Ten Tips for Positive Parenting Your Strong-Willed, Spirited Child
1. Avoid power struggles by using routines and rules. That way, you aren't bossing them around, it’s just that “The rule is we use the potty after every meal and snack,” or “The schedule is that lights-out is at 8pm. If you hurry, we’ll have time for two books,” or "In our house, we finish homework before computer, TV, or telephone time." The parent stops being the bad guy.
2. Your strong-willed child wants mastery more than anything. Let her take charge of as many of her own activities as possible. Don’t nag at her to brush her teeth, ask “What else do you need to do before we leave?” If she looks blank, tick off the short list: “Every morning we eat, brush teeth, use the toilet, and pack the backpack. I saw you pack your backpack, great job! Now, what do you still need to do before we leave?” Kids who feel more independent and in charge of themselves will have less need to rebel and be oppositional. Not to mention they take responsibility early.
3. Give your strong-willed child choices. If you give orders, he will almost certainly bristle. If you offer a choice, he feels like the master of his own destiny. Of course, only offer choices you can live with and don’t let yourself get resentful by handing away your power. If going to the store is non-negotiable and he wants to keep playing, an appropriate choice is: “Do you want to leave now or in ten minutes?”
4. Give her authority over her own body. “I hear that you don’t want to wear your jacket today. I think it is cold and I am definitely wearing a jacket. Of course, you are in charge of your own body, as long as you stay safe and healthy, so you get to decide whether to wear a jacket. But I’m afraid that you will be cold once we are outside, and I won’t want to come back to the house. How about I put your jacket in the backpack, and then we’ll have it if you change your mind?” She’s not going to get pneumonia, unless you push her into it by acting like you’ve won if she asks for the jacket. And once she won’t lose face by wearing her jacket, she’ll be begging for it once she gets cold. It’s just hard for her to imagine feeling cold when she’s so warm right now in the house, and a jacket seems like such a hassle. She's sure she's right -- her own body is telling her so -- so naturally she resists you. You don't want to undermine that self-confidence, just teach her that there's no shame in letting new information change your mind.
5. Don't push him into opposing you. Force always creates "push-back" -- with humans of all ages. If you take a hard and fast position, you can easily push your child into defying you, just to prove a point. You'll know when it's a power struggle and you're invested in winning. Just stop, take a breath, and remind yourself that winning a battle with your child always sets you up to lose what’s most important: the relationship. When in doubt say "Ok, you can decide this for yourself." If he can't, then say what part of it he can decide, or find another way for him to meet his need for autonomy without compromising his health or safety.
6. Side step power struggles by letting your child save face. You don’t have to prove you’re right. You can, and should, set reasonable expectations and enforce them. But under no circumstances should you try to break your child’s will or force him to acquiesce to your views. He has to do what you want, but he's allowed to have his own opinions and feelings about it.
7. Listen to her. You, as the adult, might reasonably presume you know best. But your strong-willed child has a strong will partly as a result of her integrity. She has a viewpoint that is making her hold fast to her position, and she is trying to protect something that seems important to her. Only by listening calmly to her and reflecting her words will you come to understand what’s making her oppose you. A non-judgmental “I hear that you don’t want to take a bath. Can you tell me more about why?” might just elicit the information that she’s afraid she’ll go down the drain, like Alice in the song. It may not seem like a good reason to you, but she has a reason. And you won’t find it out if you get into a clash and order her into the tub.
8. See it from his point of view. For instance, he may be angry because you promised to wash his superman cape and then forgot. To you, he is being stubborn. To him, he is justifiably upset, and you are being hypocritical, because he is not allowed to break his promises to you. How do you clear this up and move on? You apologize profusely for breaking your promise, you reassure him that you try very hard to keep your promises, and you go, together, to wash the cape. You might even teach him how to wash his own clothes! Just consider how would you want to be treated, and treat him accordingly.
9. Discipline through the relationship, never through punishment.Kids don’t learn when they’re in the middle of a fight. Like all of us, that’s when adrenaline is pumping and learning shuts off. Kids behave because they want to please us. The more you fight with and punish your child, the more you undermine her desire to please you. If she's upset, help her express her hurt, fear or disappointment, so they evaporate. Then she'll be ready to listen to you when you remind her that in your house, everyone speaks kindly to each other.
10. Offer him respect and empathy.Most strong-willed children are fighting for respect. If you offer it to them, they don’t need to fight to protect their position. And, like the rest of us, it helps a lot if they feel understood. If you see his point of view and think he's wrong -- for instance, he wants to wear the superman cape to synagogue and you think that's inappropriate -- you can still offer him empathy and meet him part way while you set the limit. "You love this cape and wish you could wear it, don't you? But when we go to Temple we dress up, and we can't wear the cape. I know you'll miss wearing it. How about we take it with us so you can wear it on our way home?"
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