When you describe your child, are you describing their behavior, their nature, or their mood? Perhaps you are describing what you would like them to be, or how you expect them to behave, or the effect of their behavior on you.
Talking about parenting a “strong-willed” child, one must first define that term. In most cases, this terms refers to a child who bears some sort of oppositional or defiant energy. Clinically, this may be referred to as Oppositional Defiant Disorder. However, Nicholas Strouse, a clinician and the Director at Westport Family Counseling says it is important to be careful about “pathological language, and pathological points of view,” particularly when talking about a child. In fact, it is the parent’s very label for their child that is often related to the problem. Parents can unintentionally create and perpetuate fear of their child’s behavior. “Even ‘Strong-willed’ can be too strong, if that is how you view a child, globally. Understanding that kids can sometimes be strong-willed, or challenging is more positive, and actually helps us be more flexible and solution-oriented.”
Because children’s behavior often corresponds to their parent’s beliefs and expectations, parents need to learn how to look at their child reacting to a situation, as opposed to identifying a child by their behavior. “If you look at your child in a situation, it’s much easier to look at the situation differently,” says Strouse. At that point, it becomes easier to embrace different management techniques to cope with the challenges that come from parenting such a child.
There are many gradations of strong-willed presentations, but the root of the action comes from a desire for control. “In many cases, a child feels so much emotional dysregulation that the way that they control their surroundings, or feel safest, is by enacting a stubborn mood or behavior. This, in turn, puts them in opposition to the parent. Through this ‘strange emotional math,’ the parent then becomes the external factor that allows them to gain control,” says Strouse. “For example, if a child is upset about not being allowed to watch television… instead of regulating their frustration, they create a situation that puts them in opposition with the parent that has imposed such a rule. Many times, parents respond by instituting a timeout, or yelling… or some other discipline. While this may seem like a success, it turns out to be only a temporary one. Over time, the discipline is actually reinforcing that regulation comes from the outside… the parent. The child needs to regulate on their own… it is a skill that must be mastered for successful relationships.”
This behavior can become a problem if this pattern of external regulation continues long term. A strong-willed child, who does not learn how to internally regulate their emotions, will continue to turn to relationships to regulate their actions and behavior into adulthood.
As a parent of a strong-willed child, there are a number of things you can do to positively impact how your child processes frustrations, as well as encourage healthy coping mechanisms.
- Make a point to avoid a power struggle. A routine allows you to set expectations without being the “bad guy”. Things like, “We always wash up before dinner,” or, “It’s important to finish our homework before TV time,” makes it clear that these are firm rules.
- Once you set rules and boundaries, stick with them. Many times, it’s easier to give in to the frustrated tantrums of a child than oppose them. However, by communicating clear expectations, consequences, and following through, you can prevent putting yourself in the position of being the external factor for regulation.
- Offer alternatives. By offering choices to a child that is having difficulty accepting an expectation, a parent can maintain a certain level of control over the situation, while allowing the child to make the decision on their own (this is the sort of internal control that strong-willed children desire…and need).
- Parents, be a team. Establish a co-parenting model, and stick to it. That way, children will know that there is no “weak link” in the system. If one parent reacts more emotionally, this can make parenting a strong-willed child more difficult because it gives the child the control they are seeking. Instead, parents should communicate about how to handle each situation, so when a potential conflict does arise, it can be effectively diffused.
As parents, understanding the implications of a strong-willed child, and adjusting accordingly, can help to diffuse some of the most challenging situations. This approach has an added benefit of providing your child an opportunity to grow and mature in a healthy way. At Westport Family Counseling, we offer Parent Consulting, as well as Play Therapy. Each can offer insights and help both parents and children work through obstacles. If you are the parent of a strong-willed child and you are interested in finding more effective ways to parent and communicate with your child, we can help. Call (203) 227-4555 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.