Winning the Battle, And the War: Tips for Parenting a Strong-Willed Child

By: Aaron Welch, LMHC, NCC

He seems so cute, clever, and funny most of the time. It’s true. My three-year-old son has a sense of humor that can truly make his mama and daddy laugh. His vocabulary is advanced for his age, his smile can light up any room, and there are times that having a conversation with him can melt my heart........ But there are days where I can understand why some animals eat their young.
Yes, I admit it. I am the father of a strong-willed child. I cannot live in denial any longer. No more shall I insist that he is nothing more than a sweet, innocent, angelic little boy. I must verbalize to the entire world (or, at least, to those who read this article) that there are times when my son is only one step lower than Damian, from “The Omen” movies. He constantly pushes boundaries, he often will not comply with my wishes until he knows consequences are about a millisecond away, he tries to intimidate his mama by lowering his voice and yelling like some kind of quasi-Chewbacca creature, and he waffles between doting on his baby sister to doing his darndest to startle her badly enough that she jumps out of her bouncer. Yes.......his mama and I admit it. He is sometimes a monster.

But I adore him.

I do. He is the little boy I always prayed for. And, although he is difficult to parent at times, I prefer that he grows up to be strong and independent than passive and fearful. When he is thirty years old and must take a stand for his beliefs or he must be a strong leader during the hard times that his own family may face, I want him to be strong-willed and perseverant. When life smacks him right between the eyes and many others wilt under the pressure, my hope is that Joshua will step up to the plate and be a leader. When everyone else crumbles, I pray that my son will thrive.
Isn’t that what we all want for our children? To be strong and healthy adults? To endure all life has to throw at them and make a difference in our world? That is what Michelle and I want for Joshua. And so, I have resigned myself to the fact that, if that is the man I hope he becomes, then I must accept that he must show those same qualities in childhood. It is rare that someone can just “flip the switch” and suddenly rise up to be a strong person. Certainly, people can develop and grow their emotional, physical, and spiritual strength. No doubt. However, if a strong-willed child already shows those qualities, why squelch it in them? I know...........it would be so much easier if they were more compliant or meek. It would be great if they could be strong-willed to everyone else in the civilized world but totally mild with us as parents. But, that’s not how it usually works. In fact, parents usually get the worst of the strong-willed child they know and love.
Let us remember that, as parents, we are to train and teach and nurture our children. It is our job to focus their strengths and energies so that they, someday, will be ready for adulthood. Strong-willed children have many excellent traits; they are independent and love to try to do things themselves, they love challenges, they respond well to encouragement, and they are often high achievers, if focused correctly. It is true that they are a greater challenge to parent. Strong-willed kids can sap our energy and test our reserves. They can bring us to the edge of insanity and then win our hearts, all in the space of about 2 minutes. It’s not easy parenting a strong-willed child. However, I honestly believe that, if we take up the gauntlet, never give up on them, and invest our time and energy, we will be rewarded in the years to come.
I am certainly not a perfect parent. I get tired. I am sometimes selfish. There are moments when I rely on the television to entertain Joshua just so I can rest. However, I absolutely love my son and work very hard to be the best father I can be. Here are some of the things I have learned about parenting a strong-willed child:

1. Relationship is ESSENTIAL: Of course, this is true for all children but it is especially important when parenting a strong-willed child. If you invest time and energy into building a relationship with your child, it will go a LONG way when you have to discipline. For a strong-willed child to respect you and comply with your wishes, they have to believe you honestly care for them and know them. Make it your highest priority to spend many hours a week spending time doing what your strong-willed child wants to do. Play with them. Laugh with them. INVEST in them......and they will notice. If you make your strong-willed child feel connected and valued, you will notice a rise in their respect for you.

2. Patience is truly a virtue: This may seem obvious but it is so important. If you have a strong-willed child, you must adjust your expectations accordingly or you will find yourself sitting in a rubber room, in a white outfit, making that weird sound you make when you move your finger up and down on your lips while you are humming. You have to expect your child to test you. If you don’t think he or she is going to push your boundaries then you are not thinking clearly. Strong-willed children live for pushing boundaries. I honestly believe that strong-willed kids get some sort of rush from watching a parent lose control. I mean it. I really think that there is some satisfaction, for them, in pushing a parent to the point where the parent loses their cool. It may sound crazy but it’s what I’ve seen in almost every strong-willed child. So......don’t lose it. Be very firm but don’t blow a gasket. And, if you have to blow up, leave the room so the child cannot get the satisfaction of seeing it.

3. Consistency is key: You must set healthy boundaries in your home and you must be consistent when dealing with a strong-willed child. If his/her bedtime shifts every night, he/she is going to push you all the time. I’m not saying you can never vary in your routine but make sure it is not often. The structure and safety of consistent boundaries help to focus the energy of strong-willed kids. Also, consistently reward your child for not only good behavior but just because you love them. A strong-willed child often gets more rebukes than praise and that is never healthy. Remember, we don’t love our children for what they do. We love our children for who they are.

4. Strength is vital: The truth is that you MUST be stronger than your strong-willed child, even if you don’t think you are. Dr. James Dobson, in his book “The Strong-Willed Child”, basically says that, with a strong-willed child you must win every battle. I totally agree. If you think the battle is worth fighting then you MUST win it. You cannot let temper tantrums, intimidation, tears, charm, or anything else wear you down. Your child must know you’re in charge or they will always believe they can win. Now, after saying that, let me add this: Pick your battles. You don’t have to control every little thing in your child’s life. If you want to raise a leader then you must allow the child to make decisions, try things themselves, and learn from mistakes. If your strong-willed child wants to wear a different shirt than you have picked out, give him that freedom, unless you have to dress a certain way. Allowing them that freedom encourages their development. It also gives you more leeway to be stronger in enforcing the boundaries you believe are most important. One more thing about being strong: don’t allow your strong-willed child to draw you into meaningless arguments. I swear, Joshua will probably be a lawyer someday because he often wants to argue about everything. However, I find that if I correct him once or twice and he still argues the point I let it go. Most times, he will then accept my answer behind my back! (The little fiend!...haha) Seriously, we were vacationing this year and were in a swimming pool. One of the little girls in the pool had an inflatable Shamu and Joshua pointed at it and said it was a dolphin. I told him it was not a dolphin but was a whale because it was black and dolphins are bluish gray. He insisted that it was a dolphin so, instead of pulling out my marine encyclopedia to prove that I was smarter than my three-year-old, I said, “okay, buddy....whatever you think”. It wasn’t ten minutes later that I heard him telling his grandfather, who was also in the pool, to look at the whale over there. This is very common for my son, and with many strong-willed kids. They often like to argue just to show their strength. However, if you tell them what’s right and then back off, allowing them to feel powerful, they will more likely accept your answer. So, what I’m saying is be strong, but learn how to bend when it is effective.
Finally, let me just say..............good luck! :) Parenting a strong-willed child is hard work. It really is. But strong-willed children have the potential to grow up and be outstanding leaders; even world-changers in the future of our society. So, I guess what I’m saying is buckle up, buckle down, and enjoy the ride.

About the Author: Aaron Welch is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor at the LifeWorks Group, Inc. in Winter Park, Florida. He has devoted his life to reaching out and helping people grow and mature through difficult life situations. Whether it has been through clinical counseling, pastoral ministry, youth camps and conventions, public speaking, leadership training, educational instruction, athletic coaching or small group ministry, Aaron has over eighteen years of experience in assisting people through life struggles and personal growth. His genuine love for people and his outgoing personality combine to create a safe and caring environment for putting the pieces of life back together. To learn more about the LifeWorks Group, Inc. please visit, www.LifeWorksGroup.org.

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