Here you are again, right in the middle of a public place, judgmental eyes glaring at you as you (not so) patiently wait to see if your strong-willed child follows your simple request.
As is pretty typical for the way your life seems to be going today (or this week, or this year!) your simple request is ignored—yet again—even though you put a significant amount of time and energy into trying to prevent this from happening in the first place.
You can’t believe that you have to put this much effort into a simple request like asking your kid to stay near you at the store!
What makes matters worse is the not-so-subtle glares of judgment and criticism by the people around you who magically seem to know how to raise your kid, even though they don’t know you or your kid at all.
You can just guess what they’re thinking about you…
Doesn’t she have any control over her kid?
I can’t believe she lets her kid act like that. My kids will never act like that!
Isn’t she going to do something to let her kid know who’s the boss?!
And even though you’ve vowed a million times that you don’t care what they think, that you will parent positively—the way you want to—you find yourself questioning whether you’re a good mom.
The Pressure of Public Judgement Overwhelms and Guides Your Parenting Decisions
The pressure of this public place—especially those judgmental stares—overwhelms you and makes you question if you’re doing the right thing.
Yet at the same time, you’re questioning if doing these things that will make you look “good” in the public eye will ultimately screw your kids up for life.
And that, my friends, is what I like to call Monday. Tomorrow, you’ll wake up and combat this internal mom battle. All. Over. Again!
Who Knew this Mom Thing Was Going to Be So Stressful?
Back before you had kids, you thought it was going to be so easy. Back then, good parenting meant telling kids what to do, and making sure that they actually did it.
But back then, you had no idea how much guilt you’d feel. And never would you have expected to feel so terrified that every little decision you made might screw your child up for life.
And to add to all that massive mom guilt and fear that you’re royally screwing up your kids, you were blessed with a kid who seems bent on being the poster-child for “stubborn,” “strong-willed” or even “disobedient” behavior.
Nowadays, you realize that parenting is harder than you ever thought it could be and that parenting a stubborn child is about 1,000 times harder!
Hopefully, by now you’ve been told that having this type of child is a blessing to your child’s future.
Their strong-willed nature can lead to a list of positive experiences in life, including strong leadership skills, an entrepreneurial spirit and the potential to earn more in a career than the average “rule-following” adult.
You can rest easy knowing that your child may stand up for what they think is right in life, instead of blindly doing what is expected of him. (This may come in handy during those restless teenage years when you’re up late worrying about social influence and peer pressure on their choices.)
But what good does all this future talk do when you feel like you’ll never manage to get there?
How do you survive the now, when every direction turns into a power struggle and you’re spending more time arguing with your kid than enjoying the already limited time you have with him?
You wonder what is says about you as a mother that, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t seem to get your kid to listen.
Guiding the Behavior of a Strong-Willed Child is Challenging…For Everyone!
In my work as a counselor, I’ve met hundreds of moms who feel like failures as they share their stories of misbehavior and arguing in various public (and non-public) situations.
I’ve heard about their fear of taking their child out into public, dreading an argument or disobedient scene that makes her look like a terrible mother. They question their capacities as a mom and wonder what it would be like to be one of those moms who always seems to have it together.
As an Early Childhood Mental Health Consultant, I can see the look of apprehension on the faces of every preschool teacher I work with. They fear I’m going to judge them and blame them for the child’s misbehavior in the classroom, despite their honest best efforts to try to resolve the problem.
And I don’t blame them for feeling this way.
Instead of feeling supported, the rampant social posts that share #momfail and #parentingfail make you feel paranoid, fearing mom shaming everywhere you look. When you’re out and about and being challenged, instead of a You’ve Got This! look, you feel like everyone looking at you is thinking “I know how to raise your kid better than you do!”
As a counselor who runs group counseling in the school system, even I feel the pressure. That’s right, even a professional who works with “strong-willed” children every day can feel the pressure or feel like a failure sometimes (or frequently).
Like you, I spend every day with these kids. This means that I feel the need to always be “on” or at the top of my game.
I can feel the anxiety rising whenever I walk through the halls with the kids, hoping that they remember to use their walking feet and inside voices (expectations that I jammed down their throats before leaving the classroom, unfortunately more so for the benefit of my reputation and expectations of the school staff than for the kids’ well-being).
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And despite my efforts to remind them repeatedly before we leave, some of my kids simply cannot use their walking feet and their inside voices at the same time. And when they struggle, I blame myself (and I feel that onlookers blame me too!).
I used to feel like a failure—a fraud—but over time, by talking (and empathizing) with other people in a similar situation, I learned that everyone who comes face-to-face with a “strong-willed child” feels the pressure.
Child care professionals.
Even professionals like me who do this for a living!
It was scary to admit it, but I soon learned that trading war stories and survival tricks created more trust than any façade of expertise ever could have!
And it turns out that the survival tips that I had developed over my years of work in residential treatment centers and Child Protection cases—where I saw some of the most defiant, disrespectful and argumentative behavior there is to see—worked just as well for moms as they did for a counselor!
I turned these tips into a step-by-step guide to help moms raise kids who actually want to listen.
While you aren’t to blame for your child’s behaviors, there are plenty of things you can do to help support and guide that stubborn personality to be used for good in the world (and none of them involve threatening or scaring the behavior out of them).
Here are 3 of my most effective tips for spending more time enjoying the already limited time you have with your kids, and less of it butting heads.
#1 Pick Your Battles
I know…you’re completely sick of being told to “pick your battles.”
You’re the parent. You’re in charge. And kids are supposed to listen because it’s the right thing to do. Period.
So why does everyone tell you to pick your battles?
The simple answer is this: your child was born with an innate ability to question everything, argue and negotiate even the simplest commands and to ultimately find the answer that he deems is right for him.
It’s immaterial whether it is the exact same answer you provided in the first place, or if it is the entire opposite. He is hardwired to follow through only what he figures out for himself.
This means that with every limit you set or every direction you give to a stubborn child, a majority of them will be met with a “No!” or a “But why?” or worse…crickets!
They do this not to annoy you or deliberately offend you, but instead because they are independent, self-motivated individuals who have a desire to figure out for themselves the answers to life’s questions.
It does not matter how relevant your request is. If the idea comes from someone else, a strong-willed child believes that it needs to be challenged before accepting it as the truth. Period.
This doesn’t mean he’ll reject it completely, just that it first requires validation. If he complies with your direction, he does so because he agrees, not just to obey.
Since I know that most of my directions to a strong-willed child are going to be challenged, I (try to) save my energy for those instances when it’s absolutely necessary for my direction to be followed (although I admit that I fail at this sometimes, especially when I’m stressed!).
I know what you’re thinking. “Doesn’t this kid need to learn how the ‘real world’ works, that they can’t be in control of everything?”
You’re right about this. We want children to learn how to act in a social world and to understand how their actions affect others, but does that mean that we should train kids to abandon their innate personality characteristics?
Remember those positive life experiences for strong-willed people I mentioned earlier, like leadership skills, an entrepreneurial spirit and the potential to earn more in a career?
Well, all those things are only possible if we resist the temptation to “correct” these seemingly difficult characteristics out of their personality at an early age, in the name of “discipline.”
So, if we know that a strong-willed child is more likely to challenge a direction because of a spirit of inquisitiveness, do we really want to keep pushing those limits? Isn’t there a more productive way of guiding kids than constantly butting heads with them?
Over the years, after spending time with many children with strong wills, I’ve learned that I can have a less conflicted and more meaningful relationship with kids if I resist the temptation to critique and correct every little thing (Stand up straight…Don’t touch that…Chew with your mouth closed!) and instead provide them the opportunity to validate the idea themselves.
Here’s a simple example. Your strong-willed child is walking through the mall, swinging his new shoes in the shopping bag…windmill style.
The mall is packed and you’re worried that he might hit someone. You want to say, “Stop that!” or “Watch out for other people” but you know that doing so will engage him in a battle for the rest of the trip to the mall.
To avoid the battle and teach a valuable lesson, try this. Instead of setting the limit yourself, ask him, “What could happen if someone was behind you?” or “Why do you think I might be concerned about what I’m seeing here?”
This is especially effective for strong-willed kids because they’re being included in the process, instead of simply being told what to do, which I’ll explain more about in the next section.
#2 Set Limits With Your Kid
One of the most valuable things I’ve learned about the strong-willed child over the years is that they need to know the why behind almost every command they receive.
It’s time to go!—Why?
Be nice to your sister!—Why?
This particular characteristic of your child may be the most exhausting. After a full day of work and supper burning on the stove, the last thing you want to do is explain why you had to say “No” to yet another episode of Paw Patrol!
Or explain to your 9-year-old for the hundredth time why she can’t get her own phone yet!
Or explain to your teen why you won’t let her go on that overnight trip with a “friend” she just met (and you’ve never heard of!)
If you’ve started to figure your child out, you may know that she needs an answer to everything. But who says you have to be the one to answer it?
Think about it. Once you give an answer, it’s pretty likely that she will argue it anyway, right? Why waste the energy?
So, instead of telling her why, ask her what she thinks!
The Interviewer Technique—one of the techniques in my 9-step guide—is an easy way to set a limit…
It’s time to turn off the TV.
No, you may not have your own phone yet.
Yes, I’m sure. You cannot go on an overnight trip with a friend I’ve never met or heard of!
Then, instead of waiting for her to ask why (which she will), you do it first.
Can you think of the reasons why?
This takes you out of the expert role (that she never believed you held in the first place) and lets her have more of an involved role in identifying why your requests aren’t as ridiculously out of line as she initially thought!
If you haven’t tried this yet, I encourage you to. You will be amazed to see how much insight your strong-willed child has to share.
This technique tends to work very well, but it isn’t a 100% guarantee. Sometimes, you’ll receive some backlash from your child with a smart-mouthed answer, such as “Because you’re mean and you never let me do anything fun!”
In the event that this happens, try to keep calm and focus on the why questions in a supportive manner (instead of arguing back):
Hmmm…I can see how it seems that way to you. You know I love you and that I do what I think is best for you. What do you think my reasons are right now?
Now, on to tip #3, my favorite mostly because it has such an amazing success rate with the moms who have tried it, but also because I think that everyone—kids and adults alike—can benefit from it!
#3 Give Them a Do-Over
Have you ever watched in amazement (or embarrassment) as your child made a choice that made you want to say, “What were you thinking!?”
It’s tempting to assume that these misbehaviors have occurred during a time when your child was actually thinking, but if you watch closely, you can see that moment when his brain catches up to his body and he just realized what he did.
His face says, “What did I just do?!” And his skittering eyes say, “Did mom see that?” And you can almost see his brain switching to defensive gear.
Stop it before he gets there.
The truth is, impulsivity can get the best of all of us and sometimes we act first and think later. Don’t make your child pay for being human. Salvage the situation before it gets worse.
In my guide, I share the Rewind Technique where I encourage moms to give their child a do-over in such situations by saying, “Oops…why don’t you take a second to rewind and try that again.”
This technique has an unbelievable success rate because your child knows you believe in him and trust that he has the skills to do better. And it will definitely help your relationship if you feel like all you do is constantly correct misbehavior!
You’re a Great Mom and You’ve Got This!
So let’s bring this all together. You know you’re a good mom, but sometimes the fear of parent-shaming glares makes you question if you’re doing it right.
And to top it all off, you were blessed with a strong-willed child who challenges your every parenting move. And frankly, all of that arguing has left you exhausted.
I’ve got 3 words for you—You’ve Got This!
You aren’t to blame for the stubborn personality your child was born with, but you will be the reason your strong-willed child thrives in this world!
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
When you find yourself in a power struggle with your stubborn child, ask yourself:
- Was this limit/direction really necessary? If it really wasn’t, make a mental note for next time to remember that strong-willed kids do best when limits are set for their safety, not their minute-to-minute behaviors.
- Have I shared the “Why?” behind my direction and its importance? If not, remember that your child truly needs to understand the why before she’ll ever consider this as reality.
- Am I misinterpreting their age-appropriate misbehavior? Remember that everyone—even adults—deserves a second chance to show that they’re capable of making the right choice.
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
- Surround yourself with people who remind you that you’re a good mom. Some of your closest friends and family members will give you advice that shakes your confidence. While it isn’t healthy—or in many cases even possible—to walk away from these established relationships, limit your exposure to them, at least in terms of parenting discussions. At the same time, build an alternate support system to remind you of your capabilities as a parent.
- Remember that everyone—even professionals—feels challenged by strong-willed children. There will be many days when you’ll see your child listen to his grandparent or the neighbor and think that his disobedience is all about you. Remind yourself that this isn’t the case, and it is only proof that he feels close enough to you to show you his real personality. And instead of getting down on yourself, remind yourself that that everyone who is close a strong-willed child, even professionals, sometimes feels this way. Focus your energy on using some of the tips above to encourage cooperation instead of agonizing over your perceived failures.
- Remember that the strong-willed personality shouldn’t be “punished” away, but cultivated to provide more good in the world. And please always, always remember: your child will achieve strong independence and self-motivation in adulthood if you help him cultivate those skills in childhood through conversation and teaching self-imposed limits, instead of using threats of punishment to break his spirit and encourage blind obedience.