Parenting A Strong-Willed Child

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After years of observing young children, teaching parents, and being somewhat conscious of my own learning process, I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the way we humans learn. I find it especially ironic that we can be presented with helpful ideas or information, even repeatedly, yet for whatever reason they don’t resonate enough with us to put them into practice. But then we come across that same content in slightly different wrapping, in a new circumstance or at a later time, and suddenly it hits us like a revelation.

Juliet is an engaging, loving mom I’ve conferenced with a few times. She allowed me to share this personal note describing a transformative moment she experienced regarding “gentle leadership” and her strong-willed daughter Cleo:

For the last 4 months or so I was feeling pretty exhausted and was struggling. Cleo is, as you know, an incredibly strong kid. So strong that I rarely see her on the losing end of a toy struggle, even with older kids. She is both physically and willfully strong. I admire this in her so much and feel very protective of it, because as a child I learned to put aside my strength in favor of making sure that everyone around me was comfortable and happy. It has taken me years to learn to stand my ground and not be so overly concerned about everyone else. Of course I get a daughter who makes me learn it even more deeply!

As Cleo has gotten older (two in July) her determination and willfulness have only increased, and although I thought I was being firm I really wasn’t. I never waffled on limits, but I did steel myself for her reaction in a way that wasn’t helpful. Sometimes when I had to physically carry her when she didn’t want to be carried she could make it so difficult that I had to use all of my strength and resources to do it in a way that was both effective and gentle. I noticed that I was feeling beaten down by her responses and sometimes resentfully thinking to myself, “Jeez, kid, can’t you be a little easier?!”

What I recognize now is that she was feeling all of this (my weakening resolve) and probably felt too powerful, concerned that mama wasn’t strong enough to handle her, and was likely getting the unsettling message that she was too much.

After reading your recent article on timers, I had an internal shift, and things changed completely. I recognized that I am strong enough to handle her reactions and don’t have to take them on… I can be a sounding board for her and gently and firmly follow through and guide her where she needs to go. With this change in perception, I no longer feel exhausted at the end of the day and feel the happiness as a mom I have largely known — save for the past few months.

The funny thing is that this is all internal. On the outside my actions look largely the same, but the internal shift has made it so much easier for Cleo to cooperate with me and for me to be really present for her. Cleo seems happier, too, with less need to test boundaries. In my own life, I know that around this age is when I suffered a lot of developmental trauma around losing agency and learning to fear my mom who couldn’t handle my power. So to be navigating this time with Cleo in a way that feels so authentically respectful to me and to her is the greatest gift I can imagine.

Parenting in such an awake way is all about losing the way and finding it again. Thank you for being a lamppost for me.

I know this was long, but I think I’m spelling it all out for you because I’m so deeply grateful. You are a teacher for me, and I value your work so much.



 I offer a complete guide to respectful discipline in my new book:

NO BAD KIDS: Toddler Discipline Without Shame



(Photo by madgerly on Flickr)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Windy Lawrence says:

    I loved this story … what a great reminder of the importance of how we feel about ourselves and the role that has on our leadership with our children.

    I just wanted to write in because I am also so very grateful for all that I’ve learned from Janet! Thank you!

    1. Awww, thank you, Windy! And yes, you nailed it: “the importance of how we feel about ourselves and the role that has on our leadership with our children.”

  2. I’m really struggling with this at the mo. My 4 y/o is v strong willed and always needs to be ‘in charge’, getting v distressed when people (his peers or his parents!) don’t follow his instructions. It means that spending time with him feels like a constant battle (both for us and for other kids, it seems). I thought I was being firm with him but I guess I do end up doubting my limits when I am up against his constant whining – is he really picking up on that?

    1. Leanne, he is very likely picking up on your tone and tentativeness. What I’m hearing from you is that you’re getting caught up in his emotions rather than being the “sounding board” Julet mentions in her note. Stop worrying about your boy not getting his way. It’s OKAY for him to feel distressed. He needs some practice dealing with his disappointments by expressing them fully (also, without winding his parents up). Just briefly ACKNOWLEDGE his feelings, stay with the feelings rather than trying to rush or fix them. Relax and be the calm sounding board he needs, rather than getting wound up yourself.

      “You really wanted ___. That is very, very upsetting for you.”

      When he gives “instructions” :), just say something like, “You’re telling me to ____. Interesting, and I thank you for your opinion (suggestion, idea, etc.), but this is what we’ll be doing…” Be very confident, but NOT sarcastic.

      The most important thing is not to get rattled by his whines and explosions…That is why you feel like you’re battling rather than rising above your strong 4-year-old’s emotional rollercoasters and being his gentle leader/mom.

      When you change the way you are handling his unhealthy desire to control and be “in charge”, he will learn how to interact with peers more successfully.

      1. Thanks for this Janet. My four year old is pretty much in the same place as Leanne’s right now, and I have been trying to figure out how best to deal with this in a firm and confident way.

      2. This is great advice. Our (almost) 4yo directs playtime with me and my wife like he’s Alfred Hitchcock. It makes me dread playing with him.

        I’m looking forward to adding this to my box of tools.

      3. thanks for the written descriptions of things to actually say- thats helpful

      4. Thank you for this particular scripting. I feel I handle my 2.5 y/o big emotions this way, I feel, however, he has been making EVERYTHING a battle royale to provoke bigger reactions. Essentially, this is how I react, but this is also an elaboration I could benefit from.

        He’s surrounded by passive people who don’t see his aggressive tendencies because they basically don’t say no or mean what they say.

        So, I pick up the pieces and feel overwhelmed from time to time–tonight was an example of it, so, I needed this. I need this over and over sometimes, just as described.

        He wants to run the show with every single transition–some is spd and some is clearly normal strong willed stuff. I fight myself on when it’s actually not in my control anymore–other than being that sounding board. Sometimes we don’t have the answers, but we still have the acknowledgement.

  3. I would like to know more about the solution. You mention timeers… I have begun therapy with my 3 1/2 year old. It’s ostensibly for her (she pulls her hair sometimes to the point of bald patches) but also it is for ME. I feel like I am always threatening her and even worse I use that serious, angry voice so much that she now uses it all the time. I am struggling with her willfulness. She is so very bright and observant and nearly always has an argument. It’s hard not to argue with her like she’s 13 rather than 3!!

    1. Oh dear, I’m dealing with same thing with my daughter. She’s got more the attitude of a teenager than of a 4yo!

    2. Nikki Lawson says:

      I am also attending counseling with my 10 y/o. Im a single Mom of her and a 16 month old boy. Its such an awe expierience to be reading this article, all the wonderful info. , and knowing im not alone.. thank you sooo much:-)

  4. Janet–

    Thanks for this post. I discovered your concept of gentle leadership just before my daughter turned 2–and it was perfect timing! It is transformative to not feel like I have to ‘fix’ her tantrums and empowering to realize how powerful it is for me to have calm confidence in her when she is struggling. I had an experience this week that I wanted to share with you.

    A few days ago, we turned M’s crib into a toddler bed. It has been an easy transition for her at night, but she’s finding it much harder to go to sleep for her naps. Lots of crying and getting up out of bed (before she generally went to sleep very easily). The first afternoon she was napping in the toddler bed, it took about 40 minutes of her crying intermittently and coming to her door repeatedly before she could settle down. Each time I would meet her at the door, acknowledge whatever she was asking for and observe “it’s hard for you to fall asleep in your new bed because it feels different; but I know you can do it”. (And, I think, that’s where the magic is: knowing that she can do it kept me calm and unruffled during those very long 40 minutes; and it gave her the support and the space to figure out how to sleep in her bed.) Toward the end of her protests, she came to the door, gave me her lovey, closed the door, starting crying, opened the door and took her lovey back. Then a minute later she did the same thing with her blanket. And the next (and final) time she came to the door she simply said “mama, I will play with you when I wake up”–and then closed the door and went to sleep.

    I really think that she *learned* how to fall asleep in her bed that day. She is still transitioning, but the protests are much briefer. It seems like all her varied requests (for water, to take her blanket, etc) were attempts to find a way to change her new environment so that it felt “right” to her. And that, by being patient, steady and genuinely present, I gave her the space to figure out that she didn’t actually need anything to change in order to go to sleep in her new bed. I also think that if I had become more involved (going into her room and snuggling her to sleep probably would have worked, for example) that I would have robbed her of the chance to come up with her own solution.

    It was a small moment, but felt very powerful–and like something I never would have thought to do if I hadn’t discovered your blog. So, thank you!


    1. Wow, Mary, such a great story! Thank you so much for sharing!

  5. Beautiful story! I too have found myself drained at the end of the day both emotionally and physically. Yet, I think as with any mother, or parent for that matter, we need to have confidence in ourselves, even if we have evenly tempered children. I myself have 2 opposite kids, one is strong willed the other, will easily mold to whatever you choose for her, however, there are still challenges, just because my oldest is “mild tempered” doesn’t mean I am not faced with challenges, I encourage her everyday to be herself, and it too can be frustrating to see her be pushed around, but I think this is where confidence comes in, they need to see us strong so they can be strong, and they need us to love them through anything, after all they are a part of us, right? Adopted or not, there are pieces of ourselves in these beautiful children we raise. In the end, all that matters is that you create a balance of love, guidance, support and encouragement. Thank you again for this story, it helps remind me that I am on the right path and encourages me to keep going.

  6. Janet, thank you so much for your response. What you say makes a lot of sense, i think I get drawn into arguing or negotiating with him rather than rising above it. I will work on it! 🙂

  7. I loved your story and I know it is not an easy task to handle strong will kids. I personally feel that let your kid take a charge of as many of their own activities as possible.

  8. hi hi!
    i’m so backed up on reading posts… but had to quickly chime in to say that this one was JUST what i needed…

    i can’t wait to connect – life’s been so busy but i am looking forward to a chat soon… i’ll email you.


  9. Thanks for sharing this. I’m going through this with my strong willed 2 year old daughter now and it’s a daily struggle. She’s certainly testing my patience.

  10. Any tips that on handling not one, but two strong willed children….both in different ways, but equally as demanding?

    I have a soon to be 6 year old and a 3 year old who are both very bright, articulate, determined and certainly know their own minds. Qualities I admire and love in them both, but they are often a handful.

    (I also have a son who is nearly 2…he is much more laid back…so far!)

    Love reading your blog!

    1. I am with you. I have a 6 year old and almost 3 year old. Both are very strong willed. The 6 year old was an only child, only grandchild on one side his first 3 1/2 years and now it seems no matter what we try he has to be the center of attention and everything is about him. And now some of the unwanted behaviors are being picked up by the younger child.

  11. I LOVE how all of these parents describe the struggles they have with their children….as their children’s strengths! This article was posted at just the right time for me too. Gave me a different view of the bedtime issue, and of the course the solution.

  12. Dear Janet, I am a RIE follower but new and still finding my way. Please direct me to useful articles suitable for raising strong willed pre schoolers! I have an almost 5 year old who is desperately needing a mom with more guided tools in her tool box!

  13. Anne-Mette Hermansen says:

    I very much enjoyed this article, and some of the beautiful stories in the comment thread. I would love to read more along these lines, especially practical advise for how to deal with the strong willed young child. I have an easy going 4 year old and a strong willed 16 months old – I’m A-cing it with respectfully leading the 4 year old through his emotional ups and downs, but not so much the 16 month old. I am still kinda shocked he is so different from his brother and often I find it hard to take the time and mental space to deal best with his testing and tantrums because with both of them around we have a busy life. I also find I write him off as “the baby” often so he doesn’t get to really decide or express things that I was more willing to do with his brother at that age. So while I’m very much enjoying your blog Janet, I am hoping that one of these days you’ll find time to write more about the younger crowd and how to implement your parenting philosophies with them – especially when they are putting us to the test!

  14. I love this and I enjoy reading all your posts and listening to your podcasts. I really identify with this mom expect that I have not gotten to the part of my little girl being happier. I get her up 45 minutes before we have to leave and this used to be enough time but anymore, it is a struggle every step of the way. We lay in bed for 15 minutes nursing & cuddling, then it’s time to change diaper & get dressed. I start preparing her by saying things like “In 5 minutes, mommy will pick you up and we will go to your room and milk in the chair”. She always says “ok” and nods in agreement but then the screaming, kicking, trying to hit begins as soon as the 5 minutes are up. I’ve tried the “do you want to walk to your room or would you like me to carry you” option to which I just get a “no” so then I say “ok, looks like you’re having trouble getting to your room. I will just carry you”. Then it’s another battle (after nursing in the rocker for awhile) to change her diaper. Again, screaming, kicking, etc. She was never this extreme and I really don’t know what has changed. It’s gotten to the point where I have resorted back to the timer and I hate it. The timer dings (there is no ticking before it dings) and she seems ok with the next phase of getting ready. Obviously, I’ve done something along the way but I can’t figure what I’ve done. In the meantime, I guess I’ll have to add another 15 minutes to my morning routine. I just try to give her as much sleep as possible.

  15. Yes, internal shifts are HUGE! I know the feeling of being worn down by a strong will child. I could not understand why she would choose certain things to “push” on. It hardly ever made sense to me, no matter how I looked at the situation.

    One day I felt heartbroken that I couldn’t understand my child’s point of view and I decided to give up that goal of understanding her. (I thought it was a decent goal, but I made very little progress when that was my goal. She was a teen at the time.)

    I wondered how I was going to be an effective parent if I couldn’t be an effective teacher to my child. I wondered why I was chosen to be her parent if I couldn’t teach her anything. Looking at the situation that way wasn’t getting me anywhere.

    So I flipped around my view and asked myself, “What if she was sent to you to teach you something?”

    It was a whole new way to view my child and to be curious about watching the way she approaches the world.

    I don’t mean that I completely let go of being her parent of course, but I freed myself in many ways with my new way to approach her and her decisions. I became curious about her choices and actions.

  16. I am still struggling so much with the day to day application of these principles. My kid is pretty strong willed and by the end of the day we usually reach a point where I feel drained. Also can’t quite figure out a respectful way to deal with boundary testing while having to do what needs to be done around the house and his younger brother – there’s just no time and nowhere to physically contain him when he feels like acting out and I need to be getting stuff done.

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