Talking about strong-willed children is all the rage. Everyone thinks they are raising little leaders these days, and I can’t disagree. But even so I think it’s a good idea to clarify the concept.
After church one day back in Australia, I was chatting with a girlfriend. A girlfriend with a beautiful little blondie who was a handful and a half.
I’d had one of Those Weeks with my oldest daughter and confided my dreaded fear… that she was going to be a very strong-willed child.
I’ll never forget the look she gave me, bless her.
Australians, like the British, are generally too polite to be blunt (not an American problem).
Knowing my daughter, she kind of cocked her head to the side, raised her eyebrows, pursed her lips a little and said, “Hmm, I don’t know, do you really think so?”
She went on to describe her daughter’s behavior – same age as mine – and I immediately started to see her point.
Strong willed or defiant?
In fact, I began to wonder if my daughter was acting so defiant and out of character because it was a Wonder Week or if something else was going on under the surface.
After one week – probably less than – of firm boundaries, lots of quality time, and extreme consistency… she was back to normal. Still pushing the envelope, testing my resolve, and asserting her will, as all children do, but being amenable and easy to parent.
She is, in fact, not a typical strong-willed child.
She’s just a child with a will who tests the waters now and again to see where the boundaries lie.
All small children will assert their own will and buck authority on occasion. It’s how they learn who is in charge at home, how far they can go, and what their limitations are.
That doesn’t make them strong-willed, that makes them human.
While labels in themselves aren’t important, our expectations are. Truly strong-willed children will indeed be a handful.
They will require more consistency and firmness (though always with love) as a parent since they are not your average child.
Emotions are a H U G E part of a young child’s life. These “I Am Feeling” cards will reduce tantrums, meltdowns, and help your little one learn emotional awareness.Learn More
However, I believe the danger lies here… when we label a child as strong-willed because of some behavior and then begin “hands off” parenting as a result.
We attribute their reactions and actions to their strong and unyielding personality instead of firming up, trying to get our children’s behavior back in control, and resetting an out of whack home atmosphere.
We begin allowing all sorts of behaviors we wouldn’t normally in the name of their strong will.
So how do I know if my child is really strong willed?
Here are some ways to differentiate. It can be tempting to think that your child’s behavior is due to bad parenting, but raising a strong willed child just requires a different parenting strategy.
Strong willed children are consistently persistent
Your strong-willed child won’t just be stubborn when refusing to do what you’ve asked.
They will be persistent in anything they want, positive or negative.
They will work hard, work fast, and try to bring about their wishes forcefully and with enthusiasm, sometimes even aggression.
If they aren’t very persistent yet will throw a huge tantrum in response to one of your boundaries, that doesn’t necessarily make them strong willed, just strongly opposed to your current wish.
Strong willed children want a reason, not just to be contrary
All toddlers and preschoolers go through phases where they just don’t want to do what you ask. It’s called testing.
But a strong-willed child isn’t just defiant for the sake of being defiant, they have their reasons.
Don’t bother wasting your breath with “Because I said so” on these kids, they need to know your logic and rationale.
If you dig deeper and ask the right questions, you’ll usually find your strong-willed child has a reason they are resisting your instruction, even if it doesn’t seem important or logical to you.
On the other hand, sometimes children just don’t want to do what we’ve asked because they don’t feel like doing what we’ve asked.
That’s called being human. And being contrary.
Read: What’s Really Happening When Your Kids Are Defiant
They are fast… across the board
Strong-willed children are fast at many things (source). They often walk early, talk fast, and try to spur things along quickly.
However, if you ask them to do something they don’t want to do they can drag their feet for a million years. When it suits them, they are quick and speedy.
When it doesn’t, they don’t care.
If your child is slow, passive, and easy going, but with a strong reaction to certain things they dislike, they probably aren’t strong-willed, just human.
All children need limits, strong-willed children demand them
Some children are more flexible, relaxed, and go with the flow. You won’t have to maintain a strict routine with them and can be a lot more spontaneous.
Strong-willed children are usually not like this. They will assert their own will and desires so strongly that you are forced to create boundaries and keep them.
All children need clear limits and boundaries (lack thereof causes insecurity), but to have a peaceful and harmonious home with strong-willed children, you’ll have to step up your own game.
Read: Strong Willed Children And Boundaries… Oh My!
Pull out these fun connecting questions to share some laughs with your precious ones!
Use them at:
- meal times
- car rides
- as a “calm down” trick
- for dinner time conversation
- or any time the day is getting chaotic or
- you need a reset to connect.
A strong will can be created and then enforced by your choices
It’s important we remind ourselves, even though it’s hard, that many of our children’s behaviors are directly related to our own.
If we don’t keep consistent rules, boundaries, and show regular affection to our kids they will act out. And it won’t be positive.
A strong will is part of the personality and temperament.
It doesn’t just rear its head when they are unhappy.
But on the bright side… a strong will is 100% more desirable than a defiant attitude.
Kathryn H. says
You make really good distinctions here, Rachel, that are sometimes lost in advice regarding “strong-willed” children and “raising leaders.” (Cough :-) )
Something else that might help is to think about how to encourage each unique child to actively develop their virtue. Parents can tell by observation and knowledge of their children where their kids’ weaknesses are; what in their personalities and temperaments needs direction; and how those tendencies to be defiant, etc., can be guided or redirected in ways that develop strength of character rather than spin off into naughtiness, negative character traits, or chaos.
Trying to redirect a strong will so that the child becomes who God wants him or her to be can cut through some of the power struggles. It’s not about making a kid “be good,” but helping him or her to be the wonderful person God created. God may have great plans in mind for the strong-willed; but first we all have to learn to be humble, obedient, compassionate, patient, and other things that may not come easily.
Rachel Norman says
Kathryn, what a beautiful way you have described leading each child to God based on their own temperament and identity. SO TRUE!
Rachel, you took the words right out of my mouth. ..very beautiful and so true!
Rachel Norman says
Glad we’re on the same page Shelly!
Kelly Packham says
My husband & I are 52 & 49 and have found ourselves after raising our own children to adulthood raising a great-niece since birth. She is 4 now and my goodness this hit the nail on the head. I feel great exhaustion mentally, emotionally & physically. Strong-willed fits her to a “t”. The lack of consistency may be a big part. Her parents are both in & out of prison for drugs. She is happy and knows us to be Mommy & Papa. Being grandparents & a bit older than traditional parents, we have spoiled. :/ Now she bucks at everything we tell her many times. She spits at cousins & scratches them if angry. I have put her in timeout and had to hold her there, have spanked her although I hate it & with no results, took away privileges like going to the store with me when the last few times was a huge embarrassment..Not sure what to do to reverse all this. My husband will not get on the same page as me as far correcting her behavior. She does not wrong. :/ I love him but am truly struggling. Love this baby girl to pieces but worn out and looking for tips to change her before it becomes permanently ingrained in her personality. Thank you. Kelly
Rachel Norman says
Hi Kelly, man what a struggle. I’d definitely say that part of it is probably adjusting to their “new normal” with you guys. What a blessing she has you guys to take care of her. I’d say the first thing to do is write down a set of consequences YOU will do when she does these behaviors. I’d try your best to get your husband on board (of course you can’t control him though) and carry those consequences out every single time. Even if you have to go get her from where she is in the house (near him not you) and carry them out. It may take a lot of time and her believing that you mean business, but it can happen.
Again, what a generous and loving grandmother you are!