How to Help Your Strong-Willed Child Listen (Without Wounding His Spirit)

A parent describes her 4-year-old son as energetic, independent and strong-willed. While she appreciates her son’s enthusiasm, she struggles to reign him in and finds herself yelling, “You’re not listening!” She says they often take nature walks with friends and he inevitably runs ahead at an unsafe distance. She feels overwhelmed, especially when they are out with other parents “that have high expectations for behavior.” She hopes Janet can offer a way to help her son listen, but “without killing his free spirit.”

Transcript of “How to Help Your Strong-Willed Child Listen (Without Wounding His Spirit)”

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I have a question from a parent. It’s about her son who is very strong-willed, high energy, independent. All positives. But the other side of that coin is she has a hard time getting him to listen. His behavior is unmanageable at times and she wonders how she can get him to listen without “killing his free spirit”.

Okay, here’s the email:

Hi, Janet. I’ve recently enjoyed listening to your podcast, Unruffled, and reading your book, No Bad Kids. It’s a really refreshing approach to parenting.

The issue I’m having is that my four-year-old is very strong-willed and independent, which of course can be a good thing. I don’t have to encourage him to do anything. He jumps right in.

I just find it difficult when I try to reign in all that energy and get them to listen to me. For example, we take a lot of nature walks with friends. He will run ahead and just keep going, not stopping when I tell him to stop. I find myself yelling because it’s a safety issue, leaving me with the only option to hold his hand, leave, or let him keep running.

He’s always done a lot of attention-seeking behavior as well even if he’s getting attention, such as yelling. I find myself telling him, “You’re not listening,” frequently and don’t want to be saying this. How do I help a strong-willed, independent child do just that? Listen.

I feel at a loss and so overwhelmed. He’s so much fun. He really is. I especially get overwhelmed when we are out with friends that have high expectations for behavior. They have more mellow kids. I should add that I have a one-year-old daughter who of course takes up a lot of my time. Please help me find a way for him to listen without killing his free spirit. I really want your methods to work and to have peace. I hope they’re not just for “easier kids”. He’s like three-in-one. Ha ha. If you were to ask who pulled the fire alarm, it would be my kid for sure.

Thank you so much.

Okay, so when I read these notes and questions from parents, certain statements they make or phrases they say tend to pop out like headlines. In this case, the first thing that popped out was when she said at the end, “I should add that I have a one-year-old daughter who of course takes up a lot of my time.”

Second, and even a bigger headline for me was, “Help me find a way for him to listen without killing his free spirit.”

Those are two important points that she makes that tell me a little about her child’s point of view versus hers.

One of the themes that I try to bring up in my writing and in my podcasts is understanding our child’s point of view, being able to see through their eyes. That matters because that is the way to help them with their behavior and go at it in a helpful way that joins with our child. That doesn’t mean we’re joining and running rampant at the outing, but it means that we want to be helpful rather than be the person that’s telling you, “Do this, do that,” and “I’m frustrated with you.” We want to be able to help our child feel that safety net of our presence.

Now a child who is very strong-willed and independent, it’s a personality type. In this case, her child is very high energy as well. Children who are strong-willed can also be very sensitive to the energy around them. Like all children in these early years, they are easily overwhelmed.

It’s interesting also because this mother says that she feels overwhelmed, which is understandable of course, but since she’s the one her child is looking to for leadership and to set the tone of how everything’s going in his life and how their relationship is going, if she’s overwhelmed, he’s going to be triply overwhelmed. Young children get overwhelmed very easily. Especially children that have this kind of intensity. They just tip over in a second.

The situation that she brings up about the one-year-old sister is huge. It’s always interesting, too, because parents tend to share that with me as almost an afterthought, although this parent does note that it’s taking up a lot of her time. Well, it’s not only taking up a lot of her time and affecting her energy, it’s super affecting her son. It’s a very overwhelmingly emotional situation for older children when another child is born. Now they have to accept that their whole life has changed. Here’s this cute baby person who is taking up a lot of their parents’ time.

When they express their stress through behavior as children do, their parents getting angry with them, getting frustrated, that’s can feel like the worst thing that could ever happen, that: my parents… not only did this other person come that takes a lot of their time and interest and love, but I’m acting like a jerk. I’m not being “good” because I’m acting out of my own stress and overwhelm.

Then around the time the baby turns one, there can be a whole new level of overwhelm because now this baby is not just a cute blob in the older child’s eyes, that he can feel: well, I can do all these things and she can’t and I can get my parents’ attention.

That’s another thing the mother brings that he’s attention-seeking. Well, he used to be able to get your attention pretty easily, but now even more attention is going to this little girl who’s maybe started to talk and walk and become a serious rival for him in his eyes. It would be understandable that he’s in an almost constant state of stress at this juncture.

Then he’s let loose on one of these outings and he can’t contain himself. He knows he’s not supposed to run far away and make his mother upset, but he literally can’t stop himself. This is what I hope I can help this parent understand. It’s not about I won’t listen and I’m making this very conscious choice deliberately doing what you don’t want. It’s: I can’t stop myself from going there. Also, maybe: I’m kind of getting stuck seeking this attention that I get from my parent that doesn’t really feel that good, but at least I’m getting that attention from her. That can be part of it, too.

When she says, “You’re not listening,” what she means is not that he doesn’t hear her, but he’s not following her directions. That’s what we usually mean as parents when we’re saying, “They’re not listening, they’re not listening.” Again, it’s not a choice to not listen. The child is in a state where they can’t for some reason. At least one of the reasons is this transition he’s in, this life transition that feels like the rug has been pulled out from under him. And it’s only getting scarier each time that he is that guy that’s being “bad” when he goes on the outings. He knows that that’s becoming the perception of him. He knows that his mother is exasperated and that other people are judging him. He’s getting stuck doing it anyway.

Now there’s this story that he’s kind of creating for himself, that he’s this out-of-control guy. That’s making him feel more distant from the people he needs to feel even closer to now that he’s going through the sibling transition of his sister turning one, all the new feelings that come up around that. He needs to feel his parents are that safety net, that they’re with him, that they either understand him or want to understand him, that they’re not blaming him for his behavior.

I realize that’s hard because it can look very, very deliberate when children do these things and it’s maddening. I get that. But that’s not what’s going on. What’s going on is his reason centers are being overwhelmed by his emotions and stress. When you’re shouting at him, “You’re not listening,” he’s not going to be able to stop, turn on a dime, and say, “Oh, you know what? You’re absolutely right, and I’m so sorry. I don’t know what came over me, but here I am listening to you now.” The not listening was already him being in this other state of consciousness where he can’t control himself. The tipping point for this is very, very low, especially for children that are very intense like him.

What it feels like inside his body when he’s doing these things is not comfortable. It’s not joy that: I’m running away and I’m making everyone upset. It’s that overwhelmed, overexcited, somewhat anxious, out of control feeling that we’ve all experienced. But for us as adults, we are mature in our ability to self-regulate and stay reasonable.

If we understand these elements, this boy’s behavior makes a lot of sense. The more sense it can make to us as parents, the easier it’s going to be for us to shift into really helping him and therefore changing that behavior, getting what we want, which is a child that doesn’t do these things as often.

He may always have that tendency to be the life of the party, pushing all the boundaries. It can be fun to be with those people. As his parents says, she enjoys him and the fact that he jumps right in. But it’s also getting away from him a lot of the time.

What I would advise to this parent is to start seeing what’s really going on here, how overwhelmed he is. Then set both of you up for success. That’s going to look like, again, rather than being at odds with him, you are a team, you want to help, especially when he’s on these outings.

Here are some details about how to do that. I would start by talking to him about it before you even go on these outings or out to any place that you’re going. Not in a warning tone. A lot of times parents will say to me, “Well, I warned them,” and I wonder how that sounds because a warning, “Well, if we go there, you can’t go running off,” that is already projecting to our child that: I don’t trust you, I don’t feel confident in these situations, I believe this story about you, you’re going to continue it, and I’m already annoyed with you. It’s not going to create the sense of safety that our child needs.

I would be careful not to do that. I actually like the term “a heads-up” more than a warning, giving somebody information. “Oh, by the way, it’s going to be time to go in a few minutes. Just letting you know.” That doesn’t push our child into an uncomfortable power struggle state. This is especially important again with a child with a very strong will. They are easily tipped into: Okay, I’m over here holding this ground and she’s over there.  We don’t want to allow that to take hold. We want to melt through that with our belief in our child, demonstrating with everything we say and do that: We’re on your side. I’m not mad at you. I believe in you. I know you can do this and if you can’t, I’m going to be there to have your back. I’m going to help you.

I would start by saying, “We’re going on this nature walk and I know you get so excited sometimes and you’re feeling that energy of everybody and it’s really, really fun to run as far as you can, but I’m not comfortable with that because it’s really not safe. So is there a way that I can give you a little signal or a sign so that you can know that it’s time to stop wherever you are and wait for us all to catch up to you?” Maybe it’s something like, “Okay, I’ll say, ‘Red light.’ Should we try that?” Maybe your child has an idea. “Then, by the way, my dear, if it doesn’t work, I know sometimes you get carried away, then that’s okay. I’ll just come up to you and then we’ll hold hands.”

When I was reading this note, I thought, I wonder if he really on some level wants to hold her hand, that he feels more comfortable and safe and connected that way. Instead of that being a punishment in this parent’s eyes, or a downer, maybe that’s what he’s demonstrating by running off… that he really needs her to hold his hand the way she holds the baby’s hand. This is his very awkward way of letting her know. I wouldn’t see holding hands as this bummer thing that’s going to hurt his spirit. Absolutely not. It’s going to help him be more comfortable.

When you’re first changing your attitude around his behavior, understanding him more, and how to be that safety net that he needs there, maybe you will decide at the outset, “We’re going to hold hands.” Then if he says no, “Yeah, I know you don’t want to do that, but I’ve got to keep you safe. That’s my job. And I love you too much to let you go running off like that.”

Reframing this for ourselves is so important. Boundaries are love.

To the point about killing his spirit, the reason that stood out for me was because it was very telling that that is getting in the way of this parent helping him as I know she wants to and needs to do. If I make them hold hands right in the beginning, it’s going to hurt his spirit.

Absolutely not. Setting him up for success so that he doesn’t have people judging him and his mother upset with him and so he’s not that kid that’s trouble, that’s freeing him to feel comfortable and good in his skin. When we allow those things to go on, and then we’re repeating ourselves and yelling at our kid, that has much more chance of hurting his spirit, because it makes him feel bad about himself.

I do understand that, because I had those feelings also with my oldest daughter, who is a very strong-willed girl. I had those thoughts. Ah, but she’s so amazing. She’s just so bright and on top of everything. Am I going to somehow hurt her spirit?

Well, luckily I had Magda Gerber and other wonderful advisors that helped me to see that, no, actually hurting her spirit is giving her too much power to do things that people don’t like, that don’t feel comfortable to her either.

My evolution, which I’ve talked about in at least one of my posts, “Confessions of a Pushover Parent,” was somewhat slow, but it was dramatic in the end because I started to see that repeating myself, trying to get her to want to cooperate to make me feel better was the opposite of positive for her and the opposite of love.

As this parent says, she says, “I find myself telling him, ‘You’re not listening,’ frequently and I don’t want to be saying this.” Right, don’t say it to him as if that’s going to change something. Maybe say to yourself: Oh, he’s not listening. Ah, he needs my help. He needs me to be on this. He needs my safety net so that he can be his free, wonderful spirit on these nature walks.

If he’s showing you that he can’t handle listening to you, he can’t stop himself, and you know that you aren’t pushing him into a power struggle through your attitude, then take his hand, maybe leave, maybe rethink how many of these he can do right now or what time of day it is.

I would put blinders on in terms of the other children and comparing. You’ve got a thoroughbred here. He’s wonderful and he’s also more sensitive to certain things. He’s going through a time in his life when most children have a type of emotional crisis.

Maybe doing less of those things where he can so easily go overboard and not be at his best, that’s part of setting yourself up for success. Understanding what you’re dealing with here. This is temporary. It’s not the rest of your life. Making choices that he can thrive in right now.

Then when she does what she says is a lot of attention-seeking behavior as well, such as yelling, I wouldn’t see that as this thought out, reasonable choice that he’s made. Oh, I’m going to yell now to get attention. It’s part of his: the rug has been pulled out from under me, and I don’t know what’s going on, and I’m scared, and I have all this energy, and I’m getting carried away, and I can’t contain myself. Part of that is yelling. I don’t know why I’m yelling but I’m yelling.

Then we add to it by saying, “Stop yelling,” as if he can just change what he’s doing without also feeling shame, and failure, and: she hates me, which obviously this parent doesn’t. But it can feel like that to children when we are at odds with them that way.

But when we become that safe presence, when our child is assured of that safety net… We’re not going to be perfect, but if most of the time he feels: she gets me and she’s on my team, then he doesn’t yell as much. He doesn’t show that lack of containment and overwhelm as much because he feels better. That’s how we change the behavior. We help our child to feel safer and more comfortable with us.

It’s complicated but simple at the same time, like pretty much everything that I share. It’s challenging to see differently, but that’s what we’re required to do to be able to proceed with the kind of relationship that makes us feel good about ourselves and brings our child as close as possible.

Also, I just want to say having a four-year-old and a one-year-old or a three-year-old and a one-year-old is a lot. This parent has a lot on her plate. Maybe those outings where things sometimes get hairy is too much. Say no, and let your child express these things at home to you. Show him there that you’re on his side and that you’re not irritated by his expressions of uncomfortable feelings. Absolutely don’t fear killing his free spirit by being stricter with the boundaries, the things that you can control. You can’t control yelling, but we can control holding hands. We can control letting him in the room with his sister who’s trying to take a nap. Holding those reins with confidence that we’re doing the right thing.

I really hope some of this helps.

For more, both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting.  You can get them in ebook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or barnesandnoble.com, and in audio at audible.com. As a matter of fact, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.

Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.

3 Comments

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

  1. Thank you for this! As the mother of two spirited boys 18 months apart this feels very familiar. This week had been a tough one with energy and intensity levels going from 0-60 but after reading this and reminding myself to reframe some of my responses I am seeing and feeling the difference already. And the thoroughbred reference is everything, sums up my two little pocket rockets perfectly. Thank you as always for getting me back on track and helping me be the parent I want to be.

  2. With this Covid-19 virus and school closures my 6 year old son has been acting out a bit. My wife and I have always been at odds at on parenting ideology, as there’s about a 20 year age difference between us, and its becoming a highly stressful breaking point with us, believe it or not as a child of the 70’s-80s, I’m a listen to my son and and talk to him, spend time with one on one, guy, not a go, go, go, you do it know guy. She’s a; blame his behavioral issues on the TV as a baby sitter person, while I sleep as I work nights. We both work full time, she 9-5, me graveyards.

    She; she’s a threaten to take away toys, tv, and anything that he feels is a comfort to him, if he doesn’t do what she tells him to do, as a reproduction. I’ve always warned her about negotiating with him about prid quo, quo, when it comes to getting him to do what she wants. Lately with the whole school closures his whole world over being a normal kindergartener has been turned upside down. Apparently in his boredom while at home he’s been getting into, stuff, and acting out a quite a bit.

    The most recent manifestation, is that he has been apparently been urinating and or defecating in down his heater vent. Tonight he urinated on his floor out over spite of his mother taking TV away at bedtime, when he wanted one more, one more, one more show…. not sure what to do with him after she finished reprimanding him and putting soap in his mouth until he admitted to doing it and why…

    I, went in and talked to him about it afterwards, and explained my/ our disappointment with his behavior… and then read him his nighttime story… I asked him to go give his mommy a kiss goodnight and apologize…. which she didn’t apparently hear me ask him to do so, so she yelled at him to get back in his room… anyway thank you for any advise you can give, G

    1. Hi Gerald – Sorry, I would love to be able to help, but these issues are beyond what I can address in a comment thread. Have you considered meeting with a family counselor to help you sort through these differences?

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