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We are in August if you can believe it. The topic for this month is the strong willed child’s temperament, their natural personality that they’re born with. We want to help you understand it better, have some compassion for where they’re coming from, get to know some specific characteristics in their temperament that can be challenging and some parenting tips on how to navigate those specific characteristics.
Marriage and family therapist, Jeff Tesch is going to help us understand our strong-willed child’s personality a little better today.
Jeff Tesch LMFT, MS
Common Characteristics of the Strong-willed Child’s Personality
Most parents are WELL aware of their strong-willed child’s characteristics, but I think it’s worth mentioning again briefly.
Strong-willed kids are usually:
- Less flexible
- Emotionally reactive
- Want what they want, when they want it
- Want to be in charge
- Resistant to the desires of others
- Don’t like being told “No”
- Harder to discipline
- Slower to respond to efforts to improve their behavior
- Not push-overs
- Speak their mind
- Great leaders
- Good negotiators
Your Child Didn’t CHOOSE to Be Strong-Willed
Some elements of personality are present from birth. Each of us have characteristics that we were born with that we may or may not like. The same is true of our strong-willed kids. Many of them have been strong-willed since they were babies.
In fact, therapists will often ask parents who seek help, what their child was like as a baby. We do that because we can quickly start to learn if the child has always been strong-willed or if they’ve just learned that behavior over time.
If they were a very calm, quiet baby and are out of control behavior now, a therapist is more likely to conclude that the behavior is learned. But if the parents say their child was tough from the get-go, we know we’re dealing more with a tough personality.
It’s also important to know that personality is pretty consistent through the lifespan. The personality characteristics that you see in your child are probably going to be part of their personality throughout their whole life. Don’t get discouraged though, because even strong-willed kids can learn to function incredibly well with consistent teaching.
It’s also important to know that your strong-willed child isn’t being strong-willed to make your life miserable. I know that parents can feel like their strong-willed child’s behavior is intentional. I know because I have been there. I have a couple of strong-willed kids of my own that are very challenging. However, I think it’s important to remember that their behavior is generally not thought through. Rather, it is truly just their brain functioning, their personality. Remembering that helps me feel more patient and loving even during challenging times.
Being Strong-Willed Is Not Only Tough on Parents, It Can Also Be Tough on Strong-willed Kids
I’ve seen so many kids in my office that struggle themselves with being strong-willed. They can’t understand why it’s easy for others to comply, but not for them. They can’t understand why others easily make friends, get along with teachers, feel liked by their parents, but they don’t.
Through the stress of all this, they can start to think the THEY are a problem, that THEY are not good. I’ve seen strong-willed kids struggle with depression because of the shame they feel from being different than others around them. Once a child starts to feel this way, they usually start to behave even worse!
Strong-willed kids can struggle not only at home, but in other settings as well. They may find a classroom setting to be challenging, social setting, etc. People in all those settings can decide that your strong-willed child is bad and start to treat them that way.
As parents, it’s easy to feed into this also. Our strong-willed kids can be so challenging that we can start to not LIKE them even though we LOVE them. The day in and day out challenge of parenting them can cause us to resent them and only see the negative in them.
This is such a dangerous cycle to get into. If a child feels like their own parents think they’re awful, it’s hard for them to believe in themselves.
What Should Parents Do With a Such a Challenging Child?
First, let me say that I know that parenting a strong-willed child is NOT easy. Even with all my education and experience, parenting my strong-willed kids is the HARDEST thing that I get to do. But my education, clinical experience, and personal life have taught me that parents of strong-willed kids have some really specific things they need to do:
- Learn parenting skills designed for strong-willed kids- the more skilled we are as parents, the more likely our kids are to behave well, develop well, and feel good about themselves. There are some skills that I teach that can change the trajectory of yours and your child’s life. Please consider learning those here.
- Be consistent with good parenting skills- I have a lot of parents who have learned good parenting skills, used them, seen results with them, then stop using them! When that happens, their families go back to the way they used to be. Their homes become full of misbehavior, yelling, and negativity again. It is so critical to continue using good skills throughout your child’s entire life!
- Be relentlessly optimistic about their child- I know how TOUGH this is. It is incredibly difficult to think positive things about a child who is being so challenging! However, if we can keep our thoughts about our child optimistic it will not only change the way we think about them, it will also change how we feel about them, interact with them, and it will keep our own negative emotions more under control. To learn more about changing our thinking about our strong-willed kids, go here.
- Help your children see their own goodness- If your strong-willed child struggles in different settings, they may begin to give up on themselves. Parents have an awesome opportunity to help their children see their own goodness and believe in themselves again. Be your child’s cheerleader.
- Teach your child how to manage their personality- Not only are you poised to be excellent cheerleader for your child, you’re also in a position to be a great teacher. No one knows your child better than you, no one cares about your child’s welfare more than you, no one will be as dedicated of a teacher as you. Your child needs YOU to learn about them and to teach them how to make their weaknesses strengths.Research shows that one of the most important things we can teach our children is emotional intelligence. I recommend every parent reads the book Raising and Emotionally Intelligent Child by Jon Gottman. It will help you with this really important task.
- Do NOT take full responsibility for the outcome of your child- Here’s the reality. Some parents are not taking enough responsibility for the outcome and welfare of their children and some parents are taking TOO MUCH responsibility for the outcome of their children. My guess is that you are a parent who is more likely to take too much responsibility.You will be disappointed and most likely unhealthy if you try to own the outcome of your child’s life 100%. You can only love so much, teach so much, guide so much. Your children are responsible for accepting your love, using your teachings, and choosing a good life. If you feel like you are doing what you are supposed to do, then you’re children get to own the rest.
Being Strong-Willed Can Be a Great Strength
I feel like it’s important to recognize that there are so many things that are GREAT about being strong-willed.
Strong-willed kids can be more driven, more achievement-oriented, more assertive, more willing to defend themselves and others, etc. These characteristics that come so naturally to them can be helpful in many situations.
So I like to teach parents that one of the most important jobs we have as parents is to see the good in their strong-willed kids and help them see it in themselves. Seek for opportunities for them to use their strengths and celebrate their success.
I also think that it’s important not to try to CHANGE our children’s personalities, rather teach how to use their personalities to make the world a better place.
Being Strong-Willed Is Not a Death Sentence
Some of my colleagues used to tell parents that being strong-willed was a death sentence. Maybe not a death sentence, but that things were going to always be awful and that strong-willed kids were never going to function well.
I have NEVER believed that and have too much proof from families in my office to ever believe it. Instead, I see strong-willed as simply being a grouping of specific behaviors and that we can teach and coach our kids to use their personality in great ways. Kids can learn, even with these really challenging temperaments and there is great hope for their futures.
Some Mindset Shifts Can Help Parents of Strong-willed Kids Function Better
A mindset shift is replacing one way of thinking for another that is healthier. I find that a lot of my clients get trapped in thinking that does not help them feel health or happiness as they parent strong-willed kids. It’s unfortunate that as human beings, it’s so much easier for us to see the negative. We have to be more intentional at seeing the good.
Here are some of the mindset shifts that I recommend for parents to make to help them intentionally see/remember the good:
- Replace “My child is bad” with “My child was born with some challenging traits, but there is hope for them.”
- Replace thoughts about all the ways they screw up with memories of times they did really well.
- Make some positive memories together that you can think about anytime you’re feeling trapped in negative thinking. My wife and I have a list of five that we have written down. On rough days with our toughest child, we’ll pull out the list to remember that things aren’t always bad.
- Replace longing for easier children with acceptance that your kids are strong-willed. But be hopeful that they will, one day, turn into fantastic adults.
Parents of Strong-Willed Children Will Burnout If They Don’t Care for Themselves
I won’t say much on this topic because we are discussing it at length in October, but I do want to mention it a little.
Parenting a strong-willed child is much more challenging than parenting an easy-going child, requires a lot more patience, and improvements in your child’s behavior can take much longer. Parenting these kids is exponentially more difficult than raising easy-going kids and it’s a long-term challenge. As such, you will need to take exponentially more time for self-care.
I know that self-care is really hard for parents, especially moms. For some reason parents feel guilty taking time for themselves or don’t feel like there’s a way to do it. But self-care needs to be a priority for parents of strong-willed kids. I can’t tell you how many parents I see on the brink of mental collapse because they are parenting tough kids without taking a break.
If you’re parenting a strong-willed child, you can either make ways to care for yourself and be a better parent for it or you can fall apart. The parents that I see care for themselves have the strength to be the parents they need to be for strong kids.
Even though it is so tough to parent a strong-willed child, we are happy that your strong-willed child has you. Here you are, learning and growing as a parent in an effort to help your child. Thank you for your dedication to your family.
And as always,