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Parenting a Strong-Willed Child

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dear Dr. Meg,

Hi, I am a mom from South Africa, and I was wondering if people ever message you and ask your opinion? My son and I have been to about 9 or 10 therapists, psychiatrists and psychologists. He is on Risperdol and Concerta 54 at the age of 8 but he is extremely depressed and refuses to work or do anything. Psychiatrist suggested we take him out of his current school as he has already built a reputation and is labeled, but things just don’t seem to get better, and I am losing hope. This has been a 3-year and still, ongoing struggle. I am losing confidence in myself, and hope for his future.


Worried For My Son

Dear WFMS,

Never, never, never lose hope. God is real and His existence is about giving hope to you, your son and every one of us. Your son is having a terribly hard time right now but life won’t always be this hard. As he grows older, he will learn to handle whatever issues he has and your life will get easier. These difficulties are only for a time and they are not forever, so always remember that.

Of course, I could never begin to diagnose your son from one letter and half a world away but I sense that he is really acting out in destructive and aggressive ways. That prompts most psychiatrists to use the medications that he is on. Here’s what you need to know, over time you will begin to figure out what is wrong with him because no one knows him better than you do. So, if the medications are helping him, keep them going but if you feel that they are making him worse, talk with your doctor about gradually stopping one or both. Whatever you decide, do not be afraid. Some children really need certain medications, so if they help your son, that’s okay for now.

I have had some boys in my practice over the years who have been very aggressive, self-destructive and out of control at very early ages (one was 18-months-old!) They are rare but I wonder if your son is one of these boys. Here’s what I recommended for those patients and I would encourage you to try a few things.

Find a girlfriend who will support you in your struggle with your son. It is critical that you have a woman in your life that will let you “dump” your stress with her. Living with a high-need child is really hard so ask one girlfriend if you can confide in her about your son’s problems. Ask her not to judge you or even give you advice, just ask her to listen to you. Meet her once per week or talk on the phone. Make sure she is not a gossip, but will keep everything confidential.

Find a good babysitter and have her come and help you after school several days per week. Ask her to take your son outside so he can run, play and work the kinks out if you will. Don’t feel guilty about this because he will like someone who will play with him and you need a break.

If you think that the school is working against him, switch schools. Is he getting bullied? Are his classmates nice to him? Does the teacher like him? Many times if children are labeled as hard children, there is no going back so you must switch schools.

Try and find him a small school where he can get more attention from the teachers. He will get swallowed up in a large classroom and do menacing things to get attention from children and the teachers if he is in a large classroom. If you find an all boys’ school, that’s the best because most boys his age are more immature than girls his age and he will get along better.

Don’t worry about getting him diagnosed correctly at this time. I know that you desperately want to know “what’s wrong with him” but the truth is, he is very young. Many times true ADHD, bipolar disorder, oppositional-defiant disorders, etc., take time to figure out. The only thing that really matters right now is helping him get through one month at a time. That may include changing school or home environments and sometimes using medications.

Keep him on a scheduled routine. Boys who are acting out or who have ADHD, NEED schedules because they live with a sense that life is chaotic and out of control. The more routine you keep his days, the calmer he will become. So, eat dinner at the same time in the same place, keep his bedtime the same, sports schedules the same, etc.

Drastically limit video games and television. I know that you don’t want to hear this, but your son needs to be outside as much as possible to work out his aggression. Sitting inside playing video games does three things that harm him: 1. He is sedentary and this will make him anxious over time. 2. Studies show that violent video games cause boys to be more aggressive when they are older. 3. Watching fast-moving figures appears to help him “focus” but it doesn’t. It actually makes it harder for boys to focus on other things like reading, playing and following instructions.

Find a male role model. You didn’t mention where his father is, but your son needs male influence in his life. Boys need to see how men act, talk and treat people so they can imitate it. Also, your son may be acting out because he wants more male attention and this is something that you can’t give him. This will be more critical as he gets older but start now looking for an adult male role model that he can see and spend time with.

Inject steel into your spine. Parenting tough children is not a job for wimps. The softer and kinder you get, the more aggressive he may become because strong-willed children always challenge adult authority. When they see adults cave and give them what they want, they become more aggressive. I like to think of strong-willed children running around testing parents to see if they knock them over. Your son needs to know that when he challenges you, he hits a brick wall because you are the grown-up and he is the child. The trouble for you is that this is no fun but eventually, he will stop trying to knock you over. I can’t stress how important this is because once your son knows what he can and cannot get away with (by you staying strong) he will relax and stop being so hard to deal with. If you are a single mother, I’ll bet that you are too soft on him because you either feel guilty, tired or just strung out. But, if you can rally to lay down some very strict rules in your home with serious consequences and make those consequences stick, you are ¾ the way there with him.

Again, without knowing your son, I cannot diagnose him but that’s not really important now. What is important is that you take a deep breath, gather support for yourself, including breaks from him and restructure the way you are running your home. You need a clear schedule, firm rules, and nerves of steel with immediate consequences for your son when he misbehaves. Don’t even think of giving up because I know that you can do this. After all, you are called “MOM.”


Dr. Meg


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