Let me set the scene for you: My four-year old daughter has come along with me to run a few errands. I have prepped her before leaving the house that she must be a good listener, stay by my side, have walking feet, and use an inside voice. When we arrive at our local discount store, I again prep her with the same four rules before we even leave the car. Sometimes I even have her repeat them to me so that I know she completely understands and knows what is expected of her. That may seem like a little much for a four-year-old, but when you are parenting a very stubborn, strong-willed, energetic child, you have to prepare them and yourself for what is going to take place and what the boundaries are for coming on an outing in public.
My daughter definitely fits the definition of a strong-willed child. She is spirited, courageous (or has zero fear in my own definition), tests all limits, wants to be in charge ALL of the time, she has a HUGE range of emotions, and pretty much goes at full-speed all day, every day. While I love her with every bit of my being, she sometimes can be very difficult to parent, and some days she just pure exhausts me.
If you also are a parent of a strong willed child, you know the power struggle drill all too well. Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, is a big deal and full of a dramatic and passionate stance on whatever the topic may be. Take for instance asking my daughter to put on her shoes. Oh man! If my husband or I suggest a pair of shoes for the day that will not only match her outfit, but also be comfy, she will immediately say no. She will then go through every pair of shoes, getting more and more upset as we say no to certain pairs for various reasons. “No, you can’t wear those. It is too cold/hot”. “No, you can’t wear those. Tap shoes are only for dance class”. “No, you can’t wear those. They are too big/small.”
The last no actually came into play last week as our daughter wanted to wear a brand new pair of shoes that I bought a half-size too big so she could grow into them. I showed them to her and had her try them on when I initially purchased them. We talked about how they were a little too big at this point, but she would soon grow into them and then be able to wear them any time she wanted. She of course wanted to wear them to school the very next day. After going back and forth with her daddy about why she shouldn’t wear them, my husband finally decided that maybe she would just learn her lesson if we let her wear them to school, and then she would learn on her own all of the reasons for not wearing them quite yet.And that’s exactly what happened. They were too big (Hmmm…if only someone had told her that!) and she ended up struggling with the shoes all day. They came off when she was running at recess. She tripped and fell flat on her face in her classroom. And of course, at the end of the day, she complained that her feet hurt because her shoes were rubbing on them all day as she tried to keep them on. We felt we had made a small victory, as she hasn’t asked to wear them again since!
Power struggles like this are a big deal for strong-willed children. If you think about it, no one really likes to be told what to do by someone else all of the time. Especially if you have your own idea or agenda planned. This is doubly true when it comes to spirited children. They want to be understood and heard. They want everyone to know that they want to make their own choice and essentially do what they want to do, even if it means getting in trouble for not following your directions.
You can’t show up for every argument if you don’t let yourself be invited, so in my experience, the best way to avoid a power struggle (and then a huge meltdown) is to give choices. With my daughter, I always give her two choices that I want her to choose from. Even though she doesn’t come up with the actual choices, she essentially feels like she did because she gets to decide which she wants to actually do, instead of me. She feels that her voice is being heard and that her ideas are respected. I like that this method helps her begin to learn the skill of how to compromise as well, which is very important in life.
One of the hardest lessons for my daughter to learn (and it is completely a work of progress at the moment) is that it is okay that we sometimes tell her no. There are times where a choice can’t be offered. When it comes to things that involve her safety or her overall health, she has to know that it is our job as parents to tell her no. This can be very tough at first, but slowly and surely, children learn that even though their parents tell them no, there will also be plenty of things that we also will say yes to. Children will begin to trust and respect what you tell them and will eventually accept whatever your answer may be whether it is yes or no.
Of course, the process of getting their full trust and respect can be a difficult one. For our family, this process has resulted in many meltdowns, some aggressive behavior, some destructive behavior, and a lot of tears and frustration from all of us. It is never easy when you’re out in public and something occurs where you either have to tell your child no, knowing full well that they will make a scene, or when you do say no, you know that their reaction will be one that is not socially acceptable like hitting you, scratching you, or any other form of outward aggression towards you.
These are the moments that are the hardest for me. It is completely and utterly heart breaking, not to mention embarrassing, when your child is acting out towards you and screaming so that everyone can hear. The looks you get and the reaction of some people is sometimes very defeating. It is sad, but some people feel the need to butt in with their own ideas of what they think your child should be doing or what they think you as a parent should be doing to “get their behavior under control”. These are the moments that I just want to crawl in a hole and hide.In those instances, it is hard not to feel like a bad parent. You’ll doubt your abilities and question what you are doing wrong. I have often felt like a failure, which always ends in me somehow managing to get my daughter back out to the car and then me crying all the way home. It is devastating when something you think will be fun and enjoyable quickly ends with nothing but resentment. You’ll ask yourself why you are the one faced with the job of parenting a difficult child instead of someone else, why things just can’t be easy and simple like you see every other mom experiencing, and sometimes you’ll tell yourself that you wish you had your simple, relaxing life back from before you had children.
It is so hard for me to admit, but I have had those thoughts. I have felt like I’m being punished for something by having a strong-willed child, and I always feel exhausted and frustrated when I think about my life as a mother. Then of course after that, the guilt of even feeling those things comes out and you just want to cry once again. It is such a hard cycle to be in, and in the midst of it all, you really feel like there is no end in sight. This is the way your life is going to be until your child heads off to college at age eighteen, even though you know that’s not necessarily true.
It doesn’t have to be that way though. It is hard and I’m the worst at it, but in the hard parenting moments, take a deep breath and tell yourself that you can handle it. Put on a brave face and stay calm. In the worst times of struggle with my daughter, I have found that if I stay calm and really listen to what she’s wanting, it decreases her anger a lot. When she hits me or scratches my arm, leaves bruises on me or kicks me in the shin very hard, I tell her that I can see and feel that she’s upset. Then I ask her if she can tell me why so that we can put a smile back on her face. Instead of punishing her for hurting me, I try and talk to her about what will happen if she continues the behavior (loss of a preferred activity or screen time) and then I give her an idea of what a better choice might be. Almost all of the time, she chooses to make the better choice, and then we move about our day a little less stressed and a little more happy.
I’m not going to lie. That takes a lot of practice and patience! When your child hurts you or acts out towards you in an aggressive way, it takes every ounce of your body not to yell or be harsh back at them. We of course want them to understand that hurting someone is not okay, but there are definitely better ways of communicating that with them instead of responding back with more anger. Use those moments to teach your child what the appropriate behavior or response would be. They can’t learn what you are expecting them to do, unless you show them what that is and then give them a chance to practice it. This again builds trust and respect between the two of you and both of you will begin to feel a little more empowered. I guarantee that the relationship the two of you have will also get stronger.So the next time you find yourself in a moment of frustration because your strong-willed child is throwing a tantrum, having a meltdown, or is attempting to engage in a power struggle with you, take a deep breath and repeat after me: “I love my child and they love me. Just because my child is acting out in public, doesn’t make me a bad parent. I will not pay attention to the stares and comments of others, and I will have confidence that I know what is right for my child. I will hug/kiss/love on my child even though they are driving me crazy!” I promise you that if you do these things, in the worst of moments, you will come out on the other side with your nerves less frazzled and your hair a little less gray.
Even though I know my life as a mom isn’t going to be all cupcakes and puppies, I wouldn’t change my daughter at all! She is very spirited, but someday that will be strength. When she’s older, she won’t give in to peer pressure easily and she won’t be shy about standing up for what she believes in. She will not do what everyone else is doing and she’ll be full of individuality. Someday she will make a great leader, maybe a CEO of a company or the head surgeon at a leading hospital. Who knows, maybe she’ll even be president, and then we’ll look back and laugh at all the crazy things she did when she was four!
I love my daughter to pieces, and she has taught me so much about life. I challenge you to find the good in your strong-willed child, the unique traits that make them special and tell them everything you love about them all of the time. The strong-willed child also deserves to be the well-loved child and they will then reciprocate that love right back to you in so many wonderful ways.