Some children are naturally independent and opinionated — even used to getting their own way. In short, they can be obstinate or defiant at times. This makes your job as a parent all the more challenging. A typical strong-willed child often misbehaves or refuses to test your love and limits. It could be there are only a few areas where you butt heads with your toddler or teen. Nonetheless, it can feel as if your child’s assertions and wants are consistently contrary to yours.
If you have a strong-willed child, you know it can be tricky to find balance. Parents hope to operate in a middle ground, to be strong guides and still be warm and loving, authoritative rather than authoritarian. You don’t have to be a yes-parent — nor do you want your children to fear you. The desired equilibrium is one in which parents remain in charge and refrain from overreacting while saying no respectfully and affectionately, in a way that is not threatening or shaming.
Express your understanding of your child’s disappointment or unhappiness when you exert your parental prerogative. With school-age children you can explain that you realize that what you’re asking seems unfair to them. You don’t want to break your children’s independent spirit or enthusiasm. But, you want them to recognize and respect boundaries.
For children who butt heads against a parent’s rules and requests, constantly testing the limits and challenging your authority — even for getting necessary things accomplished like teeth brushing or putting away their toys — the specific scripts below are worth a try. They are approaches to turn to when your strong-willed child makes demands, asks, or requests that push your parenting buttons or that you feel are not good choices.
5 ways to respond to your strong-willed child:
1. “But I’m clean. I didn’t do anything messy today. No bath for Benny,” your child tells you.
What’s Going on Here: Your young one has decided that he wants the final say.
Response: “I know you feel clean. You even look almost clean, but you are not shining clean. Let’s pretend you played in mud all day and we are going to transform you into a star that twinkles brightly in the sky. Can you do that?” You might also suggest your child cleans up a truck or doll in the tub while he bathes.
Alert: Routines around bedtime help children feel secure and keep the household from slipping into free-for-alls of urging and insisting by parents.
2. “I’m not eating that!” your strong-willed child says with sealed lips and a turned-up nose. It’s as if you placed the dog’s kibble in front of him.
What’s Going on Here: It’s not unusual for young children to be picky eaters. Knowing that, you put some foods on his plate that he likes and will probably eat. But he doesn’t appreciate your efforts.
Response: “I understand you are not pleased with what I’m serving. Eat what you want, but that’s dinner tonight.”
Alert: Children don’t usually starve themselves, so toughen up to disapproval of your meal selection or cooking. If you comply and make something different after every complaint or for each person in the family, you might as well be a professional line cook.
3. “I can handle the new serial killer movie,” your ten-year-old declares. “I won’t be scared, and all my friends are going.”
What’s Going on Here: Your daughter is confident and is being honest with you, but you certainly won’t let her see such a frightening and violent slasher flick. You’re worried that if you give a hard no, she’ll resent you and find a way to watch it anyway.
Response: “I really don’t think you realize what you’re getting yourself into. Worst-case scenario, you won’t sleep for nights afterward or embarrass yourself in front of your friends by
how scared you get. How about you hang out with your friends after the movie? Or, suggest they see a different movie.”
Alert: Your daughter doesn’t realize the impact that seeing such a movie will have on her. You do because you know her well.
4. “My homework isn’t a big deal today. I’ll do it when I get back from the skate park.”
What’s Going on Here: His concept of “a little homework” and yours may be — and often are — worlds apart.
Response: “No, do your homework and if there’s still time we can talk about going to the skate park later.”
Alert: A strong no said while looking your teen right in the eye sets limits and underscores that you mean what you say. Parents’ nos are sound lessons in how the world works — you don’t always get what you want.
5. “I’m spending the night at Jimmy’s.”
What’s Going on Here: Your son wants to spend the night at a friend’s house. But, you have met Jimmy only once and his parents never. That’s sufficient to prompt your answer.
Response: “No, your friend can sleep here if he likes.” If your child pleads, add, “What part of no don’t you understand?”
Alert: Follow your internal warnings. Parents don’t always have to justify their nos. It’s your prerogative to be adamant, even testy. File under “parental right.”
Setting limits gives children behavioral guidelines and tools that transfer to spheres beyond home. That fact alone should spur you to keep trying — no matter strong-willed, argumentative or defiant you child may be.
Adapted from The Book of No: 365 Ways to Say It and Mean It—And Stop People-Pleasing Forever