Handling an alpha personality in the boardroom can be challenging, but it doesn’t hold a candle to parenting one at home.
A strong-willed child is a beautiful thing—opinionated, independent, full of tenacity. Yet it’s those same exact qualities that can sap even the most devoted parent of their energy, enthusiasm, and patience.
Before you free-fall into a world of exasperated “Because I said so!”, take a beat and try one of these useful techniques from parenting soothsayer Cynthia Ulrich Tobias, educator and author of You Can’t Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded).
Instead of a “do it or else” mentality, think about how to present choices to your child. “Strong-willed children need to keep at least some control over their own lives,” Tobias writes. “When they feel cornered, they may end up exercising the only option they have left—even if it’s unpleasant or harmful.” If you have a toddler, let him or her choose an outfit. If you have a teen, let them know you won’t budge on homework deadlines, but allow them to decide when they do it (even if it’s 11 p.m.!).
Choose Your Battles
If there’s one golden rule, it’s this: Don’t negotiate everything. “If you make a big deal out of everything, pretty soon everything will be a big deal,” Tobias says. Set your ground rules (obviously ensure your child is obeying the law), and then allow for some wiggle room. Perhaps you can let your elementary age kid skip a shower, or allow your teen to say “please” between clenched teeth (so long as he says it). If you’re constantly going head to head on the same topic, follow up after the moment of friction has passed. “Your strong-willed child needs to feel he has input. The more you can involve your strong-willed child in coming up with a solution, the better your chances of avoiding the problem in the first place,” Tobias advises.
Play the Humor Card
Laughter may be the best way out of the “push-react-push” sequence parents often find themselves in with a strong-willed child. Make a joke, break the tension with physical comedy, or drop a quippy “nice try” like Tobias does when her teenage son tries to con his way out of something. If that gets you nowhere, that’s OK. Back off, ask yourself “what’s the point” of the conflict, and then be honest with your child about your needs in the situation. “Your honesty and candor will go a long way toward establishing a relationship of trust and cooperation,” Tobias says.
Uncover Their Motivation
Does your child feel they can’t be bothered with doing their homework? There is a reason. Do they think it’s pointless? Are they overwhelmed? Do they hate the class? Talk about it. “Let your child know what the point of the homework is and what the consequences of not doing it will be, and then let him decide what to do,” Tobias writes. Make your child accountable for the work itself—not your expectations of the work—and perhaps it will shift their perspective.
Trust in Your Child
A defining characteristic of the strong-willed child is the “I can do it” mentality. When fostered, that point of view will push them far in life—they will try and try again, either to fail or succeed. You can’t control those outcomes. But what you can control is making your child feel safe and supported. With firm ground rules set, allow them to dabble in trial-and-error from an early age. “Your strong-willed child believes anything is possible,” Tobias writes, explaining why arguments based on fear of failure don’t work. “The more pressure you put on [your strong-willed child], the less productive [they will] be.”
For more strategies that will immediately help you reduce tension at home and build a better, more positive relationship with your strong-willed child, check out the revised edition of You Can’t Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded).
Mandy Major is a writer and editor who recently traded New York City’s skyscrapers for the Connecticut shoreline. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Every Day with Rachael Ray, and Prevention, among other publications. A reading advocate and board member for her local library, she is working on her first collection of short stories.
Illustration: Marie Guillard