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Strategies for Empowering Strong-Willed Children

Children who misbehave are often exercising their power. The desire to have control over one’s life is healthy, yet many parents are frustrated by it because they don’t understand the reason behind the power struggle.

Parents and teachers often celebrate the children who do what they are told. It’s easy parenting and teaching them. These children are often referred to as people pleasers.

I would encourage parents to rethink their view of the children who give them a run for their money. The ones who press the boundaries. They want their control over their world and often become the trail blazers. After 47 years of working with children in multiple roles, many of the people pleasers were only as happy as the people they were pleasing, while a larger number of the strong willed children became the mover and shakers in their fields.

Choose the battles that matter. Let them dress themselves. Parents may cringe at clothing choices such as wearing rain boots with a sundress, frilly socks over tights, or purple shoes with an orange tutu. Allowing them to make crazy decisions will demonstrate the respect you have for them. When we feel respected, we are more likely to cooperate at times that are more important. What we think looks ridiculous may end up becoming a new trend. I know because my daughter wore all those things to school and her friends ended up copying her each time. That frustrated her because she was wanting to be different. When she cut her hair into a bob in high school, the next week it became the hair cut of choice for girls in the senior class. Strong willed children often become the trend setters.

Strong willed children like to make their own decisions. Embrace that by asking them for solutions to challenges you are experiencing. I found eight year olds to be very creative with finding solutions that would work. One boy told me he would tie his shoelaces together until he finished his homework. He completed all assignments effortlessly after he made the decision about how he was going to become more responsible with his homework.

Offering choices acceptable to you and letting children choose is another way to allow them to feel they have control. Each evening, I laid out a couple of clothing choices for the next day for my daughter. She had decided choosing her clothes the night before would help her get out of the house faster in the morning. She would make her choice and the conflicts we were having disappeared. It works for most children.

This did not work for my granddaughter. When her mother laid out four choices, my 4 year old granddaughter replied, “I don’t like your choices.” On one of my visits, my grand daughter asked me “What is wrong with this?” as she pointed to a polka dot top and striped pants she had chosen for the first day of school. I knew what she was asking, so I redirected her to her mother. I suggested my daughter pick her fights, and this one wouldn’t be one I would pick. I told her that my granddaughter’s friends would correct any fashion crime. Allowing her to make that choice made the rest of the day much easier.

How does one share power with children? Lion Goodman, a life and parenting coach offers his point of view:

“Some children do have a compliant temperament and will happily cooperate with requests and commands. This is a successful strategy for getting along in the world, so these children often grow up to be productive workers and rule-followers. The downside of this strategy is that they could grow up to be sheep-like and uncreative, requiring instructions from others to function, rather than feeling free to think for themselves.

Other children are naturally independent, with a strong need to express their own will. They test any boundaries set for them, including those set by their parents. These children can grow up to be rule-breakers, creative thinkers and innovators. If their strong will is suppressed, they could push against that suppression and become rebels, even outlaws. If their will is crushed by suppressive parents, they could end up depressed, anxious or ineffective in their life. A thwarted free will can significantly impact the child’s self-worth.”

He recommends the following:

1. At the first signs of expression of their will, babies need to be able to explore their environment as parents watch. This makes them feel secure and they receive the message that they are safe to do so.

“They know they can return to their parents for love and support whenever they need it. They don’t have to deal with insecurity as the core feeling in their lives, and they don’t have to rebel against domination or control. The road toward maturity is an easier walk with this kind of support.”

2. “Children feel disempowered whenever their needs are not respected as equal to others. This includes those times when you’re being a “good parent” and telling them what to do or what not to do, what to wear, where to go or not go or how to act or not act. It’s our job to guide our young, and it matters how you do it.

Here is a critical key: If you honor and celebrate how your child is different, and the fact that they have their own needs, it’s more likely that he or she won’t rebel later in order to differentiate from you.”

3. “If children are seen as worthy of your respect, this will serve you both well as your children grow into their teen years. It’s never too late to start! Even rebellious teens can respond well to respect for their independent nature, including the way each parent places limits or makes requests. Secure love practices are not just for infants. Teens thrive when they can be independent, and also have a secure home base when needed. This is what love is, and what love does.

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