Dear Parent of a Strong-Willed Child... {8 tips for raising a strong-willed child}

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“the days are long, but the years are short!”

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This is Charlie, child #3. He is the sweetest, kindest, funniest, most loving little boy, and if you met him today and I told you what life was like with him a year ago, you probably wouldn’t believe me. There were occasions that I truly didn’t know if I would survive the day with him.  For the first two years of his life he screamed more than he was happy. He woke up every two hours from birth until he was about eighteen months old (and he still rarely sleeps through the night). Then he could drag on a raging tantrum, sometimes for up to four hours. He went through phases where he bit, hit and pinched. We tried everything, and we were told we needed to get him evaluated.  But Jon and I both prayed constantly for wisdom, and we knew that he was just extremely smart, stubborn and strong-willed. I have so many stories of days and nights where I would cry, feeling like a total failure as a mom, but praise the Lord, today our Charlie is a completely different kid!

I don’t have one specific piece of advice or thing that “fixed” him, but here are 8 tips that really helped me to keep my sanity.

8 Tips for Raising a Strong-Willed Child

1. CONSISTENCY

Be consistent and ALWAYS WIN! Boundaries, rules and guidelines are important for all children, but especially for those who are strong willed. Let your yes be yes and your no be no.  My father-in-law drilled this into my husband and I when we found out we were pregnant with our first son, and I am so grateful that he made such a big deal about it, because it is SO important! Strong-willed children like to test the limits, so having clear boundaries that never change help to create a sense of stability and structure. 

2. Give Them Choices

I know, I know, generally if you give a strong-willed child the choice between an apple or a banana he/she will generally choose an orange, but I found that if you “talk up” one of the options prior to offering it to them, it usually goes over a little smoother.  I did this with Charlie by saying “Char, don’t you love apples? I love how juicy they are, and I would love one right now!”.  Then when you offer the snack… “mmm… I would love this apple.  Do you want this apple, or would you rather have a banana?”.  Likely they will choose the apple because you want it!

 3. Take Care of Yourself

This one is SOOOO important! Maybe even #1.  We can’t pour from an empty cup, so surround yourself with people that lift you up and energize you.  Plan regular girls nights, date nights or time for yourself doing something that leaves you feeling refreshed.  Figure out how to get time away from your strong-willed child.  There were times that I called my parents or a friend and told them to just take Charlie before I went nuts. Of course, he would act perfectly for them like he was an angel all the time!

4. DO NOT- DO NOT-DO NOT talk negatively about your strong-willed child

(or any of your children) in front of them!! I am totally guilty of this and it took me until Charlie started referring to himself as a “bad boy” to completely break my heart and make me realize that I needed to speak life and only positive things about him around him.

 5. Don’t Be Afraid to Show Emotion, But Stay Calm

I hate to admit, but I am a yeller.  I am pretty patient, until I’m not! But I have realized that yelling gets me nowhere.  It usually just escalades all the negative emotions that we all are experiencing at the time.  With Charlie, I found that kneeling down, looking him in the eyes and whispering to him seemed to get his attention far more than yelling or raising my voice.  There is a proverb that says, “A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare.” (Proverbs 15:1 NLT).

6. Set Them Up for Success

Identify the strong-willed child’s triggers.  If you know that when they get tired or hungry they are more prone to having a tantrum, then do your best not to let them get to that point.  I get that this isn’t always feasible, and sometimes it may be pushing naptime or lunchtime and you have to get your grocery shopping done but planning ahead helps them and helps you.  Pre-pack your child’s favorite snacks to eat while shopping. If a tantrum begins and it is possible, LEAVE! Leave your groceries and go straight home for a nap (you might try to take one too!).  This is part of “always winning” and will protect your sanity.  

Still, to this day, before we go grocery shopping, out to dinner, or over to someone’s house, we always have a talk with our children to let them know our expectations of them for that event.  It usually goes something like this “boys listen, I know that this is super exciting and fun but you MUST be on your best behavior.  There will be no rough housing or being wild, there is a time for that and this is NOT it.” Or when we go grocery shopping “boys, we are going into Walmart right now to get groceries, you WILL NOT ask for a toy, do not touch anything unless you ask, and there will be no whining. If you do not obey, there will be consequences.”  Our Walmart has a McDonalds inside, so usually I will grab the 20-piece chicken nuggets for $5 for them to snack on while we shop, and even for this I pre-warn them… “you are not getting a Happy Meal, so please do not ask.”

 7. Say Yes More Often!

Pick your battles! Like I said earlier it is so important to stick with your answer, so if you have already said “no”, then that is your answer…period.  Strong-willed children are sometimes master negotiators, which can turn into manipulation.  Set up some regular “yes” answers.  For example, Charlie loves to take his vitamins.  They are the gummy kind that he thinks are treats, so every day when he asks for his vitamins the answer is always yes.  Having a strong willed child can make you feel like you are constantly saying “No. No. No and NO!” which is totally draining, I get it!  Find even the smallest things to say “yes” to and be over the top with your praise and encouragement.

 8. Give Them Tasks/Responsibilities

Strong-willed children are generally very smart and independent.  They usually have a desire to help out and be a “big kid”.   Charlie would get extremely frustrated that he couldn’t do certain things that his older brothers could.  He wanted to have jobs and chores at an early age, and he would light up when we would ask for his help.  Give your strong-willed child age appropriate tasks and ask them for their help whenever possible.  It is important to praise them big time when they complete even the smallest job. 

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If you are a mama (or daddy) of a strong-willed child, I pray for you! I know that it isn’t easy, and there are so many days where you feel like giving up. But God chose YOU to be your child’s parent. Remember that this phase won’t last forever, the days are long, but the years are short!


Here is a book that really helped me when we were in the “trenches” with Charlie.

Bethany DavisComment