How to Survive a Strong-Willed Child

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I work with a lot of kids, and they come to me for a variety of reasons. I enjoy each and every one of them, but if I'm being completely honest, I really enjoy working with the kids who come tagged with the description “strong-willed.” I know these kids can be difficult to parent at times, and I am aware that I only get them for 45 minutes at a time, but I truly enjoy working with them.

They know what they want, and they know how to get it (at least they think they do), and they won't stop until they meet their goals.

While tired (rightfully so) parents look at me with drooping eyes, begging me to teach their children to “be more flexible,” I secretly enjoy the determination these kids have. Yes, they can be stubborn and difficult, and they will state their cases whenever they can, but these kids have passion.

Strong-willed children can be exhausting, that's for sure. But they also tend to grow into leaders. When they learn to channel that determination, they take healthy risks — they learn to work through failure and keep trying. There's a lot to love about strong willed little ones, indeed. Parents just need to learn how to survive them.

Rely on routines and rules.

Strong-willed kids are known for their power struggles. If they find an opening, they pounce. Routines and rules provide a great foundation for all kids (they take some of the guesswork out of the day), but they can be particularly helpful for strong-willed children.

Try not to overwhelm them with hundreds of rules and expectations. You can't avoid every possible power struggle along the way (and the ability to debate almost any topic will actually become a positive later on — don't squash that), but a list of rules and expectations can help avoid some of the daily power struggles that wear on your nerves (think meals, getting out the door, bedtime, and homework).

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Enjoy the action!

Strong-willed kids are often doers by nature. If it seems like your little leader is always learning the hard way, that's because she learns best by trial and error.

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Strong-willed kids have big ideas, and they prefer to test their ideas on their own. So what if you know that tying a skateboard to a scooter is probably a recipe for a fall? If your child follows the rules (always wear a helmet when on wheels of any kind), is there really any harm in letting her test her theory?

Resist the urge to be right.

I find that many power struggles emerge between strong-willed kids and their parents because the kids have very strong opinions, and they tend to stick to them. When both parties believe they are 100% correct, healthy debates quickly morph into unhealthy arguments.

You do have to set realistic rules and expectations, and you do have to follow through on those, but you don't have to be right. You don't have to have the last word. In fact, that only fuels the fire for your strong-willed little one.


Allow your child the freedom to disagree with your opinions, even if your child doesn't win that particular power struggle. Sometimes, strong-willed kids simply need the opportunity to hold their thoughts and opinions close. Give it to them.

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Listen carefully.

Given that tenacious little ones tend to have a lot of very strong opinions and prefer to share those opinions often, parents can check out at times. I get that. It can be exhausting, and sometimes you just don't want to debate why 8-year-olds don't need iPhones (again).

It's important to listen. Sharing their ideas and opinions is how strong-willed kids work through things. If they appear stubborn at times, it's because they have strong beliefs and integrity. They want to share that with the world.

Listen to your child and empathize. Help them channel that stubbornness into a positive. So your child really wants that iPhone? Teach her how to research the pros and cons and engage in a healthy give-and-take on the matter instead of simply stating her need over and over again. She might not get the iPhone, but she will feel heard and learn some important interpersonal skills in the process.

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Image via Flickr/ Henrique Pinto

Believe in them.

Your pint-sized leaders might be wearing you down each day, but they need you to believe in them. Believe in their ability to change. Believe in their ability to channel their “difficult” behavior into something more positive. Believe in their ability to grow into great leaders.

These kids are change makers — that much I can promise. They just need a little guidance and a huge dose of patience as they make their way from stubborn to an influential leader.

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Do you have a strong-willed child?

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How to Survive a Strong-Willed Child

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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