Parents of a strong-willed child can wonder how they will get through the day when everything feels like a battle. It feels like our child is in charge. Getting even the tiniest amount of cooperation seems impossible. Our strong-willed child is determined and won’t take “no” for an answer. This can leave us feeling frustrated, overwhelmed and even helpless. How do we help a strong-willed child to unlock and encourage them to do what we want them to do? Here’s a heads-up on things that can help to take the pressure off.

Strong-willed children have strong feelings

Understand what makes them tick

The way we respond has a lot to do with how things end up. What won’t work is to add more pressure when our child is already in an entrenched position. A strong-willed child will dig their heels in even more. We need to understand what is going on for them and look at the reasons for the behaviour. Pausing for a moment to think about how our child feels is the first thing that can help.

There are lots of reasons why a child is strong-willed, partly it’s their temperament and what drives their behaviour is their strong feelings. Learning how to be an emotion coach can help to reflect back and soothe their strong feelilngs. When we understand how to help a strong-willed child to process their emotions by using an emotion coaching response we can make progress. Once the emotions are processed we are more likely to encourage cooperation. Here’s how to be an emotion coach on a typical morning when our child doesn’t want to get up.

Focus on the positives

The positives don’t jump out at us when we feel worn down and frustrated. Strong-willed kids get negative labels like difficult, stubborn or defiant. Is it really all bad to have a child who won’t take “no” for an answer? These children have a lot of really good qualities. When we apply a positive lens we can see persistence, determination and bravery. We admire these qualities in adults and yet we can find them annoying in children. What if we think about the behaviours as trial runs for the attributes we want our child to have as an adult?

Children who are strong-willed need to hear themselves being spoken about in positive ways:

“You’re a person who feels things strongly. You know what you want and you really stick to it.”

Take a moment to think about what life will be like in the future when our child is an adult. What sort of person will they be? Will they stand up for themselves? Will they fight for what they believe in? If you feel like your child is starting to show all the signs of becoming a budding lawyer try and remember that Nelson Mandela’s mum probably didn’t have an easy time of it either.

Our expectations can get in the way of progress

We have big expectations for our kids. When they were young and vulnerable we had a strong instinct to protect them. Along the way we develop many expectations for our child. We want them to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes we want them to do what we ask because it’s easier, we’re in a hurry and we just expect it.

We feel frustration because we think our child should do what we ask because we said so. Following instructions straight away, without questioning, can be hard for a strong-willed child. We can reframe our expectations of our child and what they are capable of in this way:

Instead of :

“My child should do what I ask.”

Reframe it with:

“My child could do what I ask, when I teach her skills to help her unlock and when she has had a lot of practice over time and when she’s ready.”

It’s always easy to say, and much harder to remember, that it’s our job as the adult in the relationship to be the one who is flexible and understanding. The more we model a flexible and understanding approach the easier it is for our strong-willed child to be more accepting of the limits we want to keep them safe.

Parenting styles that work

It can be tempting to think that the best approach is to squash defiance out of a strong-willed child. Just read Facebook parent pages and there will be lots of comments that say that parents need to show a strong-willed child who’s boss. We can end up stuck in a cycle of punishment and misbehaviour because we fear that we are losing control. Fear of being seen as permissive is a major factor parents react with punishments and harsh consequences. For more on why punishment doesn’t work;

When we use energy to punish and deliver consequences we’re missing out on teachable moments to build skills that a strong-willed child really needs. When we rely too much on rules and consequences and we weaken trust and connection in our relationship. We might get compliance but it will likely be a begrudging compliance. Strong-willed kids need more empathy and connection to help them to trust us and allow them to show vulnerability. We need to make it easier for them to accept the limits by understanding how to meet their needs and showing them how to be flexible.

One skill to help a strong-willed child get unlocked

Strong-willed kids need to learn important skills like flexibility and how to work as a team. Give yourself time when everyone is calm to work through ways to set things up to go well. By working on building relationship and being calm, alert and focused we are wiring flexible approaches into the brain over time. One strategy that helps encourage flexibility and perspective taking is called DIY. In this example of how it works it looks like we’re teaching sharing, it’s actually teaching turn taking, an important part of working flexibly as a team.


  1. We can describe a problem “Hmmmm…. there are two kids and one scooter.”
  2. Give information – “It would be fair to make sure that both people get a turn.”
  3. Ask what you – can do about it “What could you do to make sure everyone gets a fair turn?”

With time and a lot of practice we can support our determined and strong-willed children to learn to navigate the areas they find hard. We need to be the calm, alert and focused parent helping them through the struggle so that they can go on to have good relationships with others as well as standing up for themselves.

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