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7 things to never say to your strong-willed child (and what to say instead)

Nov. 8, 2019
7 things to never say to your strong-willed child (and what to say instead)

Having a strong-willed child can be a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, their seemingly relentless stubbornness can present daily frustrations and power struggles. On the other hand, isn’t the goal of every parent to raise strong, confident people who are equipped to deal with life’s challenges? 

“In many ways, the attributes of a strong-willed child are exactly the traits we want them to possess but later when they’re grown up,” says Tovah Klein, Ph.D., director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of “How Toddlers Thrive.” “We all want our kids to be confident, have a voice, stand up for themselves and not simply follow what others say. But when they’re little, we don't always like it because it can make our lives as parents more challenging.”

According to Klein, even though it can be aggravating at times, it’s good for young kids to have ideas, opinions, desires and even challenge their parents — all hallmarks of becoming your own person and developing a sense of self.

“At the same time, children need to know that parents are in control and are there to protect them,” says Klein. “Once kids start challenging mom and dad, parents may forget how little their kids actually are, but it’s important to learn how to tow the line between letting strong-willed kids spread their wings and having them understand who’s in charge.”

While communicating with a strong-willed child may sometimes feel like a task in and of itself, it is possible to effectively set boundaries and enforce rules without stepping on their spirit, which can crush their sense of being a capable and separate person. 

Here are seven comments parents often make to their strong-willed kids, along with expert advice on how to better convey these messages, instill confidence and minimize power struggles. 

1. The comment: ‘You’re being bossy’ or ‘Stop being so bossy’

As Tina Fey has written, there are many merits to being “bossy pants.” Not only do “bossy” people usually know precisely what they want, they’re also often leaders and, in the case of self-proclaimed bossy pants Tina Fey, wildly successful. But that’s not to say parents don’t want to rein in their child’s “bossy” behavior at times. 

“I sometimes overhear my 6-year-old daughter making demands at her two younger siblings — and frankly, some of the things she’s asking of them are unreasonable or sound downright rude,” says Christina Bacon, of White Plains, New York. “But when I tell her she’s being ‘bossy,’ it just doesn’t feel quite right, because eventually, I would like her to be a boss.”

A better option: “Strong-willed kids are often labeled as ‘bossy’ with a negative connotation, but these children are often inner-directed and determined to know how to make their own decisions and be leaders,” says Melissa Horowitz, L.M.S.W., of Liz Morrison Therapy in New York. “If you feel like your child is being bossy, try to give them power through choice and praise them for communicating with others in a polite and respectful way.” 

For instance, if your child is attempting to hog all the toys at playtime, give them an option between two, and then praise them for making a choice and communicating that decision. 

It’s also important for parents to model respectful requests and communication while expressing their feelings. 

“When you feel like your strong-willed child is being ‘bossy’ to you, you can say: ‘When you speak to me that way, it makes me feel upset and angry,’ and maybe give them a more manners-mindful way of communicating by showing them how to use ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’” says Horowitz. “By doing this, you’re setting a good example for your child on how to appropriately communicate while helping them to understand your feelings.”

2. The comment: ‘Just let me do it’

Any parent of a strong-willed child can attest that these kids want to do all the things on their own, even if it means being late for school or making a colossal mess. The reason? They’re hands-on learners. 

“Strong-willed children learn through experience,” says Horowitz. “Usually, they want to engage in activities autonomously in order to come to conclusions on their own rather than accepting directives from others.”

A better option: Instead of putting your child’s shoes and socks on them yourself — which, let’s be honest, will take about a quarter of the time — plan ahead.  

“Leave yourself more time for what your child wants to do,” says Klein. “Sure, it’s easier for us to do it, but when we rush our kids or take over, it negates what your child needs, which is to figure out how to do something on their own and then feel great afterwards because they did it!”

If allowing your child to do something by themselves isn’t feasible, Klein recommends offering them half of their desire, like holding up their jacket and letting them do the rest. And if a meltdown occurs, recognize how frustrating it is for them.

“You can say something like, ‘You wanted to do your shoes all by yourself, and they wouldn't go on. That is so frustrating,’” says Klein. “And then offer them half the help.”

3. The comment: ‘I’m the one in charge here, not you’ (Also see: ‘Because I said so’)

“Sometimes when my strong-willed son starts questioning every request I make of him, I find myself blurting out something like: ‘Because I’m the mom, and I’m in charge!’ out of sheer exhaustion,” says Jaclyn Santos, of Hazlet, New Jersey. “The only thing this ever winds up doing is frustrating both of us even more.”

A better option: Reverse it. Instead of engaging in power struggles with your child — which are always coming from a reactive place, as opposed to an empathetic one — let your child think they’re the one in control.  

“After recognizing what your child wants and letting them know a limit, if possible, give them a choice so they feel in charge,” says Klein. “It will say to them that you appreciate their desire, and it will also convey in a not-so-obvious way that you really are the one in charge right now.” 

This boundary, ironically, offers even the most strong-willed of children a sense of security. 

Klein offers the following example: “You can say: ‘I wish we could read all the books and stay up forever, but we would be so tired! So I have to get you to bed. Do you want to read this book first, or the other one first?’"

4. The comment: ‘Clean up your toys/room’ or any other direct command

Few kids will jump at the opportunity to stop playing in order to clean up or go to school, but when you’re parenting the strong-willed child, it can become an all-out battle. 

“A lot of my friends’ kids ignore their parents when they ask them to clean their room or get dressed, but my daughter will flat-out tell me ‘no,’” says Louise Chisholm, of New York. “From there, an argument almost always ensues.”

A better option: The reason strong-willed kids often resist and even challenge their parents is because, according to Horowitz, they’re questioners and thinkers by nature and want to come to conclusions on their own. 

“Try asking your child why they think you’re asking them to do something,” says Horowitz. “By engaging in a conversation, it gives strong-willed kids the opportunity to have an active and involved role in the decision-making process.”

Additionally, you can make them part of the overall process by reframing your request to get their input. 

“Instead of telling your child to clean their room, ask them what else they need to do to finish up playtime or what will make clean-up easier or faster,” says Horowitz. “Asking what your child needs in order to complete a task will help them feel respected and like they have a choice in the situation.”

5. The comment: ‘Stop doing that’

Ask a strong-willed child to stop doing something, and, well, there’s a good chance they’ll refuse. And, as with making a specific request, a power struggle can often result. One of the reasons? Strong-willed kids don’t like to blindly follow requests without understanding the why behind it all. 

A better option: Pick your battles, Klein advises. 

“If you save the ‘no’s and ‘stop it’s for what really matters, then children are more likely to respect you and the limit,” Klein says. “Also, rather than springing a ‘stop it’ on them unexpectedly, give them a heads up — something like, ‘you’re not going to like this but ... ‘ — so they feel more in control and don't have to feel ashamed that they are doing something wrong. Next, follow with your request, as well as an alternative, such as: ‘We can't throw the toys all over the room, but here is a bucket, and you can throw them all in here.’”

Another option is to offer your child a do-over after they do something inappropriate, such as banging their fists on the table. 

“A do-over can be effective with a strong-willed child because it shows the child that the parent trusts them to engage in positive behavior and learn from their mistakes,” says Horowitz. “In this scenario, the child can stop banging their fists on the table and communicate their feelings in a positive way.” 

6. The comment: ‘Go to timeout’

While strong-willed kiddos certainly need to take a break sometimes, asking them to go to sit in timeout may not be the most effective option when it comes to stopping negative behavior now or in the future. Research has shown that timeouts, which date back to 1969, make it more difficult for kids to work through their feelings and cope with distress since, what they usually need in those moments, is the support of a loved one. 

“Really, timeouts only serve to make children feel bad,” says Klein. “And the reason strong-willed kids often fight back when you ask them to go to time out is because they feel ashamed and out of control, and the shame gets them to fight back to gain control.”

A better option: “If you feel like your child could use a break, take a break with them — and call it that,” says Klein. “Take them to another room, and let them know you’re going to help them calm down.” 

Another way to deter negative behavior is to reinforce positive behavior. 

“Reward your child for good behavior by making a pom pom jar,” says Horowitz. “Children are given a pom pom for good behaviors, and when the jar is filled, they’re given a reward. Before the jar is full, ask them about the type of reward they’d like to receive. Engaging in this dialogue supports strong-willed children in feeling responsible for their actions, having a choice and feeling respected and valued by their parents.”

7. The comment: ‘Brush your teeth or we’re not going to the park’ (Also see: Ultimatums)

According to Horowitz, ultimatums — aka threats — will often lead to power struggles similar to tug of war: The harder you try to convey what you want, the more the child will resist.

A better option: In addition to having an established set of rules, which can prevent pushback from kids since they know what’s coming, it can help to explain why something needs to be done. 

“Instead of saying, ‘If you don’t brush your teeth, you’re not going to the park,’ tell them why it’s necessary by saying something like, ‘It’s important to brush your teeth, so you stay healthy. Once you brush your teeth, we will be able to go to the park. Do you understand why?’” Horowitz says. “It’s important to make sure strong-willed kids understand the reason for rules and expectations, as they often want to know why they should engage in a certain behavior.”

Additionally, when you actively discuss expectations with your child, you’re strengthening your relationship and their behavior. 

“When you explain the meaning behind rules to your child, you’re increasing a sense of connectedness in the parent-child relationship,” says Horowitz. “And when children feel connected and trusted by their parents, they are more likely to cooperate and follow established family rules.”

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