How to Handle a Strong Willed Child

Most families have one, typically they are the misunderstood middle child. Sometimes it can be any child. Strong willed children don’t conform very easily, they question everything and are often too smart for their own good.

I know firsthand what it is like to live with a strong willed child. His name is Joseph and he has a very bad case of middle child syndrome. He often gets mad because he’s too old to be babied but too young to have the freedoms his older bother has. Joseph knows the only reason his mother hasn’t killed him is because he is too dam cute.

Joseph doesn’t comply very easily. Everything is a battle with him. My husband and I have predicted he will become a contract negotiator when he is an adult. Here is an example of a typical argument\power struggle with Joseph. I would go get Joseph from school, the whole way home he would whine and whine that he didn’t want to do his homework. I would continually tell him over and over and over again getting madder each time that he had no choice but to do his homework. We’d get home, he’d sit down to do his homework, he’d stall, whine some more, and then throw his pencil. I’d loose it, yell, and send him to his room. He’d go to his room and start to scream. I’d go close the door. He’d just continue to scream and start to pound on the wall. Instead of just leaving him to his tantrum I would go to his room and yell at him and make some empty threat like “if you don’t stop you are not going to ever play the Game Cube again.” Eventually he would get tired, calm down and I’d let him out.

After years of fighting with little Joseph I finally had come to the end of my rope one day and called a child psychologist. Fortunately my employer has an employee assistance program. I was able to see a therapist for three free sessions per incident.

After listening to me describe my struggles with Joseph the therapist asked if I wanted him to see Joseph or me. I quickly decided that I wanted to be the one to see him so I could learn how to get along better with Joseph. Later I found out that most patients of child psychologists are actually the parents.

The therapist explained that strong willed children actually want boundaries and structure. I thought I was the queen of structure. I had even read Dr James Dobson’s The Strong Willed Child. It turns out that I wasn’t as structured as I thought. The therapist pointed out that I was letting Joseph win by allowing myself to get into a power struggle with him.

I learned the key to a successful relationship with Joseph was becoming a never bending oak tree. With most children when the parent bends the rules they see it as the parent giving them a break and they are grateful. A strong willed child doesn’t see bending as mercy, they see it has they’ve won and that you are weak for bending. The scary thing is that if they win more than you do it really can mess them up emotionally.

So my therapist made it very clear DO NOT, under any circumstances let Joseph drag me into a power struggle. Another rule was to make sure the punishment fit the crime instead of using empty treats. I learned to not use long explanations to explain my rules because after just after a few words the child isn’t even listening to you any more.

The same day I went to see the therapist I was able to test my new found skills when were coming home from school. I had previously made a rule that Joseph was not allowed to have a snack after school until he finished his homework. Now this may sound harsh, but without that rule Joseph would take forever to do his homework in task avoidance.

Joseph, “Can I have a snack first?”
Me, “No, Joseph, that is the rule”
Joseph, “Why not, I am hungry”
Me, “What did I just say?”
Joseph, “ButtâÂ?¦.”
Me, “Am I going to argue with you about this?”
Joseph, “No..”

Amazingly that was the end of that discussion. Later on that afternoon I caught him in the livingroom looking at toys when he was supposed to be doing his homework. I just looked at him and said:
Me “What should you be doing?”
Joseph, “My homework”

That was the end of it. I am not going to say it has been easy but it has gotten better. The most important things I learned was:

1. Do not get into the power struggle
2. Do not use long explanations
3. Ask him questions like, “What should you be doing? What is the rule?” so that he has to repeat to me what he knows the rules are
4. Do not let him win

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