Who is this strong-willed child?
The strong willed child is an elusive creature. He can assume many shapes and is known by many names, from the affectionate “spunky” and “spirited” to sterner terms such as “naughty” and “oppositional”. Teachers and educators might consider this child the “troublemaker.” Parents and relatives might call them their “problem child”.
I call him, fondly, “my child”, because I am raising a fine specimen at home. And because I was one too. My inner child is strong willed again, after recovering from the emotional wounds I suffered to my self-esteem while growing up. However, my healing journey was tough enough to persuade me that it is much wiser to try and raise whole children than to repair broken adults. Even though I vowed to spare my son that ordeal, I didn’t know exactly how to do it
Fortunately, he had many ideas of his own on how children ought to be treated, and he let us know from early on his strong preferences. A powerhouse of energy and creativity, this child is an endless source of joy and challenges for us. He’s extremely bright and sensitive and totally unimpressed by authority. In fact, he seems as determined to educate me and his dad as we are to educate him.
Although this instinct to resist control is quite common, it is one of the most challenging dynamics of raising a strong-willed child. The relentless passion, persistence and determination that is so characteristic of these children can be confusing and infuriating.
Why is this child so demanding and stubborn? Why so inflexible and easily frustrated? How can we begin to make sense of these behaviors?
“What if a ‘strong-willed child’ or a ‘highly sensitive child’ are labels we give to children whom we don’t understand from the inside out?” suggests the paediatric psychologist Dr Mona Delahooke, Ph.D.
Why is my child so difficult?
Scientists propose that when children’s behavior is unreasonable, it is because their reasoning skills are being temporarily impaired due to emotional overload. Dr. Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine calls this flipping the lid. Often adults judge the behavior as deliberate, or even personal. Yet, more often than not, it’s really the best the child can do at that moment.
The strong-willed child is a personality type that appears to have a heightened sensitivity to stress, and a strong propensity for autonomy that can be easily overwhelmed and shows up as unreasonable behavior.
“Approximately one in five children are more affected or stirred up by their environment and stand out in comparison to their peers. They are the kids who get more easily overwhelmed, alarmed, intense, sensitive, prickly in their responses, and passionate in temperament,” says Clinical Counselor Deborah McNamara.
What do mental health professionals say?
But strong-willed children, like all children, are not an homogeneous category. Each one is a special individual with a unique body and mind, operating within a specific environment. They may all appear to stubbornly resist coercion and display challenging behaviors at times, but they don't all respond in the same way, to the same degree, for the same reasons, on the same occasions.
Cultural, social and personal factors also influence our perceptions of a strong-willed child. Their behavior may seem extreme to some and not so to others. And extreme does not necessarily mean pathological. As tiring as it may be for grow-ups, a strong will, by itself, does not usually qualify as a medical concern.
This does not stop us seeking answers, explanations, even diagnosis. But in my experience, these can be subjective. As clinical psychologist Naomi Fisher points out “It’s not at all clear where the line between typical and diverse should be drawn.” While for some families, pursuing a diagnosis may be helpful or even essential, this is not the case for all, and strong willed behavior alone doesn’t necessarily indicate a need to embark on this process.
We do not know, either, to what extent strong-willed tendencies are hereditary. I can’t for example say for sure if the fact that my child and I are both strong-willed is a classic case of “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” or if it’s a matter of pure luck!
However these differences in behavior come about, the void in understanding the dynamics that derive from them has given rise to a multitude of misperceptions. And the consequent mishandling of this trait can sadly result in additional troubles for both children and adults.
Why conventional parenting methods just can’t work
Many children will tolerate most discipline approaches, even ineffective or damaging ones, out of a spontaneous desire to cooperate, or out of fear. Strong-willed children, though, resist approaches that they find invasive or disrespectful, and their behavior significantly deteriorates if approached in unsuitable ways.
The fact is that most traditional discipline tools rely on coercion and control which are not are not suitable for these children.
Some children have a temperament that is naturally flexible, easy going and adaptable. They respond well to instructions and suggestions and are likely to cooperate the first time they are asked. Their learning style is more convenient for adults, and allows parents and teachers a more generous margin for error and ineffectiveness. Such compliance and obedience is favored.
Other children are innately more emotional, active and wary. They strive to be “in charge” of themselves and are guarded against even perceived coercion. They learn empirically, by experiencing the consequences of their own actions. And they repeat an experiment many times, to figure out if the result is a hard rule or a random chance.
While their behavior is not malicious, it can be extremely confusing and exasperating for adults. Adult disapproval is also fanned by the negative bias historically attached to the “oppositional” temperament.
Why strong-willed kids can become wired for defence
After centuries of speculation about moral depravity, demons and curses, it is only relatively recently that resistance has been reframed as a positive creative function. Psychoanalyst Otto Rank, who called it counterwill, was the first to define this trait as beneficial: the developmental forerunner of a healthy sense of integrity, autonomy, and creativity.
What is still under-appreciated is how much counterwill can be a great source of insecurity in children. Despite their seemingly provocative attitude, these children can feel extremely vulnerable. Some parents, aware of this danger and in an effort to avoid it, find themselves in permissive mode. This can appear to be a non-confrontational and less judgmental model, with fewer limits on, and more tolerance for the strong-willed child’s behaviour.
But indulging children with an uncomfortable amount of power and freedom can feel to them like a heavy burden. In these moments, when their emotions override behaviour, they need safety and guidance to regulate. Unchecked, they find themselves alone with behaviours that are detrimental to them and that further alienate them from others.
When their own negative feelings and thoughts about themselves are reinforced with negative feedback from others, children can get locked in a self-perpetuating downward spiral. A self-narrative emerges that assumes that they are bad and the others are enemies.
These children may become even more resistant to connection and more wired for defence, and fight against others or, equally tragic, attack themselves.
What discipline is effective?
The complexity of human beings and human relationships doesn’t allow an easy one-size-fits-all answer for the strong willed child. To find a tailored answer for our specific child and situation, we need to start asking the right questions. A good first question is: “How do we win our children’s trust in us and persuade them to depend upon us?”
Any kind of childrearing approach that shifts the focus from behavior to relationships offers a useful framework that helps strong-willed and sensitive children thrive. As Dr. Stephen Porges notes in his work around trauma, “safety is the treatment.”
For the strong-willed child, safety means setting clear boundaries with loving warmth, empathy and understanding. Limits they can bounce against, repeatedly. Holding the limits calmly as they test them, sometimes over and over.
When children are overwhelmed, they need our help. No amount of punishment, lecturing or blame works. They are simply unable to take directions and understand the consequences in those moments. Their behaviour is a coded SOS. They don’t need to be fought against nor feared. What they need is a stable adult to anchor to. An adult who is not afraid of their upset and who knows that they are good children, now and always.
Parents can make these changes…
Becoming that unafraid and confident adult, if you are not one already, can be a real challenge. Helping children learn emotional regulation and cooperation requires us to be fluent in these skills. And sadly, many of us are not.
This is not our fault. We simply were not taught them. They were not demonstrated to us. With practice however, they can be developed at any age.
Raising a strong-willed child is an intense emotional workout. That needs to be acknowledged and honoured! If you care for a strong willed child, you are probably familiar with frustration, anger, fear, embarrassment, guilt, discouragement and exhaustion. These are perfectly normal emotional reactions to prolonged high stress levels.
But being hard on ourselves for struggling or losing it at our child can’t do anything to improve anybody's behaviour. If anything, it ensures we continue in our errors, because what we resist persists.
These tough feelings can eat away at our relationships. It is also very hard to use new discipline tools, even if we recognise their effectiveness, if we feel isolated or not supported. By embracing our own vulnerabilities and finding a safe space, where we can be held in love, to share them with others, this change can happen. You can discover how in this post, Help for the Hard Times in Parenting.
What strong-will kids need from adults
Our children need to see in us the same flexibility, patience and willingness to cooperate that we desire from them. They may push us to question, probe and resist: our neuroses, our cultural conditioning and our social conformity. They may ask us to apply critical inquiry, to learn how to emancipate ourselves from what we “know,” and learn how to unlearn what does not serve us well.
When defiant behaviour is no longer read as personal disrespect, but as an invitation, we can replace resentment with curiosity.
This helps us to stop battling wills and start operating as a team. A child can trust that we understand them, or at least we always want and try to, without fear of blame and shame. Without agendas and pressures. As this develops, the strong-willed child learns to trust that we are not controlling them, but are setting them up to do well.
You will get it wrong often, before getting it right. Even with the best intentions, you will still lose your temper and mess up sometimes. When we behave in a way we are not proud of, we will need to give ourselves grace and forgive ourselves—the faster, the better—and apologise if we have done or said something we regret.
Then? Move on. A chance to do better will be just around the corner.
Childrearing is a marathon, not a sprint. There is no preparation and no clear path to follow. You know your child best. Trust your intuition. Trust that you will figure things out. Trust that your child is able to build their own inner compass for what is right and most desirable for themselves and the community to which they belong. They are.
Will my strong-willed child be able to fit in?
Strong-willed children would much rather fit in than be singled out. It is not out of joy that they behave in ways that make others upset or seem disrespectful. It is distress. Usually coupled with a lack of skills. While they are feeling awful, they often get stared at with disapproval, laughed at, addressed with harsh remarks, or shouted at, even by total strangers.
They really would love to stop doing what makes everybody upset. But they often just can’t and not necessarily for lack of trying.
In schools, divergent behaviour gets easily targeted by peers. Without a sympathetic adult to help them co-regulate their out-of-control feelings, distressed children are left to coping mechanisms that often get them into even more trouble. If the adult in the room, not only is unsupportive, but becomes an active source of aggravation, things precipitate. The downward spiral continues.
How to advocate for my strong-willed child
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
— Jiddu Krishnamurti
Because distressed behaviour is still largely treated as something to be sanctioned rather than understood, parents need to learn to advocate for their children.
We still have far to go to end fear-based discipline, in school and elsewhere. But we, as parents, can help by learning about children’s behaviours, then educating others. In standing up to family members, friends, and strangers who are harsh and unsupportive. In speaking up when we see adultism, discrimination or mistreatment towards children.
Advocating for children can feel like a scary and a lonely place to be. But we can do it! We can find the confidence to normalise treating children like humans, with respect and by seeking collaboration over compliance. The ideas in this post will help: When Someone Else Disciplines Your Child and Uses Harsh Limits.
Strong-willed children can share vital information
Strong willed children urge us to keep our minds open and our hearts soft. They are not the problem. Adults are not the problem either, but we are a big part of the solution. We can reject approaches that justify intentionally hurting or shaming children. We can find ways to honour and support the most vulnerable among us. We can start building a society around inclusiveness and cooperation.
All children blossom in environments of opportunities like this, especially strong-willed children. Where differences are valued and accommodated and relationships are respectful and non-judgemental. The fact that some can tolerate toxicity better than others, doesn’t make an environment healthy. The most sensitive children, the strong-willed children, filled with conviction, who push against expectations, alert us when something is unhealthy in the environment.
They are as vital as canaries in a coal mine.
Discover how these tools help your child to co-regulate.
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