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How to Manage Your Strong Willed Child (and it starts with you!)

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Strong willed kids.

When you put the words “strong willed” together with the word “kid,” it can strike fear into the hearts of parents everywhere. However, it doesn’t have to. While strong willed kids (SWK) can be a challenge, they can also be an incredible blessing.

I have one child who I thought was a SWK and while he has many of those tendencies, I will admit that I never knew what a true-blue SWK was until I had #7. As soon as he was old enough to sit up, you could find him thrusting himself backward, banging his head on the ground when something frustrated him or when he didn’t get his way, and screaming, rolling around, thrashing, kicking…he did and continues to do it all.

He is 18 months now and continuing to show his extreme dislike for things in a variety of ways. Life with him is always an adventure for sure.

The cool thing about a SWK is that you can’t make them do anything – which means that no one else can either. If you have a SWK who is younger, picture what life will be like with them when they are a teen. By that time you will have figured out several ways to manage and love your SWK in a unique way, but since his or her peers won’t have any of these skills up their sleeve they won’t be able to convince your SWK to do anything. Generally speaking, your SWK will not be pushed around by anyone. Your SWK won’t get caught up in anything that is not of their choosing.

Strong willed kids are generally secure in who they are, even if it is only who they think they are, and they are generally kids and people who know what they want. If you have a SWK, I think you know just what I mean.

While all of these things and many more can pose a bit of a problem for you as a parent, they are all part of what makes your SWK unique. While all SWKs share certain commonalities, they certainly are all unique, too.

Again I will say that I am far from a parenting expert, but I have gained a few tricks over the years. In fact, some of these tricks are from my mom since I have one sister who was a SWK, too. The years have taught me a few things that can be helpful when navigating the waters of living with a SWK. As with anything, I continue to learn new things as a parent every day, and my SWKs are some of the best teachers.

So, what have I figured out over the years? Here are some tricks I have found to be useful if I keep them up my sleeve. It is good to have a rather big bag of tricks, too, since SWKs like to feel as though they are the ones in control. As soon as they feel you have “figured them out,” they are going to do everything within their power to become a mystery again. I like to refer to this bag of tricks as something that will keep them guessing.

Here is how you can manage your strong willed kid…and how it has everything to do with you!

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Give them choices

Again, this comes back to their desire to control. Don’t give them too many choices, however, because this will only frustrate them, which is one of the things you are trying to avoid. I find two choices to work well. As the parent, you decide on two separate options that would be acceptable to you regarding an issue, and then you let your SWK choose between the two. Because you have determined ahead of time that both would be fine with you no matter which choice they make, it truly does not matter. They win – you win.

Give them independence by watching from afar

Your kids need to be supervised, they need to be parented, they need to be monitored and all of that, but much of this you can do from afar. You want to be stealth in your monitoring, developing some ninja tricks to be completely aware of their comings and goings as you would with kids who are not strong willed, but you are going to be much more disguised with your SWK. Don’t hover, don’t nag, and don’t ride your SWK. They don’t want to feel as though you are babysitting them. They like control, remember? They also like independence, but this can be perceived independence because you are keeping track of them from afar whenever possible.

Suggest, don’t demand

So often, it is all in how you say something and what you say (and what you don’t say) with your SWK. Keeping in mind their desire to control, it is much more effective to make a suggestion, make an observation, or to offer a quick thought than it is to make a demand about something. State your suggestion and then follow with a, “What do you think about that?” or, “What do you think would be a good plan here?” Again, you’re giving them perceived control because in reality, they may not want to come up with a plan and throw the ball back in your court. The difference here is that they’ve given you the ball of control, you’ve not just taken it.

Less is more

Less truly is more with SWKs isn’t it? Talk less, plan less, monitor less, nag less, do everything less in an attempt to avoid frustrating them. Of course these things need to be done…the talking, planning, instructing and so on, but as the parent of a SWK, you just have to be more calculated in what you choose to take on and how you choose to take it on. Just remember as a general whole, less is more with a SWK. Keeping this in the forefront of your mind at all times in dealing with your SWK will help you choose a better path right off the bat.

Choose your battles

This brings me to my next point. Choose what battles really matter and what ones really don’t. My other kids don’t go to battle with me on every issue whereas my two SWKs almost always do. Decide what truly matters to you. If you are a controlling person like I am, this can be even more of a challenge. I like things done my way. I like order, I like organization, and I love a well thought out plan that comes to fruition. As the parent of SWKs, however, it has to be more about what works for them than it is about how I like things to be done.

Change how you perceive your SWK

It can be difficult, but in the beginning of this post I cited some really great things about SWKs. I will also say that my two SWKs are my most affectionate, concerned, and intuitive kids…when they want to be. Don’t lose sight of the incredible gift that you have in your SWK because this shift in perspective is worth its weight in gold. When you perceive your SWK from a positive viewpoint, you will be a better parent to your SWK. Period. Not always easy, I get that, really I do. However, it will be so beneficial to see your SWK through a positive lens every day.

Change you

Remember how I said that I like control, order, and all of that? I also like to follow rules. I like consistency, and I like congruency. These are all things about me that I’ve had to learn to surrender in dealing with my SWKs much of the time. Try as hard as I may, I can’t control my SWKs and I certainly can’t change them, but I can change the things about me that are only aggravated by the things that my SWKs do that are the opposite of these things. Change you. Change your need to control…you want to guide them not control them. Repeat with me…you want to guide them not control them. Good stuff right there. Repeat as often as necessary 😉

Change how you see parenting

So often as parents we feel that we are in a battle. It is us against them. However, we are not in battle, although our SWKs like to make us feel like we are in an all-out war almost every day. The thing is, battles need to have a winner and a loser. This is not so in parenting, especially in parenting a SWK. Before engaging in anything that resembles a fight of any kind, ask yourself, “Is it worth it?” Maybe a different question to ask would be, “Does this really matter?”

The other day on Instagram I posted a picture of my 18 month old eating breakfast in his pajamas that day. The rule in our house is that kids are dressed and have a few chores done before they eat. So, why was he eating in his pajamas? Because in that context, on that day, in that situation, I had decided that fighting him to get dressed before breakfast wasn’t worth it.

While he won’t always be eating in his pajamas, a big hurdle to overcome in that situation is to remember that I don’t need to “win” when it comes to how he eats breakfast. That day, I let him choose.

That day, he needed me to take into account his mood, his natural temperament, and his desire, even at only 18 months, to control something about his life that morning. So, pajamas it was.

And do you know what? He ate breakfast in his pajamas…and it really was ok. It was fine. I didn’t win that battle, but I did win the war in that context because my son knew that he was loved, he didn’t start off his day being frustrated, and having that bit of control made him more willing to allow me to control something else shortly thereafter.

Love them unconditionally

We know that as parents we need to love our kids unconditionally, but this is especially true in the case of a SWK. They feel the tension, they feel the stress, they feel your frustration. As much as they like to know that they are controlling you in regards to those things, they don’t need to be wondering if you still love them in spite of it. Make sure they know that they are loved.

Parenting a strong willed kid can be a challenge, but it can also be an incredible gift. Keeping a few things in mind, having a fresh perspective, and knowing a few tricks to keep up your sleeve can help you navigate the tumultuous waters just a bit, making them a bit smoother. It will be so worth it!

Arming yourself with as much information as you can about SWKs is a very good thing. Here are a couple of the best books I’ve read on the subject. The first one is my favorite.

You Can’t Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded), Revised and Updated Edition: Strategies for Bringing Out the Best in Your Strong-Willed Child

The New Strong-Willed Child

Raising Your Spirited Child, Third Edition: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic

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  1. Such a great post!! I am in a quiet phase w SWC #3 but things have heated up w SWC #2. This was just the encouragement I needed to change my outlook. It is so easy to feed into the fight, especially for those of us who like to be in control. But no one wins that battle. They really are amazing creatures, aren’t they?

  2. This article is completly misleading. I happen to have a strong willed kid who was absolutely manipulatable, also know a few others children that the same terrible things happened to, who were also the poster children for “strong willed kids” so to give the perception that your children are safe from harm because they’re strong willed is completely incorrect!

    1. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to give the impression that any kids are “safe from harm” because I don’t feel that any kid is safe from harm, especially in today’s world. I am not sure what gave you the impression that I was saying that, but I am guessing it is in reference to saying that GENERALLY SWKs aren’t ones to be manipulated. I know very well that all kids are different, and that there are always exceptions to every kind of kid out there.

      My point in the entire piece was to say that often what we as parents can see as a downfall can actually be a blessing or an asset. Because SWKs can be difficult for us to deal with and “control” as parents, it can be helpful when it comes to others trying to control them as well. Hopefully you were also able to take a bit of that perspective away from reading as well. Navigating the waters of a SWK is never easy. My hope is to encourage others who are there with me.

  3. Good information. I like how you recommend “changing me”. Letting go can be very difficult but necessary with a SWK.

    1. Changing us is really all we can do. And I know I only make the problem worse if I am holding too tightly to me and not paying attention to what I really know my SWK needs!

    1. You are welcome. I have to read it and reread it at times, too! LOL!!! Love my SWK, but they are such a challenge at times!

  4. Thank you intentional mom for your experience words of wisdom.
    My daughter is four years old and when she is feels out of control she has to have the last word and everything her way.
    She is a big negotiator.
    If you have any additional advice it would be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you so much,
    Frustrated mama

    1. I understand your frustration. I find in these kinds of situations walking away is almost always best. I try not to get involved in the last word and negotiating kind of situations. What I say goes, although at times my kids can “argue” or share their thoughts of disagreement, but this is generally with my older kids only (one of my strong willed ones is 14). However, it must always be done in a respectful way that is not in the heat of the moment. If they can’t do that, it is not allowed period. I’ve got a lot under the Intentional Mom tab here. See if there’s anything else there that will help

  5. I loved what you said and need the reminder that it’s ok to not win every battle depending on the battle.
    My 7 year old is very strong willed, likes to have things his way, his ideas, win every game or activity, has to be the “best” or won’t participate in an activity, sensitive to being embarrassed, and rarely shows compassion. What are your thoughts on how to “channel” these behaviors for good. I want to build him up and use these skills for his future. Thank you!

    1. I’ve written a lot of posts here about various parenting things. Check out the Intentional Mom tab. In our house, we have to spend more time modeling things like compassion, empathy, and other positive character traits for you strong willed kids. We find it effective to also give them opportunities in which to use their leadership, take charge kind of skills by having them do things like plan meals and other events and activities.

  6. I loved how you mentioned the breakfast in pajamas thing. My almost 4-year-old has to always eat breakfast in his pajamas. One day, we had somewhere we needed to be, but I woke up late. In an attempt to get there on time, I pulled him out of bed and wrangled him into his clothes – with him fighting me and screaming the whole time. I moved on to his younger brothers and got them dressed and then got breakfast out, only to find that my oldest had undressed himself and put his pajamas back on so he could eat in his pajamas. I was upset. He was upset. And we ended up late.

    The next time a similar situation happened where we’d woken up late again, I sent him in to eat breakfast in his pajamas while I changed his brothers, reminding him we needed to hurry that morning with some place to go. I hadn’t even finished with his brothers when he came back, breakfast finished, a smile on his face, ready to be changed. It’s so true on deciding which battles are important and changing how we think and react to things.

    Thank you so much for this post. I had a lot to relate to.

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