Parenting a Strong-Willed Child: 5 Positive Tips

Strong-willed kids get a bad rap because they come across as rebellious or defiant. Instead of crushing their stubborn determination, here's how to relax and focus their indomitable spirits in a positive direction.

Cheryl Butler
5-minute read
Episode #604
The Quick And Dirty

Strong-willed, stubborn kids can challenge you at every turn. Here's how to work with them and harness their spirited nature in a positive way.

  1. Form routines so your child always knows what to expect.
  2. Offer choices, not ultimatums.
  3. Don't attend every argument—let the little thing go and move on.
  4. Keep it positive—catch your child doing good!
  5. Disconnect from screens and connect with nature.

My second child arrived two weeks early. It was clear from the moment I held him that stubborn persistence would dominate his personality. Between colic, reflux, and his desire to sleep only for short snippets at a time, I had to adjust quickly to his strong-willed temperament. Otherwise, I would've cried all day, myself!

Although he outgrew the projectile vomiting and began sleeping through the night, one thing that didn't change was his stubborn tendencies.

Tenacity and the persistence to exert one's robust personality is the mark of a gifted being, not a sign of defiance.

I've been a people-pleaser my entire life, I found it difficult to fathom how any child of mine could be testing boundaries at the wee age of six months. But I soon realized that a strong-willed child is a blessing. Tenacity and the persistence to exert one's robust personality is the mark of a gifted being, not a negative sign of defiance.

In her article in Advanced Psychology, Dr. Tali Shenfield captures my second child's essence perfectly:

When appropriately nurtured, these spirited young people often grow up to be great leaders and visionaries—possessing a great deal of creativity, passion, and drive—but conversely, when harshly disciplined, they can turn into distraught and rebellious individuals.

Dr. Tali Shenfield, How to Nurture a Strong-Willed Child

Don’t let a stubborn child wear you down. Embrace her spirit with these smart, positive parenting tips, and you’ll pave the way for a positive outcome.

Make routines work for you

As the mom of eight kids, all with different needs and personalities, the one constant that keeps our large family glued together is our clearly defined rules and expectations. Not every child of mine was necessarily happy to be a rule-follower, but the consistency we put in place, primarily with our daily routines, was a game-changer.

Strong-willed children aren't afraid to exert their independence to meet their needs.

Strong-willed children often feel the need to be in charge. They tend to dominate other family members (yes, including you, the parent) because they aren't afraid to exert their independence to meet their needs. They want to do things like calling the shots when it comes to what they will or won't eat for dinner, or taking charge of how they want the bedtime routine to go.

Establishing routines for getting ready for school, handling homework and after-school activities, and particularly your bedtime schedule, is a surefire way to rein in your stubborn child. When you've clearly laid out your expectations—and you stick to them consistently!—your child will be more willing to relax into familiar routines and go with the flow.

Offer choices, not ultimatums

One of the easiest ways to strike a chord with a child who butts heads with you is to step back and offer her a choice.

When you allow them to make choices over smaller things like breakfast, children feel as though decision-making is a partnership, and you will likely get more cooperation in other areas.

Laurin Atkinson, Teach Good Decision-Making Skills and Say Goodbye to Power Struggles

By letting her choose her favorite pair of jeans—who cares if they're a tad too small?—you're empowering her to have some control in her life. By letting your child take the lead when it comes to little things, you establish a positive connection and avoid setting the stage for future power struggles.

Don't attend every argument

Parenting guru Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, shared one of my favorite pieces of parenting advice ever—you don't have to attend every argument to which you're invited!

It takes two to have a power struggle.

It takes two to have a power struggle. The next time your strong-willed child wants to battle over his bedtime, take a breath and don't engage.

"Michael, bedtime is at 9:00. I'm going to give you some time to shower and get ready. I'll be back to check on you in 20 minutes."

Now, calmly walk away and leave the contentious situation behind before it even starts.

Keep it positive

Don't focus on what's wrong or what your child didn't do—that's inherently negative. Instead, make a point to praise your child for their sincere efforts to improve. Positive reinforcement goes a long way toward rechanneling negative behaviors!

My favorite strategy, which yielded fantastic results for my strong-willed child, was to catch him doing something good. This helpful tip was one that our school implemented nearly 15 years ago. Teachers are always looking for ways to motivate students. So rather than pointing out when a student was doing something wrong, they made a big deal of letting them know when they'd done something right.

Take the time to catch your kids in the act of doing something right.

For instance, if a child was willing to share his snack with another child or stuck up for a friend who was getting bullied, our teachers stopped the lesson to praise the positive action publicly. Many times, this included a written citation that noted the excellent behavior. My kids would get off the bus beaming, anxious to share their good deed.  

Take the time to catch your kids in the act of doing something right, and let them know the specifics of why you noticed!

Connect with nature

This is my favorite tip, and an easy one for everyone, Mom and Dad included! There are multiple benefits to getting outside and enjoying nature in the fresh air—no screens or devices included.

Ruth Atchley, a Department of Psychology professor at the University of South Florida, has a theory that all the time we spend staring at screens overworks the executive functioning of our brains. She and her colleagues researched and found that disconnecting from technology for just four days and spending time in nature improved creativity, and performance on a problem-solving task increased by 50%. There's also evidence that spending time outside helps children with ADHD with impulse control.

My colleague, Sabrina Stierwalt, Ph.D., QDT’s Ask Science, shared some interesting facts about this topic in her episode How Much Time Should We Be Spending Outdoors.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease Control in the United States both recommend at least an hour of free play a day. Some pediatric occupational therapists recommend as many as three hours outside per day!

It might not be possible to wedge three hours of outdoor time between school and extracurricular activities. But the bottom line? Encourage your kids to get outside and play. Spending time with nature is healthy for your child’s overall physical well-being and can be a positive outlet when it comes to managing his stubborn temperament.

Outdoor time is good for you, too! Set a good example by joining your child in the Great Outdoors. Sunlight, fresh air, natural surroundings, and physical activity will boost your mood and engage your brain.

RELATED: 5 Cool Ways to Help Teens Limit Their Screen Time

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. You can reach her by email.