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Staying Sane with Strong-Willed Kids

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker

They cry more. They sleep less. Their first, second and third words are:  “no”, “no” and “no” again. Yup, they’re the subgroup of little people known as ‘strong-willed kids’. After 25 years, I can spot them a mile away: They won’t sit on their moms’ laps while we chat and the first thing they spot in my exam room (even though I purposely placed it high on the wall) is the faucet. Once they spot it, they’re on. They need a drink, then another and another. And they won’t quit asking until they’re ready to float away.

I have a secret: I love strong-willed kids. I know that they drive their moms crazy, but I have the luxury of loving them. After all, I only have to stay in the same room with them 20 or 30 minutes at a time. But here’s why I find them fabulous: they’re going somewhere. These are the kids that are going to make a difference in the world one day. The trick for me is to make sure that their moms don’t kill them before they get there. So here are a few ways any mom can learn to make it:

Tip # 1.  Learn to channel their stubbornness. What makes these kids successful in the long run is their tenacity. So rather than hate it, embrace it. Don’t fight their stubbornness; learn to redirect it into a direction that works for them. The trouble for you comes when they fight you, so find things that they can do that will challenge their strong wills. Find games that make them work and give them a chance to use their independence. If you have girls, let them pick out dress-up clothes with buttons and zippers and let them have at it. And boys love building and destroying, so make sure they have plenty of sand, dirt and trucks to move it.

Tip #2. Fight only two battles at a time. The hallmark of strong-willed kids is trying to have their own way. This means that they will fight you to get it. Any parent knows that this is exhausting and many days end with the feeling that you had no positive interaction with your child. So prioritize your battles. Find one or two really offensive behaviors and work on breaking those, letting the less offensive ones go for the time being. Keep at those two until your child obeys and then move on to two more.

Tip # 3. Break the will, not the spirit. Dr. James Dobson, in his book on parenting strong-willed children, refers to bringing the will of the child under obedience. While this sounds harsh, all it means is that you must teach your child to listen and obey when you mean it. We all have wills which must be disciplined in order to obey laws. The will is different from the spirit of the child. The spirit is the essence of a child’s character, the indefinable part of him which makes him unique. Parents must work hard never to break his spirit through harsh criticism, put downs, foul language or shaming. Healthy discipline occurs when a parent helps a child yield to his authority and this can be done while preserving the child’s strong sense of self respect.

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