From the moment he was born, my son made his presence known. My husband and I didn’t know it yet, but we were embarking on a journey of parenting a strong-willed child.
As a newborn baby, my son cried for what seemed like hours on end, which as a new mom, brought on the mega meltdowns…you know the ones where you sob that ‘nothing is perfect’ and ‘everything is wrong!’
I’m fairly certain my husband and I looked each other during those early days and wondered what in the world we got ourselves into.
Fast forward several years.
Finally past the strong-willed toddler stage, my husband and I were starting to look up and onward. One night we were getting the kids ready for bed, and there was a huge mess of toys needing to get picked up.
Me: “Hey buddy. You’re playing with those trains, and it’s so much fun to you, but it’s time to clean up.”
Him: (enjoying a snack) “Mom, you clean up.”
Me: (ahem. trying not to freak out) “You can help pick up the toys. I’ll help you get started. We’ll do it really fast, and then it will be done.”
Him: (collapses, shrieks) “Noooo! No!”
So often in parenting, you find yourself in these battles. Battles where the solution seems pretty simple—and logical—yet your child puts on his boxing gloves. He’s ready to fight you over simple things until there’s a knock out.
Related: Why is My Child so Angry and Aggressive?
- Eat your dinner.
- Go to sleep.
- Pee in the toilet.
- Play peacefully.
- Basic manners.
Parenting a Strong Willed Child
We know from science and research that strong-willed kids are often the world changers. They’re natural born leaders, who typically pave the way when no one else will.
Basically, you’re raising a world changer, and it’s a heavy burden to carry. I know.
Which is why these five overlooked, yet highly effective Language of Listening® tips for parenting a strong-willed child are so important.
1. Lean into (not away from) difficult behavior.
When your child is acting horrible, this is the exact moment he or she needs you the most. To guide. To teach. To coach.
Because inside your strong-willed child’s head, crazy emotions are swirling around like a tilt-o-whirl at the carnival. There’s no logical pattern or direction. The emotion kinda just spins how it pleases.
Instead of ignoring the behavior, sending kids to their rooms or escalating emotionally yourself, lean straight into difficult behavior by validating and empathizing with your child’s situation, even if it doesn’t seem logical to you.
If you aren’t sure what to say, these are 3 simple and easy to remember ideas:
“You don’t want to _______.”
“You don’t like that.”
“You wish you could ______ instead.”
More than anything, strong-willed kids want you to recognize their side of the story. You don’t need to change your boundary. Just add in the empathy and validation, and you’ll see the difference.
Related: Step-by-step guide for teaching kids empathy
2. Look for the hidden messages.
As much as we wish kids could articulate what’s really going on inside their heads, the truth is that their thinking brains are not developed enough to do this (Brace yourself; full maturity of the pre-frontal cortex doesn’t happen until adulthood).
Think of yourself as a parenting investigator looking for the hidden messages. Each time your child acts out, ask yourself, “What is the underlying reason for this behavior?”
Every behavior carries a message.
To dig deeper and find the underlying message, start by looking at the three basic needs all kids have: power, experience and connection.
- Power: Does your child want to feel more control over choices and basic decisions?
- Experience: Does your child want to do more things on their own, first-hand?
- Connection: Does your child need more quality time where you wholeheartedly connect?
In my earlier example of my son refusing to clean up his mess, I saw it as a hidden message over power. Our day was filled with errands and chores and fulfilling our adult agendas, which is part of life.
However, it can breed power struggles at the end of the day when kids don’t feel like they had any control over their day (more on how we fixed it at the end of this post).
Related: 4 Ridiculously Easy Ways to End a Power Struggle
3. Flip your roles.
If you are really struggling with parenting a strong-willed child, focus on how you are feeling in those moments:
Angry, frustrated, irritated, tired, fed-up, weary, at a loss for words, like you’re failing, like nothing you are doing is working, like your messages aren’t getting through, that your child doesn’t understand you very well.
Whatever you are feeling fill in your blank. Then flip it!
Take all those thoughts and feelings in your head and pretend it’s your child saying to you that they are…
Angry, frustrated, irritated, tired, fed-up, weary, at a loss for words, feeling like they’re failing, like nothing they do is working, like nothing they say is getting through to you.
Then respond to your child in a way you’d like him to respond to you. Kids do as we do.
If you aren’t sure where to start, these are two simple ideas to try:
- Reach out and hug your child
- Say, “This is hard for you. Can we start over?”
This is where parents can jump straight back to number one: leaning into difficult behavior with empathy and validation.
Related: How to Stop a Whining Child With One Simple Trick
4. Kids will communicate until they feel heard.
Whether kids communicate directly or via hidden message, one thing is true: kids will continue to communicate until they feel heard.
Unless they are sure you received their message, they will continue trying to communicate in any way they know how. Even if it means disobeying over and over again. Or saying “Mom! Mom! Mom! MOOOMMM!”
The easiest way to help kids feel heard is to reflect back everything your child is communicating to you both verbally and non-verbally.
Related: How to Teach Kids to Listen Without Using Words
5. Everything is perfect exactly as it is.
I know parenting a strong-willed child is dog-tiring. You want the never ending cycle of power struggles and temper tantrums to end. You want to discover a magic trick for how to make kids listen.
But everything is perfect exactly as it is.
This is the way it’s supposed to be. Your strong-willed child is supposed to fight you now in the younger years. And you’re supposed to help them reign in those strong-willed tendencies and develop self-control.
Because learning to cope with strong-willed behavior (learning self-control) is best learned in childhood with a parent who loves them enough to weather the storm. Rather than in adulthood when the real world will let you drift out to sea (or worse, jail).
You might be wondering…How did we get him to pick up the toys?
As my son continued shrieking on the floor and moaning about picking up the toys, I walked over and sat down next to him.
Me: “You know, today was hard for you. We were running errands and doing all the things mom and dad wanted to do, but you didn’t get to do anything that you wanted to do. And now to top it all off, I’m telling you to pick up this big mess on the floor. And you don’t really feel like it.”
Him: (looks up. nods.)
Me: “Let’s play a silly game. We can race to see who can put the toys away the fastest or we can see who can shoot the most toys in the basket. Which game would you like to play?”
Him: Let’s race!
When it seems like your child fights you on every request, lean into the behavior, find the hidden message, reflect those messages back to your child, and remember this:
Each act of defiance or battle of wills is another opportunity to help your child learn how to reign in their emotions and develop self-control. Everything is perfect exactly as it is.
Print this free toddler listening checklist.
This post comes with a free printable checklist to help with toddler listening. I always have the hardest time remembering these phrases. This printable simplifies it!
Here is a sneak preview…
Download Your Free Printable
- Download the checklist. You’ll get the printable, plus join 37,000+ parents who receive my weekly parenting tips and ideas!
- Print. Any paper will do the trick, but card stock would be ideal.
- Place it on your refrigerator. Check things off as you go and don’t forget a thing!
Want more posts on parenting?
- 3 Things Every Parent of a Strong Willed Toddler Should Know
- How to Say “No” to Your Child (Without Really Saying “No”)
- The Most Powerful Way to Respond When Your Kid Pouts and Gives Up
- One Simple Tip to Help Kids Fall Asleep Fast
I've created a free email series just for you! If you are struggling with teaching your child to listen, this series will help transform your parenting. Yes, really. I've seen my proven strategies work time and time again for parents. I know it can work for you too.
After taking my free email series, you will:
- Learn simple, yet highly effective listening strategies
- Experience a stronger connection with your child
- Enjoy more peaceful parenting days
- Gain more cooperation from your child
Wow, very interesting!
As a grandparent of a seven yr old, from separated parents, I am struggling terribly. She is with me for summers, on and off visits, while her dad works shifts.
She is very smart, polite, helpful…sometimes nasty, rude and just defiant! How does this go together?
I feel like I’m failing! I do have daily chores, errands and the like, as you posted in your article. I was never the “entertainer and buddy to my kids”. I parented!
Worked, kept house, did family things together, survived!
I raised my two kids in the 80’s and 90’s.
Times have sure changed!
I need to know how to get this little person do things on her own ie entertaining herself for periods of time vs me being her gf full time! I’m not a fan of electronics as her full time entertainment!!
Saying all of this, causes guilt in me because these times should be special and memorable!