Controlling a Strong Willed Child

This blog is for parents who have been through power struggles with their children and want to do things differently. Step one: Are you willing to acknowledge that you may have a role to play in these power struggles? Do you yourself like to have control? If so, you may be able to learn from my experience.

The Question: How do I get my child to do what I want him to do?

I’ve asked this many times, but I’ve learned that there is a problem with the question, or the thinking behind the question. I was asking it in a way that was based in control. I may as well have been asking, “How do I control my child?” or “How do I get him to do what I want him to do regardless of how he feels?” If I’m honest, a lot of my parenting was like this.

I was consumed with a desire to control and I made that the focal point of our relationship. With a strong willed child it failed. It failed again and again. His major need was to have autonomy and to be respected. He fought hard for it. I’m glad he did. My son stood up for himself and taught me some valuable lessons along the way.

If I wanted some peace in the house and to have a good relationship with my son, I needed to approach him in a different way. So, I learned a different way. It was hard though. The insecure part of me really just wanted to have control. 😬

Something that helped me ease up on the control was knowing that obedience wasn’t actually what I was after. I wanted to raise children who could think for themselves, who are independent, who problem solve, and not just follow orders. I also wanted more ease in my home. I was tired of constant power struggles and wanted to hack the system. I wanted to see if I could create an agreeable home without being a dick. I wanted a win/win. And to be honest, I was tired of hearing my own voice over and over.

Let’s look at an example: Let’s say that my child does not want to wear a coat to go outside. I could have a stand off with him about it. I could chase him around, threaten him, threaten to take away something, and eventually force the coat on him. Another option would be that I could have a stand off with him where I try to get him to do what I want him to do, and then eventually give up and let him go outside without it on. Because I based things on control, I am left with being the winner or loser. Win/lose families or organizations are not fun to be part of, it results in tension and strained relationships.

In neither situation mentioned would I have actually taught anything useful. At best my child learns that I can control him, or that he can escape being controlled. This is what controlling without teaching yields. I am hoping to teach better lessons that this in my parenting.

What about this: What if on our way to go outside my child does not put his coat on. I don’t get threatened. I try to use it as a learning/connecting moment. I ask him what he thinks about the temperature outside. (Maybe we even have a thermometer he can check). Already, I am shifting the tone by engaging him in a respectful/educational conversation. This may be enough to help teach or remind. However, it may not. But it also might not be the end of the world if he goes outside without a coat. Children learn well through natural consequences. Also, he could tie the coat around his waist. If we take the power dynamic out of it, lessons can be learned, real life lessons. If we hold on to who is in control …control becomes the focus.

For those who think they don’t have time for this and it’s all a bit too ridiculous, and you are thinking “no thank you Drew I’m going to go ahead and make my kid do what I want, because I am the parent and I know what’s right”

… Okay, I will warn you though that putting in some time and effort now will save you a lot of anguish later on. Kids get bigger, power struggles get bigger. If you are choosing “power over” know that this is what you are teaching your child by your interactions with him. He too will eventually learn how to leverage you, and he’ll be damn good at it.

The sooner we do this, the sooner we involve these types of children in decision making, the easier it will be for us later as parents. When these children feel listened to and heard and respected, a whole new world opens up. This is how these children learn to trust and respect, it is a precursor. Unfortunately some parents miss this and spend most of their time in power struggles. It doesn’t have to be this way.

When strong will children feel heard and involved, it’s almost like a switch goes on, and they become open to and agreeable with the parent. You have a choice of how you want to approach this.

Backing down on the control, stepping away from win/lose type scenarios may provide you with what you actually want, win/win scenarios. I have experienced the magic of this. In backing down on control and collaborating with my child, so much good stuff is taught All without power struggles.

A lot of children like to learn by doing and experiencing. I do too. Cause and effect is one of the most interesting and valuable lessons to let your child experience. It can only be done by relinquishing control though. Here are some of the great things that are learned when we allow for a child’s own learning to happen.

  • My parent respects me, I am worthy of respect
  • I don’t need to fight for my autonomy so much. I can relax.
  • If my parent trusts me, maybe I can trust her/him
  • I can make my own decisions
  • I can be responsible for my decisions
  • My body belongs to me. I am responsible for my body.
  • I can learn from my own experience, and adjust accordingly

Holy Smokes! There is too much goodness here to ignore! I don’t know one parent who wouldn’t want to teach this stuff.

The catch: You can only do this is you are willing to let go. If you are willing to surrender a bit and trust that you will be safe and okay, that your child will be safe and okay if you ease up on control a bit.

My desire for control and power not only made important lessons impossible, it created power struggles. Unwittingly I ended up teaching other lessons than what I really wanted my children to learn. Look at the bulleted list above. Think of the opposite to all of those.

Sobering. I know. This realization hit me like a ton of bricks.

Here is the good news. The ultimate bonus to parenting in a way where you let go of some power is that you empower your child. You create a strong mutually respectful relationship and a strong independent/capable child. What else is there? What else do you want from parenting?

The irony of letting go of some control is that my kids listen to me better now. They do more of what I request of them. Go figure. It’s like they trust me.

Are you interested in learning how to avoid power struggles, and how you might relinquish some control so that lessons are still being learned? Contact me.

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2 Comments on “Controlling a Strong Willed Child

  1. Best advice my dad gave me was to choose your battles wisely… if you let go on the little things they are more likely to listen to advice on the big things.

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