Parenting the Strong-willed Child

Although all children can be strong-willed on occasion, some children are much more intensely so, and more often so, than others. Strong-willed children are not different in kind from other children; they differ only in the degree to which the need for self-determination rules their life. But degree makes an enormous difference. For most parents, occasional willfulness is tolerable, but continual willfulness can create a problem as it quickly gathers shaping power of its own. The more often a willful act achieves its objective, the more powerful the child's willfulness becomes.

What separates willful children from those who are not is how they manage not getting what they want. When children who are not generally willful don't get what they want, they may feel sad, shrug off the disappointment, and then go on to something else. Willful children, however, tend to have a different response: telltale anger.

The emotional hallmark of the willful child is getting angry when he doesn't get what he wants. His intense desire turns his aspiration into an imperative, and an imperative into a condition. "I want to have" turns into "I must have" turns into "I should have," and the result is anger when the willful child is denied what he now feels entitled to.

The strong-willed child often believes: "If I want it, then I should get it," "If I'm refused it, I should be given a good reason why," "If I don't want to do it, I shouldn't have to," "If I argue, then I should win." Then, when any of these beliefs are violated, the outcome seems unjust, and so he or she gets angry because a condition of assumed entitlement has not been met.

The parent's job is to help the willful child learn to disconnect "should" from "want," to let go of the conditional view through which he/she sees the situation. So the parent says something like this: "I know when you want something very much it feels like you should be allowed to get it, but life isn't like that. Wanting something very much doesn't mean we should get it. Wanting just means there's something we'd like to have or do, and maybe we'll get some of it, and maybe we won't. And if we don't, we'll still be okay."

Some willfulness seems naturally endowed. After all, children do not enter this world as a blank slate. They are endowed with genes that determine certain physical characteristics, personality, temperament, and aptitudes. Although some infants emerge complacent and compliant from the outset, others seem to be born strong-willed. These children are born intensely committed to satisfaction of their needs and desires, with a tenacious personality, and frustration that is easily aroused when what they want is not immediately forthcoming. Even children who are by nature willful usually increase that willfulness as a function of the parental response to willfulness they receive. Parents who engage in power struggles with their strong-willed child usually end up empowering the child's insistence and opposition.

The development of most willfulness, however, seems not just naturally endowed. It is learned from the experience of family life, often from the very parents who wish such willfulness would lessen or subside. For example, parents who grew up intimidated by their own critical, angry, or even violent parents are often fearful of taking hard stands and offending their own child. In response to their submissiveness, the child may then become extremely dominant and extremely willful because healthy social, emotional, and economic boundaries have not been clearly defined, firmly set, and consistently enforced.

When it comes to having a willful child, parents are often their own worst enemy because there are many direct parental behaviors that encourage strong will in a child. Consider just a few common examples.

There are the adoring parents who cater to their child so much that he comes to feel entitled to always being given what he wants (parental overindulgence is one major contributor to the willfulness of a strong-willed child.)

There are the permissive parents who give extreme freedom of self-determination to the child.

There are the insecure parents who can't say 'no' and who don't want to displease their child and so cannot deny a want or insist upon a limit.

There are the guilty parents who allow the child to exploit their feelings of remorse.

There are the neglectful parents who are too preoccupied with their own lives to adequately supervise their child.

There are the argumentative parents who, by example and interaction, teach their child to stubbornly argue back.

There are the enabling parents who continually rescue their child from the consequences of ill-advised decisions.

There are ambitious parents who, by insistence and example, instill a will to win and excel at all costs because anything less is deemed not good enough.

There are the inconsistent parents who don't stand by or follow through with what they say.

There are demanding parents who give grown up responsibility to a child, expecting the child to contribute to family and take charge of his/her life while very young.

In all these ways, and in many others, parents can be their own worst enemy, complicit in their child's growing willfulness.

It's at the parenting extremes that willfulness is most powerfully nurtured - by strong-willed parents and by weak-willed parents, by overindulgent parents and by neglectful parents, by oppressive parents and by permissive parents. Therefore, if parents have a continually willful child or have a child who is going through a willful phase, it is important that they do not get so preoccupied with their child's determined behavior that they ignore their own.

The critical question for parents of willful children to ask themselves is, "Are we, through our actions or inaction, inadvertently encouraging more inappropriate willfulness in our child?" Parents must continually assess their own complicit behavior so they are not acting to make a child's willfulness worse. How can you discover whether you are enabling your child's willful behaviors? Go through a simple exercise. List ten things you could do or not do to make the child's willful behavior worse. Then ask yourselves, "To what degree are we doing any of these things now?" This will help you see areas where you can start reducing your complicity in the willfulness of your child.

Finally, remember that although a strong-willed child is hard to handle, he or she is actually easy to manage. The child is hard to handle because the child's wants are so strongly felt, and delay or denial of wants creates so much frustration. But the strong-willed child is easily managed because parents control so much of what the child wants. Parents should learn to bargain accordingly. "For you to get what you want, you must do what we want first."

About the Author

Carl E. Pickhardt, PhD, is the author of numerous articles and books on parenting, including The Connected Father: Understanding Your Unique Role and Responsibilities During Your Child Adolescence; Keys To Developing Your Child's Self-Esteem; The Everything Parent's Guide to the Strong-willed Child; and The Future of Your Only Child: How to Guide Your Child to a Happy and Successful Life to be published in 2008. His books are available at amazon.com. © Carl Pickhardt, PhD 2005

Used with permission

Reviewed by athealth on February 6, 2014.