by Bonny Osterhage
Eleven-year-old Courtney Baker was looking forward to going with her family to a friend’s house for dinner, when the plans changed and the families decided to eat at a restaurant instead.
“Courtney really lost it,” says her mother Catherine. “She pitched a huge, 2-year-old-like tantrum because she wanted to go to their house so she could play the Xbox.”
While that may sound like shocking behavior for an 11-year-old, it is extremely common behavior in strong-willed children. According to Theresa Moore, licensed master social worker and counselor, most children want what they want, when they want it and will try a variety of manipulative behaviors to get it. However, most children will usually choose to adapt when redirected and comply with the situation at hand – not so with the strong-willed child.
“This child does not reach a point of compliance. He will go down with the ship and take everyone with him,” says Moore.
Identifying the Strong-Willed Child
Since most children will try and get their way from time to time, how do you know if your child is strong willed or simply demonstrating normal behaviors? Moore says it is the inception and duration of those stubborn behaviors that can be a strong indicator.
“Most parents will tell you that their strong-willed child has been a ‘handful’ or ‘demanding’ since birth,” she says.
That was the case for Susan McElhaney. McElhaney says her second child was so stubborn from birth that he refused to speak until he was nearly 3 years old.
“We knew from birth he was strong willed,” McElhaney says of her now 9-year-old son. “He gave up a bottle on his own at 8 months, and he refused to potty train until he decided he wanted to wear underwear. Once he decided, he never even had one accident.”
This is a child who, when forced to do a required hour of reading homework, will simply hold the book for one hour, but not read a word. He lands in the principal’s office every week and has a difficult time maintaining friendships with his peers, says McElhaney.
“No one wants to play with someone who is always right or always has to have things his way. It’s sad because he is very sweet, generous, helpful and always the first to befriend someone new,” McElhaney adds. “He wants to be the guy who follows the rules; he just wants them to be HIS rules.”
Don’t Ask – Do Tell
The need to follow their own sets of rules and a disregard for authority are among the biggest challenges of parenting a strong-willed child. Author Leonard Sax, M.D. and Ph.D., writes about the challenges faced when parenting strong-willed children in his book “Why Gender Matters.” Sax says that often parents try too hard to be friends with their children, rather than establish a clear sense of who is in charge. He recommends a “positive discipline” approach for girls 12 and younger and boys 14 and younger. Positive discipline, Sax says is where parents “don’t ask, but tell!” Rather than make a suggestion or request, firmly outline what you expect and what the consequences will be for not following through, writes Sax.
Moore concurs, adding that the response to the strong-willed child must be more specific, immediate and consistent than with other personality types.
“All children need a consistent, predictable and clear structure to thrive, but the strong-willed personality does not have the same flexibility or adaptability to incorporate the lesson as quickly as some,” Moore explains. Therefore, she recommends employing a few of the following strategies:
- Avoid engaging in power struggles and emotional responses to behaviors,
- Be clear and concise about behavioral expectations,
- Use an even, calm voice when redirecting or providing information,
- Role-play personal choices and social situations before they occur,
- Never answer the same question more than once,
- Never enter a discussion or negotiation unless you are willing to negotiate,
- Never make excuses for, or ignore inappropriate behavior because you don’t want a scene,
- Never take your child’s behavior personally or make it about you and your parenting,
- Never be overly jubilant when your child behaves appropriately,
- Never expect your child to see the world the same way you do and
- Always be predictable and consistent with redirection and consequences.
McElhaney says the key to success with her son has been making sure he knows the boundaries in every situation. “Otherwise he will try to push them.”
So, she works hard to help him navigate personal relationships, gives him reasonable choices, and chooses her battles wisely. Both she and Baker have found that remaining calm works wonders.
“Standing above Courtney or raising our voices never, ever works,” Baker explains. “We have to use calm voices and sit with her at her level. Sometimes, I sit on the floor, bed or somewhere close to her and simply sit without saying a word until she calms down.”
The Good News
Parenting a strong-willed child is more challenging. First, there is the amount of time and patience involved before seeing any improvement, and second and even more significant, according to Moore, is the need for parents to understand their own personality strengths and weaknesses and what triggers their own “hot buttons.” Power struggles will occur if parents are not aware of what their own hot buttons are.
“It is important to understand that this child is not a problem child, he is a diamond in the rough,” says Moore. “There is the potential and opportunity for this child to become the adult we strive to be: compassionate, responsible and interdependent.”
That is why it is so important for the parents of these children to celebrate the little things like the day he comes home from school with no time-outs, or the time she accepts what you say without a fight. Yes, these rewards may be few and far between, but they are present and they must be observed and acknowledged.
For Baker, it is when her daughter identifies and apologizes for her behavior on her own.
“It’s when she comes to me and says, ‘I am sure you are not happy with how I acted,’ or ‘I really need to work on that mom,’” says Baker. “It’s when she actually sees what she has done, admits it, and then mentions a better way to handle it, that makes me feel like she’s going to be OK after all.”
Bonny Osterhage is a freelance writer and mother of two sons.