Our Strong-Willed Child Is Running the Show

A parent emails Janet with the subject line: Help! Strong Willed Child. She feels frustrated, exhausted, and completely overwhelmed by her 7-year-old’s unmanageable behavior that’s been continuous since he was about 3.5. She and her partner have made repeated attempts to stop his rudeness (and a host of other behaviors he knows are unacceptable), to get him to follow directions, shower, dress, and even eat. Janet encourages these parents to consider the why—why is their child acting this way? And why does his behavior cause them to react as they do? Janet explains how reflecting on those questions can bring clarity and help these parents shift the dynamic with their child in a positive direction.

(Learn more about Janet’s “No Bad Kids Master Course” at: NoBadKidsCourse.com)

Transcript of “Our Strong-Willed Child Is Running the Show”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

A parent reached out to me via email with concern about her child, who’s seven years old. And apparently it feels like he’s running the show, according to this parent. She describes him as strong-willed and she says that she and her husband are utterly frustrated and exhausted. Children with this type of temperament—and there’s a range, it’s not like you’re either strong-willed or you’re not—I have to say, I have a special fondness for these types of children. I have one, I’ve worked with many. So what do we do when our child seems to be taking over? Their behavior’s rude, disrespectful, out of control, and nothing we’re trying, no kind of response that we’re giving, seems to be making a difference. That’s what I’m going to be going over in this podcast.

Here’s the note from this parent:

Hello, Janet-

Thank you for your rich resources. I do cherish them and listen often, although we continue to struggle daily with our seven-year-old son.

He is extremely strong-willed. He has been difficult most waking hours on a daily basis since age three-and-a-half. He doesn’t listen, rebuttals everything we say or ask of him, talks back. Is extremely rude and disrespectful. He knows it all. He rarely takes care of himself—showering, eating, dressing, brushing teeth—and we have to give him constant, repeated reminders to do these things. He acts helpless. He rarely self-plays. He has no personal space awareness. He’s always around us and it’s difficult to get things done or have alone time when he’s awake. He’s constantly pushing our buttons and we have to repeat ourselves on boundaries. For example, making loud, weird noises when his sister is sleeping.

We value respectful parenting, but find ourselves going from one extreme to another on the parenting spectrum because we are so frustrated. Nothing works, nothing gets to him, nothing changes his behavior. Our house is total chaos every day. He is running the show.

On top of that, he’s starting to affect our two-and-a-half-year-old daughter’s behavior. She’s not listening and manipulates us. My son is always engaging her in play, controlling what she can and can’t do, telling her to say and do things that he knows we shouldn’t.

I should also mention he’s good for others. There are rare complaints from school.

We are utterly frustrated and exhausted. Any suggestions would be appreciated. Thank you.

So, where to begin here? I want to say something that I really, really hope doesn’t get taken the wrong way because these are obviously very caring parents and they’re trying their hardest to be respectful. When our child is running the show, when they seem to have more power than anyone else in the house, that is something that can only happen if we allow it to. And please don’t take this as a criticism of anybody, because I’ve been there. It happens and it happens to the best of us. But I think it’s important to recognize that this is in our control. We can stop allowing this to be the case in our home. We can change this.

And there’s good reasons to do that. Not only, as this parent says, is she utterly frustrated, exhausted, she sees it happening with their younger child now. But for our child, this boy does not want to be lord of the house. It’s not a comfortable way for any child to be, no child wants this. But unfortunately he can’t be the one to shift this dynamic that’s gone on, it sounds like since he was at least three-and-a-half years old. He can’t do it. We have to do it.

I hope that doesn’t feel like criticism and instead feels like good news: that we do have the power to change this and get out from under this spell that our child has seemed to put our whole house under. And it’s actually simpler, although I know not easy, but it’s simpler to do than we might imagine. So I’m going to be talking all about that.

Let’s start with going over some of the reasons that we fall into this dynamic. It’s like we’re in this stuck place with our child. We’re stuck and our child’s stuck, and it keeps going back and forth like a feedback loop. It’s not working. Like I said, we can change this. We absolutely can.

One reason that it happens, and that may be part of this parent’s challenge, is that we do not have enough models around us of what a respectful approach to discipline or, I don’t know what people call it, conscious parenting, gentle parenting, I’m not sure how people define those things. But oftentimes what happens is that we were not raised that way. We were raised with more of an old-school, authoritarian, harsh, punitive upbringing. And we’re drawn to respectful parenting because we don’t like the result of that upbringing. We don’t like the way it made us feel about ourselves, the relationship that it’s made between us and our parents, maybe the relationship that we still have with them.

So we’re drawn to this different way. And with this different way, we’re learning that we want to try to understand behavior and not just scare children or punish children into behaving a certain way. We want to understand why they’re behaving that way and resolve that behavior through our response, resolving the cause of the behavior.

But it’s a process, it’s a big learning process for us. So maybe we’re kind of in the middle, like a lot of people are, like most people are, I would say, that are interested in this. And maybe it’s always a process, we’re never at the end. But we’re not quite able to picture yet, and therefore embrace inside ourselves, how a more respectful approach to boundaries looks and feels. It sounds good, but we’re not quite there yet.

And again, that’s so understandable because there are just not enough viable models of this for us to learn from. There’s a lot of people these days sharing tips and scripts and perspectives, but that’s not the same as seeing it in action. That’s not enough to be able to make this enormous shift, cycle-breaking a lot of the times. It’s a huge deal that we’re trying to accomplish here, and we’re not going to be able to snap our fingers and do it. And especially because we can’t see it in action, we kind of have to find our way there without that. Shifting from what we’ve known all our childhood, all our life, about the way that parents respond to your behavior. And the things that you would never, ever do because you wouldn’t dream of doing them because your parent would punish you or yell at you or reject you in some way. How does it look in all these situations to own our positive power as leaders for our children? How does that look in all these specifics that happen every day when our child is saying no or being bossy or telling everybody what to do, being rude, disrespectful? We would’ve never gotten away with that. We would never have dreamed of doing it.

So that’s a lot that we’re up against, right? And I wish I could show you right now—and maybe there will be a way in the future that I can do that, besides through my podcast and my writing and recently my online course. Maybe there will be a way that I can demonstrate this, but in lieu of that, I’ll just keep sharing and offering verbal examples to try to help you picture this for yourself.

So this son of theirs, he’s very strong, which is so very positive. And what he’s showing through his behavior in this family is that he really needs to know 100% that he’s not able to run the show. That his parents are even more powerful than him. That they can be the leaders that he needs, so that he can be the child in the relationship, so that he can be freer.

How do we do that? These are the things that are getting in their way. One thing they’re doing is they’re getting caught up with the surface, which is the behaviors that are in their face. Why is he doing this? This is disrespectful. We’ve got to make that stop. Instead of that broader perspective, that deeper perspective, seeing beyond to why he’s acting like this. We can get so easily caught up in this, especially if we had an authoritarian upbringing. How dare my child act like this? I’ve got to make that stop. I’ve got to make sure they do this and I’ve got to make sure they eat and make sure they bathe and not let him talk to me that way. And push back on all these behaviors.

So I’m trying to fix it on a surface, behavioral level instead of seeing this bigger picture that he’s calling for help underneath all this. Not even consciously, he doesn’t know he’s doing it. But he’s checking out again and again and again, and it’s been years now, so he’s kind of stuck there, as they are. Now, as this child, I’m kind of assuming this role in the family of this child who behaves like this. How did this happen? I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be doing this. I just want them to look at me and see the small person and say, “I’m not going to let you talk to me like that.” Instead of reacting to it and trying to push back on it. Or just letting it go, because we don’t want to push back at it, we don’t want to yell at him, but now we feel like we’re not sticking up for ourselves and it feels terrible. There is a way that’s not either of those things that I’m going to talk about.

So what I would like to help this parent and other parents see is what’s really going on. It’s not that he thinks it’s okay to do these things. And the most wonderful part of this note is that she says at the end, “I should mention he’s good for others. There are rare complaints from school.” Wow. So what can we take from that? He knows how to behave. He understands other people’s boundaries. He’s learned all the lessons that they want him to learn because he’s doing them with other adults and peers. He knows how to do it. So these parents are getting their messages across to him. However, in his relationship with them, they’re all still floundering because his parents aren’t quite giving him what he needs with them.

Now sometimes with children, they will be doing these kinds of behaviors away from the home too. That’s a sign that they are feeling overwhelmed with the amount of power that they have with other people. And sometimes you’ll see children like this and maybe they have a teacher that punishes, uses timeout, or friends that reject them. And while those things are hurtful and make them feel very alone, you can also get the sense sometimes that they’re almost grateful for the rest that they get there. Being in timeout, it doesn’t feel good, but it’s a rest from having to be this power player all the time. A little break from it. And sometimes you’ll see children that seem to even want that kind of punishment in a way because it feels like a little escape from that uncomfortable feeling of overpowering everybody.

But this boy does not have that issue at all, so that should give these parents even more confidence. We can help with this. We can change this by owning our power, by assuming our role in the family. Which is to not get wound up by what a seven-year-old or a six-year-old or a three-and-a-half-year-old is doing. Really seeing them as small children. Yes, they’re very capable, they’re very strong, they could be very articulate and bossy and powerful-seeming. But they’re little tiny people with just a few years or less than a dozen years on this planet. Whereas we have decades, right? Why would we let them push our buttons? So, getting caught up with the surface and just those behaviors that are in our face, that drains us, that drains our power. Our buttons get pushed because our upbringing is getting touched off, those experiences that we had with our parents.

Another thing that can get in our way is that we might be afraid our child isn’t going to be a nice child, that they’re messing up, that they’re a rude person, that they’re all these things. In this case, the child is showing that they’re not when they’re out in the world. But even if they were, that’s a stuck place that a child is in. It’s not who they are, it’s not a sign that they’re that kind of person. And we have the absolute power to shift this.

Another way they’re draining themselves in the moment is repeating themselves. Repeating ourselves, let’s consider why we’re doing that. Do we think that saying it another time, when our child clearly isn’t going to jump to what we said the first time, do we think that just saying it and saying it, that’s going to help? It very seldom does. And sometimes even the way we say it the first time, if we kind of look at it, it can be from a place of powerlessness. A way to own our power, positive power, when he doesn’t listen, he rebuts everything they say or ask of him. So if he’s not listening, saying it again is not going to help him listen, not going to help him do it. And a lot of times the first time we say it, we’re kind of saying it with that tone in our voice that’s either challenging, like, You’ve got to do this, come on, or already feeling like we’re mad at him and this isn’t going to work. When we own our power, we can be polite. We’re rising above, feeling that feeling of rising tall into our power and, “Oh, it’s time to do this. Would you please help?” Very open like that, not in a kind of already defensive or challenging manner.

Because a child that has a strong will like this—it’s a wonderful thing, they tend to be charismatic and colorful people and power players in the world—but they especially, and really all children, it’s not going to work with them when we’re challenging them. That’s going to create a chasm between us. What does help is for us to reach across, be our politest, most loving selves, and help them to save face so that they’re not in this adversarial position with us. We can put them into that place by the way that we ask them things. And again, it’s hard not to, if our child never does this and is getting on our nerves already and now we’re asking them to do something, it’s probably going to come off in a manner that’s not going to help us. And then what do we do? We get drained, we say it again, and then we feel smaller and smaller and smaller and less powerful.

So I would consider—and I’ve done a whole podcast about this—I’m not going to repeat myself, I’m going to say, “You know what? I’m going to give you a helping hand, here we go,” or, “Let me help turn the water on for you, darling.” Not sarcastically, it’s got to be genuine, but we’re not going to allow that gap between us. We’re going to reach our arms out through it and carry our child through as best that we can. And then if they’re still digging their heels in, we can let go of a lot of those things. “You don’t want to take a bath right now? Okay, let’s skip it.” Letting go of those not-crucial things for the win, so that in the bigger picture we’re not putting ourselves in that position of feeling powerless and our child is not getting stuck in that position of feeling nagged and pushed, which just makes them want to hold their ground even more.

Another way these parents are making it harder on themselves is inconsistency. So I hear this from parents a lot when they’re reaching out to me, they’ll say, We’re trying all these different things. This parent says, “We value respectful parenting, but find ourselves going from one extreme to another on the parenting spectrum because we’re so frustrated.” That’s understandable, but we’re creating more eventual frustration for ourselves by not being consistent. Because what happens on our child’s end, our perceptive child gets this message, and it can happen very young too, our child gets stuck wondering, and then they behave out of that wondering. What are they going to do this time? Even though they know, of course, that will make us angry and it’s not what they know they should do. But it becomes almost intriguing. What are they going to do this time? I feel that they’re almost exploding, so I’ve got to keep pushing that button to see if that’s going to come through. Leaving our child wondering like that is not going to be as helpful. It’s going to cause them to get stuck in those kinds of behaviors, those resistant behaviors. I know it can be difficult if maybe one of the parents is trying to go for a more respectful approach, but the other parent isn’t there yet, and that’s okay. The parents don’t have to be the same, but if each one of them could be consistent in the way they respond, that would help our child from this need to, I think of it as testing.

But it’s interesting, recently I’ve been hearing a lot of negative comments, not directed at me so much yet, I’m sure they will. But comments about that word testing, people don’t like the word toddlers testing. And that’s understandable to me, I appreciate this. This is very much constructive criticism that has got me thinking that the connotation of testing, it’s this adversarial thing. They’re trying to get me to perform in a certain way, that that’s how we think of testing. And that doesn’t help us to see our child in a positive, loving light and to see the help that they’re asking for here. When I use testing, I’m using it to mean they’re checking it out, like the way children will test toys and objects. What happens if I do this with it? What happens when I put these two together? So that’s what I mean by testing, I mean they’re checking it out. They’re very drawn to learning, children are expert learners in the early years especially. And most of all, they want to learn about us and their relationships with us and where their power is in our relationship, how much they have and how much we have. And they hope in their heart of hearts that we have a lot more than them because they can’t be free, young children without that and get to have a full childhood where they don’t have to worry about us, we’ve got it covered.

So, inconsistency, it’s totally understandable when we’re trying to find our way in this. And maybe we’re not in that role enough that we’re just feeling like, Now we’re just letting him be awful to us. It’s very hard not to get our buttons pushed and blow up.

So now I want to talk a little about all of these things that this parent brought up that her child is doing and how to respond to them from a positive power/leadership role. She says he doesn’t listen. I try to demonstrate a little about how to be when a child isn’t listening. It can be taking their hand, helping them physically. Also just approaching them with politeness and positive energy so we’re not already foreshadowing that it’s all going to go wrong. And really, how can a child push back when we’re being so polite? They’ll find a way, but when we’re welcoming their feelings, when we’re seeing their point of view, “Oh, it’s so hard to stop playing, I know, and take a bath now.” And we can state positive consequences of what’s going to happen next, like “Let’s help you get your bath, and if you want I can wash your hair. I love doing that. And then when you’re done with your bath, it’ll be time for dinner.” Using that positive, polite attitude rather than dreading and I’m already annoyed, or You better not I’m-challenging-you attitude. That’s when we own our power. We’ve got nothing to lose, right? If he doesn’t do it, it’s not the end of the world. If it’s something that we can physically stop, we stop it. We’re not afraid that he doesn’t know how to behave properly, and then every time that he does this, that’s feeding our fear. We understand this as a dynamic that he’s gotten caught up in with us.

So, “rebuts everything we say or ask of him.” Right there, one way to diffuse that or just own your positive power there is to say, “Hmm, okay, that’s an interesting point of view. You know what? We’re still going to do this.” But not to get into, “Yes it is. No it’s not. No it’s not, young man.” You know, have a light attitude about that. But again, that can trigger into our we could never do this with our parents, we would’ve gotten yelled at feelings. So that’s something that will help if you really explore it, if you haven’t already. Come into communion with the experiences that you had and how that made you feel and how hard it is every time your child does this, that it just feels wrong, right? Because it was considered so wrong for us to act like this. That’s going to get in our way, so explore that, make peace with it. Ideally put it aside, so that it doesn’t get in the way of the power that you own in this relationship and that your child desperately wants you to own.

Let him rebut everything, let him talk back. Just don’t get into a snapping back thing with him and talking back and talking back at him. Rise above it. “Oh, you don’t want to do that. Okay, hmm, that’s interesting.” Allow him to argue and don’t take the bait, don’t buy into it. Because he’s testing or checking out, Can I throw them off-balance? And if we decide we’re not going off-balance for this guy, if we practice that, then we won’t. And then he’ll stop because he’s getting what he unconsciously is asking for and needs: parents that can rise above and see him for what he is, a small child.

I just want to mention, too, that if these parents can make the shift—yes, the fact that it’s been going on for a few years now, it may take a little while for it to shift. But probably not as long as we think, because this is what our child wants in his heart of hearts more than anything. And when our child is getting what they want, then the shift can happen pretty quickly. But I would be prepared for there to be, in the transition, way more rebuttals, everything to be harder, way more resistance. He’s going to check this out to the hilt, hoping to find that relief, which you can give him. So he talks back, let him talk back. Rise taller, which means you don’t talk back at him talking back.

“Extremely rude and disrespectful.” So he can try those things, but the way to rise above those is to let it pass by, knowing he’s just trying out all the words and all the things that have bothered you before. But hold your ground, don’t go get him the thing he wants when he’s being rude or disrespectful. Stick up for yourself that way, that’s where the boundaries are here. “I don’t really appreciate that. Is there another way you can say that to me? Because that doesn’t make me feel like helping you right now.” That honest response, but not an offended response, If we can help it. Which means we have to do all this work in our perceptions of him, what he’s doing, what’s really going on here. Not just seeing that surface behavior, but seeing beyond to the red flag that he’s raising. Help, help, help, guys! Don’t let me do this anymore. See that, so that we don’t get offended. We see, Oh gosh, he’s got to try everything in the world now. He’s got to check it out to see, for us to prove to him that we can be this.

And I think the reason that I love this work so much is because what it brought out of me with my child, who was maybe three when I started to open my eyes to what was going on and that I needed to adjust my approach, what it brought out of me, it allowed me to grow a side of myself that I never knew I had. A powerful side that can love when someone isn’t being that loving, that can still love, but not be a pushover, not give into. But still love them and come back at them with love. It seems like a big thing to ask of ourselves, but it feels so good when you find that place, and everybody has it in them.

So, “extremely rude and disrespectful.” This has gone on because we’ve gotten triggered by it, because we’ve reacted to it, understandably. Rise above. See it as this little tiny person railing at your ankles, saying all these things and names and trying so hard to pull us down. And we’re not going to let it happen.

She says “he rarely takes care of himself—showering, eating, dressing, brushing teeth.” And she said, “we have to give him constant, repeated reminders to do these things.” So, those repeated reminders are getting in the way of him doing these things and making us feel drained of power. They’re not helping him, they’re making him hold onto his uncomfortable power that he doesn’t want to have. Don’t remind him, just say, “After you shower, we’re going to eat.” If he doesn’t want to eat, don’t make him eat. “The food’s going to be out. Here’s what we’re offering. We’d love you to sit and eat with us, but if you can’t, you can’t. Okay, we understand.” Let go of what you don’t control. If he really doesn’t want to shower, “Okay, you don’t have to shower today. Do you want to take a bath instead? Let’s have a smell and see if you need cleaning.” But anyway, have a lighthearted attitude about this.

Dressing, I would consider helping him dress instead of telling him to do it. Brushing his teeth, I mean all of these things, these are caregiving activities, except for the eating he really needs to do on his own. But I would offer to help him with the showering and the dressing, the brushing his teeth. So we’re not nagging, we’re not repeating ourselves. We’re just saying, “Can I help you do that? I know it’s hard. It’s a bummer to do, right? You don’t want to get dressed right now. Let me help you. I love dressing you.” Even though he’s seven years old and of course he knows how to do it himself, sometimes children just want a little TLC there. And yes, he’ll resist. “Oh no, no, I don’t want help.” “Oh come on, let me do it. I love doing it.” If we come at him with love, it’s going to melt away some of that resistance.

And then, “he acts helpless. He rarely self-plays.” That I would leave alone. I wouldn’t direct him to play on his own or do anything. That requires him to be able to let go on his own of being the power player in the house. And that’s going to be a process that he’ll come to.

“No personal space awareness, always around us.” So instead of letting that bother you, just kindly but firmly push him back. “You know what? I need a little more room here. I’m going to move you over.” But don’t let it bother you that he wants to be all over you. If you don’t let that bother you, and you just take your space when you need it. “You know what? I am going to close the door to the bathroom, and I’m actually going to lock it.” Calmly, confidently own your space. Don’t let it bother you that he’s shadowing you. Just push him back when it’s too close. “You know what? I don’t want you grabbing me.” And while you’re doing that, you’re going to take his hand off of you very comfortably, very confidently. “You’re feeling really touchy. Yeah, I don’t want the touch right now. Thanks though.” So taking the power out of that behavior.

And then she said, “repeat ourselves on boundaries.” So instead of talking the boundaries, and definitely instead of repeating them, help him stop with the behavior.

“Making loud, weird noises when his sister is sleeping.” So we really can’t control that directly. What I would do is welcome him to make the loud noises with you. “You know what? I know that’s really fun to do, isn’t it? And get us wound up that way. Come on, I want to hear those noises over here. Let’s go over to the living room and hear those noises. They’re very funny, huh?” The less you feed into that, the sooner it will go away. I mean, sometimes I would just let it go, honestly, altogether, and just say, “Hmm, you’re really having fun there. Making those noises, huh? Wow, that’s very loud, isn’t it?” He will stop when you stop getting bothered by it. And really, that’s true across the board with all these behaviors, and that’s what owning your power is. He’s going to wake her up this one time, and he won’t do it again if you let it go. And do the opposite of what he’s expecting, which is he’s expecting you to keep getting mad at him, getting your buttons pushed. We can deactivate these buttons, we really can.

She says, “we value respectful parenting, but find ourselves going from one extreme to another because we’re frustrated. Nothing works, nothing gets to him, nothing changes his behavior.” Right, because they’re trying too hard and responding to all these little things instead of rising taller, doing less, not trying to change his behavior that way. It’s like that story about how the wind was trying to make this man take off his jacket, and it wasn’t working. And then out comes the sun. The sun just shines. And sure enough, the man takes off his jacket. The sun doesn’t have to try so hard. Be the sun and save your power for positive power.

And then she says her daughter started doing it too, “not listening and manipulates us.” Yeah, so she’s started exploring the same thing. What is this power this behavior has with my parents? And now I need to check it out, too. And I don’t want to have more power than them either. As far as the two children together, when her “son is always engaging her in play, controlling what she can do.” Let them do that. Let him do that with her. She’ll stand up for herself with him, she’ll learn to. And let that go. I mean, he’s playing with her. That’s amazing for a seven-year-old to want to play with a two-and-a-half-year-old, right? They are going to be dominating in that play. As long as he’s not hurting her, I would let it go. And “telling her to say and do things that he knows that she shouldn’t.” I would try to be, honestly, amused by that. “Oh now you’re trying that too. Yeah, you learned that from your brother, huh? Very clever. Yeah, that doesn’t really work with us, but sure, go for it.”

Deactivate the buttons. Save your energy. Be the sun.

I really hope some of this helps, and thanks so much to these parents for reaching out to me. I feel you and I believe in you 100%.

Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And my books, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, and Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting, you can get them in paperback at Amazon and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and apple.com.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.


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

  1. Tara Meyer says:

    What about things that are non negotiable like the dentist and doctor

  2. Thanks for this article, I found me and my strong willed child very much in this.
    What would you do when it’s bedtime, I’m usually with her and her brother until they fall asleep but recently she won’t stop talking, question after a question even if I we have an agreement to ask only a certain amount of questions, she won’t stop talking even if I say “tomorrow, good night, shhh” after a while it escalates with “stop, enough”
    Sure she is pushing my buttons but how to handle this situation gracefully?

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