen and Obey (so that you don’t have to figure out how to discipline them!)
Become a “Team” When it Comes to Rules
Because your child can get so focused on not just blindly following, and wanting to question authority, it is important to address as many issues as you can with a team-work approach. I have found it very helpful, with my own strong-willed son, to employ an almost corporate structure around how we negotiate issues.
For example, one of his favorite activities is playing video games. Because he gets so focused and intent on his games, it is easy for us to fall into power struggles, yelling, fighting, and the like anytime I need him to switch gears from playing on his device to doing anything else.
In the past when I tried to set rules without his input, they just didn’t work. Then, we would not only be fighting over putting his device down but also over why there was such a “stupid rule” and how “I’m not the boss of him.” Sound familiar?
What actually has worked much better is approaching him at a neutral time when he is able to focus and talk with me. I start by simply stating the issue that we are having being sure to include both sides.
For example, “We have been fighting a lot about your devices lately. I can see that spending as much time as possible on them is really important to you, but I am also worried that anytime I need you to put it down, we end up in a fight.”
After a simple statement like this, I ask him for his input on this issue, “What do you think about all of this? Can you share your concerns and frustrations about our fights around your devices?”
Make sure to really listen to what your child has to say. (The thing about strong-willed children is that they are super smart, and they will know if you are just placating them!)
After listening let your child know that you want to share your top concerns. Be brief and non-judgmental or overly emotional about this. (Again, think awesome corporate manager, not overbearing, mean boss.)
In this example, I would say something like, “I am concerned about your health since the doctor said you shouldn’t be spending more than 2 hours a day on devices and I really want to stop fighting when I sometimes need you to do certain things like come to the dinner table.”
After both sides have been stated, work together to brainstorm ideas. Really allow your child to think of solutions and ideas – don’t just automatically shut down what they say.
My son’s first suggestion was that he just be allowed to play whenever he wanted. If this happens, gently remind your child that this doesn’t quite solve the whole problem and remind them of your concern. And then, ask for other ideas.
Try to find a way to use your child’s suggestion as much as possible. The more that they can feel like they came up with the solution to the problem, the more onboard they will be with following through on the new “rule”.
Now, just to be totally real here, allowing your child to work with you to set up rules and guidelines for their behavior or activities, isn’t going to totally stamp out all fights and need for discipline with a strong-willed child.
My son does still occasionally get frustrated with the guidelines around his devices that we have set. When this happens, I am able to remind him that we agreed to this guideline, but instead of yelling at him or fighting with him about it, I am able to ask, do we need to set a time to readdress the rules and come up with some new ideas? This tends to diffuse the situation about 80% of the time. (Which is a win in my book when dealing with a strong willed child!)
You might find this article focused on setting screen time limits using this teamwork approach helpful.
Routines Help Ease Stubbornness
Another really important strategy to help you avoid the need for disciplining your strong-willed child is having routines, boundaries, and rules clearly defined and consistently followed.
For example, if you have a lot of trouble with issues around bedtime or around getting ready for school, then setting up a routine will help your child. You might even consider using a behavior chart to help keep expectations very clear.
Strong-willed children do really well with clear guidelines. They like order and knowing what to expect. They dislike chaos, the unexpected, and disruptions.
Using tools such as routine charts or checklists can be very helpful. They clearly set up the expectation while also taking the emotion out of the ask.
The key to using tools like charts and checklists is consistency. If you let it go for even a day or two, your strong-willed child will sense that there is room for negotiation and they will fight you on it.
One fun way to incorporate a routine checklist for a strong-willed child is to have a reward attached to completing the checklist. For example, if you have a bedtime checklist, the reward could be getting their bedtime story or a goodnight song.
For a morning routine, the reward could be that they are allowed to play on their device once they have checked everything off of their list.
Make sure to make the rewards small and easy to follow through on. Again, if you set rewards that you aren’t able to consistently provide, your child will not respect the system and will fight against it!
Positive Reinforcement works for Strong Willed Kids
One of the deepest needs for strong-willed children is to feel seen and heard. Because of this, positive reinforcement works like magic with them.
If you are consistently struggling with a particular issue with your child, try employing some positive reinforcement to turn the situation around.
For example, if you end up fighting every morning about putting on their shoes to go to school, spend a few minutes jotting down a list of every little action that your child could take that you could notice and say something positive about.
- Oh wow, you already have your socks on this morning – I bet getting to school is going to be so easy today!
- Hey, great job getting finding your shoes – I’m so glad you are thinking about where they are so that you will be ready to get to school on time today.
- Thanks for putting your shoes away in the shoe rack tonight, that will make it so much easier to find them tomorrow!
- Wait a second, did you go grab your shoes without me even having to ask this morning? That is awesome! Way to be responsible!!!
Finding as many times and small details as you can to praise will really reinforce the positive behavior (getting their shoes on in this case.)
In addition to using positive reinforcement for particular situations, I also find it really helpful to use as much praise as I can throughout the day. Think of it as a bucket – the more that you can fill your strong willed child’s bucket up with praise, the more loved, heard, and seen they will feel.
When your child feels heard, loved, and understood, they are much more willing to trust that you have good intentions and be willing to do what you ask.
No one likes to be constantly told what to do or be yelled at for doing things wrong. When you have to interact with someone who treats you this way, you tend to not be very agreeable and willing to do what they want. However, if you have someone who is your constant cheerleader and really champions your best interests, you will do just about anything they ask.
One tool that is really helpful to keep me focused on providing consistent positive reinforcement is my Kindness Jar. I have a kit available if you want to create one of your own.
The Kindness Jar has been an invaluable tool for me and my strong willed son when it comes to focusing on positive reinforcement. It also really helps me show him that I see him and appreciate him. You can check out the Kindness Jar Kit by clicking here.
One final strategy for avoiding the need for disciplining a strong-willed child is to use choices. Choices allow your child to feel like they have a say, that they have control. This is a vitally important need for strong-willed children.
Start practicing incorporating as many choices as you can throughout the day:
- We have to leave in 10 minutes, do you want to turn your device off now or in 5 minutes to get ready?
- It’s really cold out today, would you prefer to put your coat on or carry it?
- It’s almost time for bed, do you want to get ready now so that we can have a little extra storytime, or do you prefer to wait 5 more minutes and go straight to tuck-in?
- Do you want to brush your own teeth tonight or would you like some help?
- Would you prefer to help clear the table or wipe it down?
How to Discipline a Strong-Willed Child
Hopefully, by now you have seen that the best discipline strategy with strong-willed children is to avoid getting into situations where discipline is even needed!
If you find yourself in a situation where you do need to discipline your child, try using some of these same approaches: teamwork and choices can help you successfully discipline your child.
Disciplining with Teamwork
If your child has stepped out of line or is fighting you on an issue that needs to be addressed, approach the situation with the mentality of being a team. Let them know that the behavior isn’t acceptable, and you will need to work together to come up with a consequence.
For example, if your child broke their sibling’s toy during a yelling match, you could work together to come up with ideas for logical consequences to the situation.
Disciplining with Choices
You can also use choices to allow your child to feel like they still have some control of the situation. (Remember – control is one of the key needs for strong willed children. Rather than trying to wrestle control away from them, provide them with ways to find control so that they can function.)
For example, in the situation where your child broke their sibling’s toy, you could provide your child with a choice. Either write an apology letter to their sibling or use their own money to replace the toy that they broke.
Parenting a Strong-Willed Child with Love
Having a strong-willed child isn’t easy, but it can be so rewarding. You will be challenged daily (or hourly) to be the best parent you can be.
I find it helpful to really focus on gratitude when things get tough with my strong willed son. Reminding myself daily of all of the amazing things about him that I am thankful for, helps keep my mind in the right place.
Sending You Love and Light,
P.S. did you know that I have a free parenting resource library full of printables, worksheets, and guides to help you on your parenting journey?