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Making Peace with Your Strong-Willed Child

Tired of butting heads with your kid? Learning expert Cynthia Ulrich Tobias offers help and hope.
Making Peace with Your Strong-Willed Child

Every parent knows the feeling: Your child has just drawn on the wall or refused to get dressed or mouthed off to you for the millionth time. And you're absolutely at your wit's end.

For some children, these moments of defiance are just that—moments. But for strong-willed children, these "moments" are a way of life. And they can zap the resolve of even the most patient parent.

In her book "You Can't Make Me, (But I Can Be Persuaded)" (Water Brook), learning expert Cynthia Ulrich Tobias helps parents get inside the head and heart of the strong-willed child to find ways not only to cope with a stubborn child, but to bring out the best in that child.

We talked to Cynthia to find out how all parents can use her ideas to restore peace to our homes and learn to see the best in our kids.

Let's start with the obvious: How do you define a strong-willed child?

A strong-willed child (SWC) is one who loves to challenge the rules. This is a child who knows that anything is possible. It might take longer or be inconvenient to do it, but it can still be done.

That's frustrating to parents who try to motivate their kids with absolutes. If Dad says, "You'll never get to college if you don't study," the SWC will respond, "Really? You mean no one's ever done it?" There's that little glint in the eye as they challenge the limits of "never" and "can't."

The SWC knows there's nothing he really has to do. So when parents issue edicts and ultimatums, the SWC will take the consequences rather than do what he's told. The SWC wants to have a sense of control over his or her life. If you find you're in a constant battle of wills with your child, there's a pretty good chance that your child, and possibly you, are strong willed.

To some degree, that sounds like most kids. How can a parent know the difference between a child who's just being defiant and one who qualifies as a SWC?

The difference really is about temperament. A defiant child has trouble with authority. But a SWC will fight against the way authority is communicated. The SWC wants to have a say in things. He or she typically won't resist the idea of authority.

But I want to make it clear that rebellion, defiance and disobedience are wrong regardless of a child's temperament. If a SWC does something that doesn't honor God, if it's in defiance of his or her parents, if it's destructive or hurtful, that can't be blamed on a strong will.

All Christians are commanded to submit to Christ, no matter what our temperament or personality. Since I was a SWC and now am a strong-willed adult, I try to think about Proverbs 3:5–6: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding." That says there are other ways of understanding besides mine. The very next verse gives me my accountability: "in all your ways acknowledge him ? " To me that says in all my approaches, all my personality quirks, all my strong-willed ways, I must still acknowledge God. Any SWC needs to do the same.

What kind of impact does a SWC have on his or her family?

The presence of a SWC in a family is something Satan can use to drive a wedge between parents and children. Since I've been leading seminars about this subject, I've had competent Christian parents come up and say, "You know what? I really think I hate my child. I hate to say it, but that's how I feel." It's easy for parents to be so irritated with these kids that they forget there's plenty of good in them, too.

What about the SWC's relationship with God? Is it hard for a SWC to accept the idea of submitting to God's authority?

It all depends on how God is presented. As a SWC, what draws me to God is not the threat of eternal damnation, it's the promise of a relationship. I surrendered my strong will to Christ years ago not because I was afraid of where I was going but because I had so much to gain from that relationship.

The SWC's relationship with you as a parent is going to determine to a great extent his or her relationship with God. My parents had a very positive relationship with Christ and with me, so I didn't wander far.

But if God is used as a hammer to force the SWC into submission, why would that child want to have a relationship with God? If faith and belief are presented as things that will get you into trouble all the time, then a SWC will want to get away from that as soon as possible.

God himself does not force us. God wants us to choose to be in a relationship with him, to choose obedience. We need to parent the same way.

Parents of a SWC could easily feel overwhelmed. How can they work with their child?

Raising a SWC successfully takes a whole attitude adjustment. Begin by realizing that your SWC isn't trying to make you mad on purpose. That change in perception can make a big difference.

Also, think about the way you communicate with your child. There's magic in the word "OK" when you use it on a SWC. My 10-year-old son Michael is a SWC. If I want Michael to do something, I'll say, "Set the table, OK?" The "OK" at the end says I know he has a choice, but that I'm asking for his help.

Now, you don't say it pleadingly, because then the SWC senses weakness. He's going to go for the jugular. It's a firm "OK" that let's my SWC know he has a choice, but if he doesn't do what I'm asking there will be consequences.

Plus, "Okay" keeps the SWC talking. If he says "No," I say, "How come?" He might respond, "I'm thirsty." And I can come back with, "Alright. Want a drink?" And then, "Set the table, Okay?" Okay.

What else can parents do?

One of my grad school professors started class one day saying "We're all going to go to Cleveland, and I'm going to give you lots of options for getting there—train, bus, plane, anyway you want to go." Then he stopped and said, "You're looking at me as though I'm crazy because you don't want to go to Cleveland. You see, if you don't want to go to Cleveland, it doesn't matter how many ways I provide to get you there. You're not going."

If I have a SWC who hates math and doesn't want to do her homework, I might think, If we just provide enough rewards or threats, she'll do her homework. So I try all these things, overlooking the obvious question: Does this child want to pass math? You have to start there.

A lot of times it's as simple as telling them something is a hoop to jump through to get something they do want. You might say, "You want to get on the basketball team and in order to do that you have to pass math. I know it's boring and you think it's useless. But it's a hoop you need to jump through." Suddenly, you've challenged the SWC to say, "I can do this. I don't have to like it, but I can do it."

I can see how that kind of approach works with older kids, but what about the strong-willed toddler or preschooler?

Again, the key is to stay firm and friendly. I was in the airport and a mother was yelling at her young child, "Stop that. Get off your dad." I was thinking how much easier it would be if she'd say, "Don't do that, Sweetie," just adding a little soft touch at the end.

You have to use action, not just words, with young children. When a child is walking where he's not supposed to walk, pick him up and gently say, "No, we're not going to do that." If he does it again, you pick him up again. Pretty soon he gets the idea. With a preschooler, you can have discipline in place, like time-outs or the loss of a privilege, and use that if your child continues to push the limits.

But remember that yelling orders to a SWC—no matter how old he is—doesn't work. If you're always yelling, your child will simply stop listening. So watch your tone of voice. There has to be a time when you can say, "Michael, stop right now!" and your child actually stops running toward the street. But if you've yelled at him about everything else, he'll tune you out and keep on running.

What else can parents do besides change the way they communicate?

There are a couple of parenting tools that work great with a SWC, but are also good rules of thumb for parents in general.

The first is to choose your battles. Too often, parents try to set themselves up as the all-knowing, all-powerful being in the hope that that approach will keep their kids in line. But it just doesn't work. A better approach is to determine as parents what your negotiable and non-negotiable issues are.

For example, in our household, physical safety is a non-negotiable issue. You don't get to ride in the car without a seatbelt. You don't walk across the street without holding hands. Spiritual and moral values are also non-negotiable. You don't lie. You don't cheat. You don't hurt people. But there are a lot of other issues that we simply have to choose to negotiate on if we want to keep those non-negotiables intact.

I was speaking at a conference recently and a woman came up to me and told me an incredible story. She said, "When my strong-willed son was young, he always complained about my cooking. One Thanksgiving when he was 12 or 13, we had the whole extended family sitting at the table. I had worked really hard on this Thanksgiving feast, and my son sat there griping about it.

"I had it. I threw a baked potato at him. Everybody was shocked. He was humiliated and went to his room. I went and apologized, but that day was a turning point. We told him, 'Look, if you want to fix your own meals, that's fine. Our requirement is that you eat with the family.' So almost every night for the next five or six years, he fixed himself a frozen pizza or a TV dinner, then came and ate with the family."

Then she said, "The bottom line is he ate with the family and there were no more battles. A lot of people said, 'You spoil that kid. You shouldn't let him have his own meal.' But they didn't live at my house. That was a battle we chose not to fight, and now he's 27 and he likes my food. Most importantly, he likes to come to my house."

Who said parents need to be rigid and inflexible? It's ironic, but God is the only one who can make us do anything, and he never has and never will force us to obey him. We think we can force a child's will when God himself does not force us. God wants us to choose to be in a relationship with him, to choose obedience. We need to parent the same way.

What can parents do when they just lose their patience and get caught up in a battle of wills?

It's hard to get out of those battles, especially if, like me, you're a strong-willed person yourself. The only thing I know to do in the heat of battle is to just stop and walk away. Agree that you'll come back later when you've both calmed down. As your child gets older, you can give her permission to walk away too, but always with the promise that you'll work on this later.

We do that with Michael and he almost always comes back once he's cooled off. He needs to feel like he's made the choice to fix things and then he's more than willing to make amends.

These strong-willed kids are not going to let the world change them. They will change the world. That's something to admire.

The other method our family tried is a kind of time-out. We have a code word we use when Michael is yelling and screaming and out of control. We agreed to use the word "kangaroo." When he starts screaming, I'll say, "Kangaroo. Kangaroo." And he'll look at me and walk away. It's not that the conflict has been defused, but it's a break. And later, when he's calmer, we can settle it.

Michael and I have a good relationship, and there are days when I can say, "Just stop it, and I mean it," and he'll do it. You have to use it very sparingly. It's like a free pass. You only get those when your standard approach is to take the time and energy to deal with issues when they come up.

Obviously, a SWC can be challenging. Is there a good side to this temperament?

Absolutely. Think about peer pressure. These strong-willed kids are not going to let the world change them. They will change the world. That's something to admire. A SWC has the ability to think independently and to stand firm for what he believes. If you look at adults who are successful, they are the people who won't let obstacles keep them from their goals. They see a challenge and meet it head-on. SWCs are determined and committed people who can make a real difference in the world.

How can parents nurture that positive side?

You have to look for the positive and praise it every chance you get. For instance, my son has the "gift" of sarcasm, just like me. When your SWC comes back at you with a snide remark, there's nothing wrong with saying, "Oh, good one. Now, you and I both know it wasn't appropriate, and it won't be tolerated, but I have to tell you, I like the way your mind works. You're the master of a quick comeback." You still have to mete out the consequences for disrespect, but you can say to that child "The way you think is incredible."

Also, parents have to help other people, like teachers, see the positive side of a SWC. At the beginning of the school year, my husband and I write up a short profile of Michael's good qualities and a note to his teacher that says, "Here's what we'd like you to know about Michael in order to understand him better." She's going to discover the challenges on her own, but I can help her see Michael's strengths.

And it's essential that a SWC knows that he's loved without question. I encourage parents to write their SWC notes that say "Here's what I like about you." These can go a long way toward reminding the SWC that despite your battles, you really do like him.

What else do you want to say to the parents of strong-willed children?

Preserving the parent/child relationship needs to come before preserving someone's sense of order in the house or getting homework done at a prescribed time. If you think about it, the same thing is true with adults. If I come home every night to someone who just nags and yells and gripes at me all the time, pretty soon I don't want to come home. Now, a child can't leave home for a while, but as soon as he's old enough to go, he will.

It's like the mom who let her son make his own dinner on the condition he ate with the family. She chose her battles and put her relationship with her child above her need to have him eat what she served. He might not have eaten her meatloaf, but they have a relationship they both enjoy. That's successful parenting.

How Strong-Willed Is Your Child?

If you suspect you're the parent of a strong-willed child, use this quiz to help you find out for sure. You can also answer the questions for yourself or your spouse to gain insights into your parenting styles.

Mark each of the following statements that are true almost all the time.

My child:

  • almost never accepts words like "impossible" or phrases like "it can't be done."
  • can move with lightning speed from being a warm, loving presence to being a cold, immovable force.
  • will argue a point into the ground, sometimes just to see how far into the ground the point will go.
  • when bored, has been known to create a crisis rather than have a day go by without incident.
  • considers rules to be more like guidelines (i.e., "As long as I'm abiding by the 'spirit' of the law, why are you being so picky?").
  • shows great creativity and resourcefulness—seems to always find a way to accomplish a goal.
  • can turn what seems to be the smallest issue into a grand crusade or a raging controversy.
  • doesn't do things just because "you're supposed to"—it needs to matter personally.
  • refuses to obey unconditionally—seems to always have a few terms of negotiation before complying.
  • is not afraid to try the unknown—to conquer the unfamiliar (although each SWC chooses his or her own risks, they all seem to possess the confidence to try new things).
  • can take what was meant to be the simplest request and interpret it as an offensive ultimatum.
  • may not actually apologize but almost always makes things right.

If you marked:
0-3Your child might have a strong will, but he doesn't use it much.
4-7Your child uses her strong will when she needs to, but not on a daily basis.
8-10Your child has a very healthy dose of strong will, but can back off when he wants to.
11-12Your child is one strong-willed kid. She finds it almost impossible not to use it.

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