6 Tips For Parenting Your Strong-Willed Child

Whining and crying and tantrums, OH MY! Parenting a strong-willed child can be exhausting, disheartening, overwhelming and extremely frustrating!!

Trust me – I have been in your shoes! My daughter has been extremely strong willed from day one (a trait she inherited from her mama). I like to joke with her that she was in time out “40 times per day” between the age of 2-4 years…and then FINALLY between 4-5 years, things settled down. Now don’t get me wrong…she is incredibly opinionated, occasionally argumentative, and very driven – but her constant fighting and arguing have improved after years of discipline, consistency and a bit of “creative” parenting.  

When I asked parents what issues they were having with their own strong-willed children, the answers varied from whining, to lying, to issues around bedtime, potty training, and pretty much everything in between.

While there is not one “fix-all” strategy for parenting a strong-willed child, there are certainly some basic “tricks of the trade” to help parents manage the behavior of their SWC and raise strong, respectful, independent, amazing kids.

First, let me say that MOST children have “strong-willed” moments. We don’t call 3 year olds “threenagers” for nothing! During the toddler and preschool years, it is natural for children to test boundaries and exert their independence. This is actually a GREAT thing (having a child that is 100% compliant and doesn’t ever seem to have their own opinion can actually lead to lots of trouble in adolescence).

Strong-willed children have the same natural “push the boundaries” moments that other children have BUT they are often more PERSISTENT or EXTREME in their behavior. There are days when it seems like EVERYTHING is a fight! If you find yourself in a constant battle with your strong-willed child, here are 6 strategies to help:

#1 Consistency is KEY 

If you ask your child put away their toys before bed one night and you hold fast to that request only to give in to their whining the next night, not only is your child unsure of their boundaries but they are more likely to push back and whine the next time you ask them to do something because they have learned that this is how they can get their way. Furthermore, if your child has more than one parent or caregiver, EVERYONE needs to be on the same page when it comes to discipline. If a strong-willed child senses that one parent will give in to their “demands” more than another, you can BET they will use that to their advantage.

#2 Ask, don’t tell 

Strong-willed children DON’T like to be told what to do. Often they will push back even if it’s something they would typically WANT to do simply because they don’t feel they have a choice in the matter. Rather than saying “Clean up these toys because it’s time to go to the park” try “I know that you love going to the park and mommy is really looking forward to taking you there. Would you please pick up your toys so that we can leave. I’m so excited to spend time with you at the park!”

#3 Form routines NOT rules 

Telling a strong-willed child that they HAVE to do something because that is the “rule” will often result in kick back and very likely an argument and/or tantrum. Strong-willed children are very concerned with the “why” behind why they are doing something (and “because I said so” is not a good enough reason for them). Routines take the authoritative aspect of the request away. You’re not imposing a rule on your child – it’s just how it’s done. For example: Before bed we pick up toys, brush our teeth and read a book. It’s not a question about what to do – it’s just a consistent routine. If (or should I say when) you get push back from your SWC, it’s much easier as a parent to say “This is our routine, it’s the same every night. We put our toys away to be respectful of others in the house. We brush our teeth to stay healthy and keep the cavities away. We read books to help our mind grow stronger. If you would like to read a book before we pick up toys, we can do that, but this is our routine.” End of story – no need to argue.

#4 Offer CHOICES whenever possible

Strong-willed children want to be in control of themselves and their surroundings from a very young age. You will find that you get MUCH farther if you allow your strong-willed child to have CHOICES (just be sure that the choices you offer are acceptable to you). Some examples of choices: Do you want to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt today? Would you like broccoli or green beans for dinner? Would you like to put your shoes or your coat on first before we leave? Notice that all of these are very specific and not open ended (if you ask “What shirt do you want to wear?” or “What do you want to eat for dinner?” you are VERY LIKELY to get an answer that you’re not happy with).

#5 Pick your battles

Dr. Laura Markham, clinical psychologist, author, and blogger at states that “You don’t have to attend every argument to which you’re invited.” Strong-willed children have this uncanny way of pushing our buttons as parents and arguing about anything and everything. That being said – it takes two to tango. If you don’t engage in the argument, the situation can often be diffused very quickly. I’m not suggesting that you give in to your child in every instance or let them have their way every time – BUT there are certain times (what outfit they are going to wear, whether they want to wear a coat out of the house, whether they pick their toys up immediately or in 5 minutes when it’s time to leave the house) that can be negotiable. Giving a strong-willed child some sense of control in their life will take you SO FAR and minimize the struggles you are having. If your child decides not to wear her coat out on a cool day and then later gets cold, she will learn a valuable lesson (and WON’T catch pneumonia…I promise). That being said – there are some battles that you need to fight, no matter what:

  • Issues of safety: seatbelts, helmets, holding hands when crossing the street, etc. These are issues of your child’s safety and well being and you absolutely need to hold firm on these issues.
  • Backtalk and issues of respect:  it’s one thing to allow your child to have an opinion and voice that opinion to you…but it’s important that they learn to do that in a kind and respectful manner. Harsh language and downright rude comments should NOT be tolerated. This ABSOLUTELY goes both ways and we, as parents, must model respectful tone and dialogue with our children. Do as I say, not as I do does NOT work with strong-willed children.
  • Pre-established routines/boundaries: if bedtime is at 8pm, then you need to stand by that. SWC are born negotiators and if you continually give in to them, they will learn that all they have to do to get their way is keep up the argument and you will eventually cave. You NEED to be strong in these moments. As stated above, by simply stating that this is the routine and this is how it’s done takes the “bad guy” aspect out of it.

#6 Use POSITIVE reinforcements and rewards whenever possible 

We all like to be told that we’re doing a good job and strong-willed children are no exception. When you see your SWC doing something that you want to reinforce – PRAISE THEM! “Thank you for picking up your toys the first time Mommy asked.” “I like how you got yourself ready for school without needing reminders.” “Thank you for brushing your teeth without a fuss.” Also – offering rewards can often be a way to give your SWC choice in their behavior: “If you pick up your toys and brush your teeth in the next 5 minutes, then we can read TWO books tonight, but if you choose not to do that, then we will go to bed without a book tonight.”

Before I leave you feeling worse than you did when you started reading, I want to give you this final thought. While strong-willed children are incredibly challenging to parent  – they have the potential to be AMAZING adults who can change the world. So take heart – by not following the crowd and being persistent in their beliefs, strong-willed children have the potential to become leaders and innovators. Or perhaps pediatricians…