If your child is strong-willed it can feel like you are doing everything wrong. You aren't! Here's how to keep using the Hand in Hand Tools with your strong-willed child.
You start using our tools and see results fast. You find you aren’t yelling so much. You are all laughing and playing more. You see, for the first time in months, moments where your child isn’t as stubborn or as strong-willed as before.
These tools are really working!
And then, out of nowhere, it’s like everything moves back ten steps.
What Happens When Your Child's Behavior Regresses?
Your child doesn’t even make it to breakfast without him throwing himself on the floor in a tantrum.
The same thing happens when you cut up his pancakes. You’re trying to make things easier for him since you are both in a rush for school, but he throws the plate on the floor, yelling, “Why did you cut them? I don’t want them cut.”
Your buttons are, officially pushed, and your anger rises.
But you remember how good it feels to parent without yelling or threatening your child.
So you take a deep breath, muster up the energy to do something funny which lightens the mood and slide one of your (un-cut) pancakes onto his plate.
Things seem to be going well, but he’s eating slowly. You watch the clock tick steadily. The long hand is inching to the moment you have to leave.
And the minute you get up from the table he flings himself at you, glues his arms around your legs and begs you not to go.
You make an attempt to put on your jacket and he really loses it.
He shouts “I hate you!” and throws two big picture books off the shelf at you.
Your baby becomes a whirlwind of rage and fury.
Right then, you can’t see any other choice but to march him to his room.
Why does it still feel so hard?
A calmer, kinder parenting style still works with strong-willed kids
It is hard!
But you aren't failing.
A calmer, kinder parenting style still works with strong-willed kids. We’ve been sharing five simple tools that bring parents and kids closer for the last 30 years.
We’ve seen kindergarten-aged kids who refused to talk find their voices using these tools. We’ve seen children face medical procedures without anesthesia after using these tools. We’ve seen children on the brink of being expelled turn their behavior around when their parents started using these tools.
These tools work, whether you have one child or eight.
But, while you are NEVER failing, it can sometimes feel like you are going back even when you are going forward.
You are not failing!
Elle: Hi Ravid. We know that when we start using Hand in Hand most often we see some big wins fairly quickly. But I’ve felt, and I know a lot of parents in our groups say, that at other times it feels like they are right back at step one. What can we do when that happens?
Ravid: I see this a lot with parents. They are using the tools with some success, but it still feels hard. They want to know why it feels so hard or they want to know how long we have to go until things feel easier, or is life going to stay like this?
I even had this feeling in my own parenting too. I used to have a very aggressive little girl at my house.
Elle: So, sometimes we might be rushing things. But what about when it really feels like our kid's behavior is not shifting? When a child is still whining a lot, or kicking, hitting or getting very angry?
Ravid: When a child feels defiant or angry or aggressive it’s a signal for us that there is a big load of feelings sitting underneath. Sometimes a cry or two helps, but sometimes it takes a little longer.
Often with defiant kids, it's like they have a big sense of injustice that they just can't live with.
It's a really big chunk of feelings. It's too much, and they are unwilling to accept them. They’ll do whatever they can to fight these hard feelings.
Elle: And that’s when you'll see this defiance come up with every request you make or whatever rule you try to set?
Ravid: Yes, because what sits underneath this behavior is a sense of hopelessness or helplessness that goes back to a time when a child really needed to fight hard for something and couldn't find that power in themselves. They were either too small or too meek or the circumstances didn't allow it.
There's this sense of competition that lingers for them.
They think, “I'm not going to let anyone overpower me again.”
It's a really strong, big chunk of feelings that won't go away with just one or two cries. When it takes some time, we say that this child is working on an emotional project.
Elle: What should we know about Emotional Projects?
Ravid: We call it an emotional project because, although we are still going to set limits and in a warm, loving way to help those feelings come out, we have to keep in mind that only going for the cries and tantrums and that kind of emotional release won't work by itself. It's a project. It takes more.
It really has to be using a combination of all the tools to balance things out.
Elle: So you are talking about play and laughter, for instance, as much as crying?
Ravid: Yes. You really have to find time to offer Special Time to let them be in control. You really have to get Playlistening going to get the laughter going because laughter is another great way for a child to release a lot of tension and fear that is sitting underneath.
Using all the tools in tandem and combining them with a lot of play, laughter, warmth and physical closeness is crucial for a child who is working on an emotional project.
Elle: But creating that environment can feel incredibly hard as a parent when your child's demands are so high!
Ravid: That's exactly where I wanted to go with this!
The first thing we tell parents who are dealing with a child that is strong-willed, defiant and hard to handle, is that they have to find a way to support themselves.
Don't take on a challenge to help your child with an emotional project with an attitude that promises to “beat it” or “conquer it” without support.
You’ll put yourself under even more stress and end up even more exhausted.
Find someone who can listen to you and share how hard it's been, how frustrating, how exhausting it is to have a child that is so difficult!
It's hard work!
You’ll find it very hard to use all the tools we mentioned earlier if you can't acknowledge and be appreciated and feel that someone really knows what you are going through and how hard it is.
Elle: What kind of things are useful to think about?
Ravid: Talk about what the behavior reminds you of.
Did anyone in your family act that way, how was it received and what was the response?
What would happen to you if you did the same things?
Once you've found some support and worked through it, you’ll be better able to handle it, and you will probably find yourself just a little less exhausted and more motivated.
Elle: I think there’s a tendency to think or to wonder if we are “doing things wrong” when if feels like we are going backward.
Ravid: Yes, I know that feeling! And I recall Hand in Hand’s founder Patty Wipfler saying that even after 40 years of using these tools and listening to children when she goes into using a tool, Staylistening, for instance, she always hesitates.
She asks herself, “Is this right? Is this what this child needs? Is this what's needed in the situation?”
That hesitation is crucial!
Elle: Why should we hesitate? How is it helpful?
Because if parents go into setting limits or staylistening with a very strict agenda, like, “I know what you need, this is what's going to help,” you're not going to be able to listen.
Instead, really try to gauge the situation, try to see where your child is, try to see where you are!
Sometimes you are trying to Staylisten but you are at your wit's end. You don't have a milligram of patience or attention in your heart to do it.
Elle: Yes! Sometimes I’ve felt like I should be there all the time, listening all the time, because I want to help my child work through his anger or frustration, even when I’m at the edge of my patience level.
Ravid: It's really about being attuned to your child and being attuned to yourself. Don't feel it’s wrong to be a little hesitant.
Elle: How else can we banish lingering doubts about what we’re doing?
One other way to know you are headed in the right direction is not what happens during the actual outburst when it's total chaos. The way to know what you did was truly helpful is what happens afterward.
Keep noticing. Later that day, maybe the next day, maybe a few days afterward, are you seeing shifts?
If you are seeing shifts after a big emotional storm or after some time where you were very good about doing Special Time, or Playlistening or Setting Limits, this is your true clue that things are moving forward and that there is progress.
Elle: And ultimately, it's a work in progress, right?
Ravid: There will still more work to be done, for sure, but you are moving forward!
Elle: Do you have any last words for supporting strong-willed kids with emotional projects?
Ravid: It takes time, it takes patience and it takes a lot of love and trust – in ourselves and our kids.
Your Takeaways for Using Hand in Hand Tools with Strong-Willed Kids
If things aren’t happening the way you expected them to after using the tools for a while, use these takeaways to keep moving forward.
You aren't failing. You are not doing anything wrong if your child is taking some time working through a backlog of feelings. You can read more about how children store their feelings and work through them here.
Use all the tools. Notice where you can use more of the tools. The most visible results come when you are using them all, in tandem – including getting support for yourself in Listening Time.
Take care of yourself. It’s ok to take a break and have your partner or a friend takeover when things get hard. It’s ok to step back if you aren’t feeling like you can listen to another cry or face another kick. This is also a prime time to schedule some listening time.
Keep going. You are doing great things in your family just by showing up. Remember that your role is worthy and important and that you are building a long-lasting deep bond with your child – whether they realize it now or not.