When bedtime arrives for seven-year-old Malachi Ferrier, he questions why he can’t stay up as late as his older siblings, refuses to get ready, claims it’s “not fair,” and sometimes even resorts to hiding or accusing his parents of not loving him.
“Malachi is just more challenging,” says his mom, Janine Ferrier, of Arkona, Ont. She should know—the mom of seven identifies Malachi as one of her two strong-willed children. “He always wants his way and is very determined—sometimes manipulative—to get it.” He can be disruptive at family meals, argumentative with his parents and siblings, and often responds to requests with “No,” “Why?” or “Can’t you do it?”
These are common traits of strong-willed children, according to Toronto child and family therapist Jennifer Kolari, author of Connected Parenting: How to Raise a Great Kid. They’re also characterized by controlling or demanding behaviour, “big” feelings or reactions, questioning authority and difficulties sharing.
“Parents of strong-willed kids have a tough job, because they’re torn between wanting to protect their child’s spark and teaching him the skills needed to manage in a world of rules,” says Kolari. This balancing act often leaves them overwhelmed with the task of being “good” parents, while feeling frustrated and emotionally exhausted from battles with a child who consistently refuses to cooperate. Kolari suggests the following strategies to help create a more harmonious relationship:
1. Transfer power Give your child a perceived choice whenever possible, such as letting him pick out his own clothes, or asking him if he wants to walk upstairs to bed or crawl like a spider.
2. Give permission If a tantrum is brewing, tell your child in a neutral tone, “I understand you have some big feelings right now. Go ahead and cry it out. I’ll move a few things out of your way so you don’t hurt yourself.” Kolari says this “paradoxical” permission can stop a child in his tracks. Who wants to have a tantrum if it’s not garnering a reaction? If the tantrum does happen, let it. Intervene only if your child is at physical risk.
3. Plan ahead Since moving from one activity to another can be difficult, give lots of notice if a transition is approaching. Build extra time into your schedule to accommodate your child’s quirks instead of always nagging him to hurry up.
4. Baby them Strong-willed kids know they’re challenging, so they’re often insecure about your feelings toward them. Assure them of your love frequently, especially when they’ve misbehaved. Kolari even suggests you hold your child like a baby, if he will agree to it. Gently touch his face, make eye contact and say loving things or tell him stories about when he was a baby to remind him of your love.
5. Play scary Part of a child’s strong will is driven by a scientifically-proven need for an adrenalin rush, so games creating a safe surge of fear—hide-and-seek, tag, a tickle “consequence” if they step outside a safe zone, or board games with a timer or something that pops—are great ways to provide adrenalin without you being the target.
6. Discipline effectively Make consequences consistent, fair and firm enough so he experiences a negative effect. (Five minutes in his room for hitting a sibling might just be worth hitting the sibling to him!) An earlier bedtime is a good choice, or a loss of electronics.
7. Label the behaviour Avoid attaching negative labels to your child, like calling him “bad”; it can be helpful to create a name for the behaviour so it’s its own separate entity, i.e.: “It’s too bad the Volcano made an appearance at the birthday party and we had to leave.” As Ferrier puts it, “Malachi is not bad. If we could just refocus his energy, he could change the world.”
Parenting a strong-willed child is challenging. It’s a good idea to discuss your child’s behaviour with your family doctor to rule out any underlying medical issues. Try meeting with a professional (such as a family therapist or parent coach) or seeking out community resources to find solutions and support.
A version of this article appeared in our April 2014 issue with the headline “Little rebels,” p. 56.