Inside: Parenting and disciplining a strong willed child can be challenging. Learn positive parenting approaches to reduce emotional outbursts and power struggles when your child is very determined and stubborn.
At the dinner table, my two year old, easily described as a strong willed child, asked for water. I kindly poured some into the glass closest to her.
What a terrible mistake that turned out to be.
The glass in front of my daughter was not the purple fairy cup she wanted.
Strike that. She didn’t just want the purple cup. According to her, she needed it, in that very moment, more than anything in the world. She was determined,
“I don’t want that cup…no no no…I not eating or drink[ing] until the fairy cup [is] on the table.” she exclaimed, ever so strongly willed.
Determined toddlers know exactly what they want.
Having a strong willed child can be good and bad at the same time. Good in that having a strong will is a skill that serves a great purpose. Bad, well because it can be quite challenging at times.
So how do you handle a stubborn toddler? In our purple fairy cup scenario, what would you do?
A) Would you fetch a new cup to avoid a meltdown?
B) Stand your ground and refuse to get a new cup?
Option A means giving in.
Option B probably leads to a power struggle or tears.
Luckily, there is an even better option.
Using positive parenting, it’s possible to work towards a cooperative solution that acknowledges your child’s wishes and at the same time respects your own boundaries.
Strong willed children can be cooperative with your guidance.
The magical Option that’s neither A or B….
Balancing your child’s wants and needs.
Here’s how that works:
Your child knows what they want and you know what they need to be healthy and safe.
If you keep that in mind you can work with your child instead of against their strong will.
Just because a toddler insists that they want something, doesn’t necessarily mean that that it’s the best choice for them.
No worries, I am not saying that toddlers can’t make choices or get things their way.
In fact it’s really great for toddlers to assert themselves and to feel good about making their own choices.
The ability to be flexible is something that needs to be practiced with the safety of a caring adult as a guide.
Children that have a strong will can grow up to be very sucessful. Their determination and negotiation skills can be very positive.
To this day my daughter knows what she wants and likes to have things done a certain way.
What we focused on was making sure she would learn to be flexible within what she could manage at each age.
Meeting Your Child’s Needs, Understanding Your Child’s Wants
Meeting our children’s needs for food, comfort, attention and affection is vital to their well being so, If you feel like your child is being really “needy” or “demanding” try to notice if your child’s needs are truly being met.
Sometimes what comes across as demanding may really just your child’s way of letting you know something is missing or some need is not being met.
If you are consistently meeting your child’s needs and allowing some room for wants, then it’s easier to strike a cooperative mind set.
Children that experience limits that are set with kindness and that feel a sense of belonging and are encouraged to cooperate naturally tend to become flexible, responsible, happy and well adjusted.
It’s alright to say NO to your toddler, especially if you do it nicely and confidently.
It’s alright to say no to your toddler. There will be times when saying yes is unsafe. Teaching your child to understand and accept that certain things are off limits is a good thing.
Anytime you say No to your toddler, aim to do so with kindness and empathy.
When possible, combine saying No with a new choice:
- “I know you want to stay home and play AND it’s time to climb into the car seat. Let’s go together, do you want to help me unlock the car?” or “It’s time to go. Do you need help getting into the car seat or will you do it alone?”
- “I know you want to do it your way AND I worry it will break. Let’s both stop and think it through. What’s your idea?”
Expect and Support Disappointment
Once you set a limit, tears may be inevitable, especially when a child is very determined to do something that is not acceptable or safe.
Tears are a normal and appropriate way for young children to express and cope with disappointment. Your toddler’s tears don’t need to be shushed away or pacified with a distraction.
You can be supportive and present when your strong willed child cries and still hold your decision and limits.
Accepting and allowing your child’s disappointment to unfold and be authentically felt helps her brain learn to manage emotions. This process helps your child develop emotional regulation.
Your child can learn about flexibility, frustration management, emotional resiliency when you support them through frustration and tears.
Seeing Beyond Just Behaviors
Children need love and acceptance all the time, not just when they are being “good” and following directions.
It’s easy to get frustrated with stubborn behaviors. Underneath the power struggles is a child that needs your love and positive attention to thrive.
Understand your child’s developmental stage
Did you know two and three year old children naturally resist parental commands?
The more you understand your child’s developmental stage the better you can manage your expectations for their behavir.
Aligning your expectations with what your child can do, based on their stage of develop reduces unecessary power struggles.
Learn more about your child’s age and development here.
Keep Things Predictable
Routines are fantastic for young children.
If your child tends to want to negotiate or argue her way through your daily tasks, try slowing down. Build in extra time ( and then even more time) into your routine so that you don’t have to rush.
Nothing makes children dig their heels more into the groud and not cooperate that being rushed.
Start transitioning between activities sooner than you think you should.
Children are naturally more cooeprative when they have time to complete tasks and when they sense they have some control over their own decisions.
Focus on Encouragement and Cooperation
Power struggles often happen when parents expect compliance and forget to involve their child in the process.
When children feel involved, capable, abd able to maintain a certain amount of control, cooperation tends to follow.
Instead of demanding that your determined child comply or follow orders try one of these strategies instead:
- invite your child to suggest a solution
- listen to your child’s ideas
- ask questions instead of giving commands
- Explain what CAN be done instead of listing everything that is NOT allowed.
Involving your child in a solution is not the same as giving in.
Remember the goal is to find balance between your child’s wants and the actual needs.
Introduce cooperation well ahead of the power struggle so that you can strike a win-win situation for everyone.
Back to that Purple cup…
To diffuse a power struggle, I asked my daughter a few quick questions. One of the questions I used is a sure way to soften the strong will and invite cooperation.
“Does the water taste different in this cup?”
“I don’t know. I not trying it! Not the glass I want!” was her answer.
“Ok, it’s not the one you want. I’m super hungry so I want to stay here and eat.
What’s your idea?” I asked her. (This is the best question!! Because involving your strong willed child in finding a solution softens all the tension out of the situation.)
“I [am] hungry, so I eat some dinner then I use the stool and get cup myself. Deal?” she suggested.
“Yes, it’s a deal!” I told her and we both ate some dinner.
Crisis averted and we found a win-win solution.
Positive parenting is not about keeping our children happy 100% of the time.
Remember, just because you are striving to be positive, it does not mean you give in to every demand to suit your child’s desires.
That’s actually not positive or helpful to your child’s well-being.
Context will matter a lot as well.
For example, on a different day, I might have just run and picked my daughter’s fairy cup from the cupboard to keep our meal going smoothly. It’s important for parents to read the room and make a call. It’s certainly not worth getting into an argument with a young child over small things that are easily fixed.
Model the behaviors you wish to see
Be kind, generous, forgiving, helpful and flexible.
The more you model these qualities the more your child can experience what it means to be less strong willed and more able to adjust and adapt to the situation they are in.
Neither of you should give in all the time or rule every interaction every time. Balance is what matters most.
Pay attention and strike a balance between the needs of your child, your family and your own.
When everyone’s needs and feelings are being considered, and cooperation and communication are aimed at solutions you will very likely find much more harmony at home.
Strong willed children are very likely to grow up into assertive, capable, healthy beings.
Peace & Be Well,