Have you ever thought that you might be raising a strong-willed child? Here are six signs that you just might be right…
1. Incredibly Inquisitive
Strong-willed kids often learn by asking questions. Lots of them. It is part of who they are! Their brains are naturally inquisitive, and they tend to seek knowledge and understanding, which means they ask "why" about almost everything. Their desire to understand the why behind things is not necessarily rooted in disrespect or a lack of trust in you as the parent, though sometimes it can feel that way. Rather, it is part of who God made them to be!
Action step: This trait is something that should be nurtured and guided to serve them well. Sure, a game of 100 questions is not always appropriate, but if it is a reasonable time to answer, remember to do so with patience and a heart that wants to teach them wisdom and critical thinking skills.
2. Selective Hearing
It might seem like your child is ignoring you or refusing to acknowledge what you are asking them to do. You’re 10 feet away from them and they aren’t answering. What is going on? Young children have a difficult time transitioning their focus from one thing to another. Their brain can quite literally get lost in its own world. Some research indicates it can take a child 60-90 seconds longer to process and respond to auditory stimulation than it does an adult. Add to that a strong sense of determination and independence, and what feels like intentionally ignoring or disobeying is really just an immature brain that is still learning how to transition.
Action step: Remember that this isn’t a game of disrespect, but a display of focus and determination! To help them hear you and transition more smoothly, get down on your child’s level, show an interest in their work, and then communicate your expectations in as few words as possible.
3. Noisily Rejects Help or Suggestions
I think of the child who is trying to complete a puzzle. They have the last piece in their hand. They KNOW it fits here, but they’ve been trying to no avail for a painfully long time to put it in upside down. Mom patiently steps in to guide the piece in a slight rotation and then comes the words “NO! I can do it ALLLLL by myself.” Does this sound familiar? You might have a strong-willed child!
Action step: This child needs help learning 2 things: how to decline help in a graceful way and how to be open to mutual problem-solving. Ask yourself, is there a way you could model this for them? If you are making dinner in the kitchen and your child comes in to help without being asked, then shoves their hands in the mixing bowl, what is your response—Are you responding the same way the child with the missing puzzle piece responded? Or are you making the most of every opportunity to model appropriate and graceful behavior?
4. Intense Emotions
Spirited, spicy, and strong-willed kids feel things very intensely. It could look like an angry outburst because a sibling took a toy, a meltdown because their favorite pink plate is dirty, or a lot of other things. But the common factor is that the way they feel isn’t a secret and it might come on suddenly. Some parenting experts have suggested that strong-willed children live close to shame. Even when parents are intentional not to shame them! These children have a deeper understanding of shame, and it's not quite understood why.
Action step: Your child is freely expressing their feelings to you– But what do you do with those feelings? First, keep your calm. Then, share your calm. There are a lot of different strategies for working through these intense feelings but always ask yourself– “Am I escalating or de-escalating this situation?” Then work toward mutual problem-solving in a way that will help them control and guide their own feelings down the road when they are confronted with the same feelings again. Co-regulating your child will teach them how to regulate their own emotions.
Sometimes, though not always, kids who are strong-willed can be very schedule-oriented. They thrive on predictability and struggle with the lack of it. Consistent rhythms and routines can be a security to a child who wants to feel in control of their day and they may feel dragged about and helpless if they are just being told to do one thing and then another.
Help create structure for the child but also demonstrate the beauty of flexibility. Be looking for opportunities to say “sure! I can be flexible here.” Or “Do you think we could be flexible about this?” Celebrate them when you see them being flexible–it can be hard!
6. Seems to Look for Conflict
Sometimes (okay, many times) it feels like strong-willed children just look for an opportunity to dig their heels in and say no. It can be absolutely maddening! Here is where we can shift again– Oh, what an excellent job they will do solving the world’s problems, standing up for themselves, and defending the weaker ones if we can just teach them well.
Do not enter the struggle. I repeat! Do NOT enter into a power struggle with them. After all, it is not actually a question about who is the leader. You both know who the leader is here. You don't prove you're in charge by controlling your child, you prove you're in charge by controlling yourself! Work toward solving the problem–hint: Your child isn't the problem. Hear them out. Empathize. Look for the “yes.”
I have found that these struggles can be avoided often if parents would stop asking yes or no questions when “no” is not an acceptable answer. Instead of saying “Are you ready to leave for the store now?” you could say “It is time to leave for the store now. Would you like to hold our bags or my hand while we walk down the steps?”
Our strong-willed children are so precious to us! Each one of them has such tremendous potential. We must learn to steward them well and equip them to thrive and flourish as the natural leaders God's created them to be.
Having a spicy, spirited kid is a lot for one set of parents to handle. How well I know that! But it is also a tremendous gift.
If you want more detailed help with peacemaking discipline + helpful explanations of what is actually going on in their little brains, we’ve got you covered! Our upcoming Spirited, Spicy, and Strong-Willed Kids workshop is open for registration!