Strong-Willed Children: Avoiding Power Struggles

Dr. Jane Nelsen
June 26, 2014

There is a theme spreading throughout the country. It is called the strong-willed child. I hear this theme over and over from audiences during my lectures and in questions from the Internet, such as the following:

I have an eleven-year-old daughter.  She is very strong willed. I have a constant battle with her to get her to do things for me, like getting up in the morning, dressing her self and getting ready for school. I end up dressing her myself so that we are not late for school. Also when she gets in from school she likes to watch TV for a little while, which is fine, but when I tell her its time to get her homework done its a battle. She likes to take her time, which really annoys me at times, especially when we don't have the time.

What can I do to get through to her that what I want of her is to make an effort and help out? Her dad and I are separated but he is very involved in her upbringing. I usually threaten her that I will ring him if she misbehaves. What can I do? Am I doing things wrong? Please help.

I will get back to this question soon, but first some foundation points:

When parents tell me they have a strong willed child, I ask three questions:

            1.  Would you prefer a weak-willed child?

            2.  Are you a strong-willed parent?

            3.  Is it possible that you play a part in creating her behavior?

Most parents answer the first question by saying no; but when you look at the evidence, that is exactly what they want. They want a child who is obedient-a trait that may have been desirable in children centuries ago, but not today. Obedient children are equivalent to "approval junkies" who obey the person or people they want approval from-a very dangerous trait when they become teenagers. Today it is much more effective to have children who have valuable social and life skills for good character, respect for self and others, well honed problem-solving skills, and an ability to think for them selves and to understand the long-term consequences of their choices. How do you help children develop these traits that serve them well in our society? By taking a look at your own behavior and parenting skills. Are you behaving in ways that create an environment where children have the opportunity to develop their own sense of capability and have opportunities to practice contributing ways to use their personal power? Or, do you identify more with the next paragraph?

The third and fourth questions provide clues as to why so many parents today are experiencing power struggles and blaming it on "strong willed" children. Strong willed parents do a lot of directing, demanding, or "telling." They tell children what to do, when to do it, how to do it. When children make a mistake, these parents make the mistake of "telling" their children what happened, what caused it to happen, how they should feel about it, and what they should do about it.

As a parent, how do you feel when someone directs, demands, and tells you what to do? Unless you are an "approval junkie," you rebel. Your rebellion may take the form of silent resentment or out and out refusal to cooperate-just like your children.

Most parents do not think about "getting into their children's world" to make some guesses about what their children might be thinking, feeling, and deciding about themselves and what to do (how to behave) in response to what their parents do. Some children may be deciding, "I'm not good enough to ever please my parents, so why try?" Others may be deciding, "I'm not capable enough to do anything on my own"? Still others may decide, "I'm sick of being told what to do, and I'm not going to do it." There are millions of possible decisions being made (usually not at a conscious level), but they don't include, "Thank you so much for bossing me around. I really appreciate it and it is so helpful and encouraging."

What To Do Instead

Hopefully, you are now aware of what is not effective. So what can you do to help children develop faith in themselves and the belief that they are capable and can use their power constructively? How do you help them feel good about being respectful and cooperative?

1.  Be respectful yourself. You wouldn't want someone telling you what, how, and when to do something, so stop this behavior with your children.

2.  When children are very young, start by offering lots of limited choices. Even though the choices are limited, "Do you want peas or corn for dinner? Do you want to leave the park hopping like a bunny or swinging your arms together like the trunk of elephant?"

3.  It is much more effective when you use "curiosity questions" to invite children to think for themselves and to be more cooperative. Instead of "telling children" to brush their teeth, ask, "What do you need to do before you go to bed." (See routine charts in No. 5 below) Instead of telling them, "Don't forget your coat," ask, "What do you need if you don't want to be cold." When children make a mistake, ask questions such as, "What do you think caused this to happen? How do you feel about it? What ideas do you have to avoid this problem in the future? How do you think you could solve the problem now?" Note that these are called curiosity questions because it is important that you are truly curious about what your child thinks rather than using an accusing tone of voice. Curiosity questions are effective only when you are calm enough to be truly curious and when you child is calm enough to engage with you because he or she feels your love and interest.

4.  Involve children in finding solutions to problems. Children feel much more cooperative in following solutions they have helped create. Wouldn't you? For example, let's go back to the question at the beginning of this article. The first problem involves morning hassles. Mom could sit down with her daughter and say, "We have several morning challenges. I'll bet we can find some solutions that are respectful to both of us. What ideas do you have to solve the problems? How about if we brainstorm together to find some solutions? I can only guess the creative ideas you might come up with, but one might be to get her a good alarm clock, teach her how to use it, and then have faith in her to get up on her own-or to experience the consequences of being late. Notice I said, "Experience the consequences," not, "Impose consequences." The consequences of her choice to be late will be what ever the teacher decides to do about it.

5.  Create routine charts together—or teach older children how to create their own routine charts. The first thing is to invite your child to make a list of all the things that need to be done in the morning (or for bedtime). Then provide chart paper for a list of the things that need to be done. Younger children love it when you take a picture of them doing each task so they can paste the pictures next to each task. Older children like finding pictures on a computer to paste next to each task-or to draw their own pictures. Let your children decide where they want to post the chart (or charts) so they can see them, and then let the routine chart be the boss. Instead of "telling" children what to do, ask, "What is next on your routine chart?" and let them tell you.

6.  Back to the question above regarding homework. Ask your child to create a plan for getting her homework done that works for her and ask if she would be willing to share it with you. Then stay out of it. Have faith in her to follow her plan-or to learn from her mistakes if she doesn't. You can also "decide what you will do." Let her know the days and times you'll be available to help and invite her to include those times in her plan. If she asks for help during other times you can say, "Sorry," and repeat the times you are available. Allow her to experience the consequences of poor planning. See next suggestion.

7.  Allow children to make mistakes. Well, they are going to make them anyway, but stop trying so hard to prevent them. If you think your children will ever make a mistake in their lives, how much better to allow them to learn how to survive mistakes in a safe environment. (Read No. 3 again.) When parents try to prevent mistakes by being too controlling or by rescuing, children don't learn that they can handle mistakes and learn from them.

8. Most important of all, build your relationship with your child. If you are having power struggles, remember it takes two. Be the one to step out of the power and make sure "the message of love gets through." Sometimes it helps to name what is going on. "I think we are having a power struggle and I can see what I'm doing to create that. Let's start over. I love you and I have faith that we can create loving solutions that work for both of us.

Originally published in 2009. 

From the Parents

  • Parent # 1

    I would like to recommend a wonderful book called, "Raising Your Spirited Child" by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. This book has single-handedly changed the way I view my children, who are both strong willed and tenacious. I read this book in two days because the author described my child to a tee, and I wanted so badly to communicate and reason with him without raising my voice or becoming impatient. Not every day is smooth sailing. But Mary Kurcinka helps parents identify their own strengths, encourages you to start talking positively about your kids instead of complaining about them and how to work with "spirit". I have experience a few eye rolls when explaining to people my new outlook on my "spirited child". What usually follows is a 30 minute lecture about how I am not disciplining my child correctly. I truly believe that each child needs are different. The way they are loved, spoken to and disciplined. Hang in there! And read this book! It is life changing.

    over a year ago

  • Parent # 2

    I do have a very strong willed four and half year old daughter, who also has some anger management issues. The biggest issue I have is that if I don't regiment what she does and lay down the law, she will walk right over the top of my husband and I. We love her so much and find just about everything she does adorable, and she knows it. When I give her choices of what to wear or what she can have for dinner, she frequently asks for something that was not offered. When she decides she wants something, regardless of if it was offered, she has a very hard time accepting that she will not be able to have it. If her choice is an acceptable alternative I will consider it and if I decide that she may have it, I tell her why, i.e. this is a nutritious meal and that was a smart alternative. But most of the time she is asking for hot dogs and marshmallows, which are not nutritious, were not offered and won't be on the menu. When this happens I tell her that hot dogs and marshmallows were not the choices from which she had to choose, so to choose something else. Of course, then comes the anger, but I do not back down because once I do, she will keep doing it. This seems to work most of the time, but sometimes it does end up with me sending her to her room until she can behave and stop having a fit. Any suggestions on a different way to handle it?

    over a year ago

  • Parent # 3

    I have two boys ages 2 & 3. My two year old is a big mamas boy but when he doesnt get what he wants he literally throws himself on the floor and crys at the top his lungs. He believes that he is thee grown -up ,I have tried many things. My three old has to me what i would consider lack of confidence, Im not sure how that has happened, he is back in fourth alot with these insecurities of not being the big Boy when he makes mistakes. I explain to him all the time that he is a big boy in order to reassure him, i explain we make mistakes and some times bad decisions. Dr. Nelsen I just want happy boys that are also well rounded hat do I need to do. By the way read article above and I an always willing to try anything new and effective.

    over a year ago

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