If you hear “strong-willed” being used to describe your child your mind might immediately go to “difficult,” “challenging,” or “stubborn as the mule who also has no interest in putting his shoes on right now.”

Strong-willed is so much more than that though. The term itself is actually inherently positive and means that you have a child who will advocate for themselves, a child who knows what they want, and a child who isn’t going to jump off a bridge because everyone else is doing it. They might choose to do other dangerous things that leave your nerves on edge, but it will be on their own terms. The point is, your child has a mind of their own — and that’s a good thing.

What this also means is that your strong-willed child is going to grow up to be a self-motivated and courageous adult, you just need to survive raising them first! Part of that will be figuring out how to effectively communicate with, cooperate with, and discipline your child in a way that makes the most sense for them, and helps keep your family ship afloat.

Communicating with a strong-willed child

One major element of communicating with your strong-willed child is developing trust. Explaining to them why you are making decisions (for their safety, for their health, for their development) can help them understand that you aren’t trying to rule the roost for fun, but it’s all because you know they’re counting on you as their parent to help them learn and grow.

In addition, it’s critically important that you listen to your child. Communication is a two way street and while it may be frustrating to hear your child repeat over and over that they don’t want to brush their teeth, try to take a pause and figure out why. “I hear you that you don’t want to brush your teeth, can you help me understand why you don’t want to?” This doesn’t mean you are going to let your strong-willed child’s mouth become cavity central, but at least you can let them feel heard and you can figure out if that particular brand of toothpaste tastes yucky. 

Cooperating with a strong-willed child

One thing many strong-willed children have in common is that they don’t like being told what to do or when to do it. That’s a tricky one as a parent because it’s your job to provide structure, support, and get to preschool on time.

However, giving your child choice can be a very effective tool because it gives them a sense of control. For example, when you need to leave the playground ask your child if they want to ride on the swing for five more minutes or play on the monkey bars for five more minutes. A simple, “Let’s go,” might lead to a meltdown and an argument you simply don’t want to have in front of 25 strangers. The choice gives your child some control over the situation which makes them more interested in cooperating.

Another example is letting your child choose how to get their homework done. Is it really a big deal if they do their homework on the couch, the dining room table, or at their desk? Picking your battles and letting them choose how to accomplish a task can help your child stay motivated rather than discouraged.

Disciplining a strong-willed child

The trickiest part is disciplining a strong-willed child. You don’t want to put out the fire in their spirit, remember strong-will is a good thing, but you do need to set boundaries and make sure your children follow the rules. If they don’t, there has to be consequences because that’s life.

The first step is to de-escalate the situation. Strong-willed children may push and push until you’re both at your wit’s end, but learning won’t happen in a high stress situation. Let your child express their emotions, validate those emotions, and then wait until things have calmed down to talk about what went wrong, what the consequences are, and how they can avoid that in the future.

Then when it comes to determining consequences, ensure that they are logical. For example, if your child broke their sibling’s LEGO creation, time out may be your go-to punishment, but the most logistical consequence is putting the LEGOS back together. You broke it, you fix it. Teaching that for every action there is a reaction is a little bit of science (check you out, Professor Mom!) and a lot a bit of teaching children to become responsible adults.