January 21, 2015

Parenting the Stubborn Child

We all know this kid. This is the kid who says no more often than yes. This is the kid who always has an answer when you say it’s homework time, or time to turn off the TV. Or time to go to bed. And it’s never the answer you want to hear. This is the kid who pushes all our buttons. Daily. At dinner parties (and our own personal version of the office water cooler) we get off cute one-liners about our junior litigator and how smart they are.

But as they say in the sappy old country songs, inside our heart is breaking. Because we have no clue how to parent this child; and we worry for them (as well as wanting to slap them in our worst moments): What will become of them, if they can’t even be made to do their Grade Three homework?

Teachers and other professionals often refer to these children as strong-willed… or stubborn…. or difficult to manage. All these terms are true.

Anyone who has tried to manage a strong-willed child knows what doesn’t work. What doesn’t work is pushing this child. Pushing them to do what we want almost invariably results in this child digging in their heels. For the long haul. Because they’re strong-willed, and strong-willed means just that. They can and do hang on to everything, including – and especially – their resistance.

The other tactic that usually fails with this child is offering consequences: “If you don’t do your homework, you won’t get your allowance….. If you don’t turn off the TV, there’ll be no playtime after dinner.” The strong-willed child hears and de-codes these statements as a challenge to their power. And this child never met a power struggle they were willing to lose.

At camp we say to staff that when a child begins a power struggle, don’t pick up the rope. This means do anything but a tug-o-war. Because the strong-willed child is the stubborn child is the child who can’t tolerate losing. Which means you can never win a power struggle with that child.

They’re often really smart kids who sense a power struggle immediately it starts, and they then say: “You can’t make me.” This is the child reducing the situation to its pared-down basics. You can’t make them do anything if they put their mind to refusing, they know it, and what they’re telling you is that power really matters to them, so they can’t afford (emotionally) to give in to you and they’re not going to.

That’s why you shouldn’t have picked up the rope.

This child, who is smart, sensitive to power issues and can’t tolerate feeling disempowered, is well-suited to self-management – precisely because of their strong will. This child seeks mastery. They won’t accept your mandated bedtime, or homework time or chore time? Let it all go. Tell the child that they get to make their own decisions about these things. Their first response will be joy. Ha! I showed mom!

Their second response (a private one) will be to use that strong will to make a decision to show mom that they don’t need to be managed. Again, here’s that desire for power manifesting itself. This child may have a few slips: Failing to do homework, going to bed too late, not wearing a winter coat. Here’s where strong parental self-discipline is required. You have to allow natural consequences to be the child’s teacher. Don’t say a word. Let a school consequence occur. Let them be cold. Let them be tired the next morning. Let them be late for school if they oversleep. Don’t write a note. They’ll learn from their experiences.

When they’re in a calm mood, you can ask if they’d like some help with those routines, but only offer the help they’ve negotiated with you. Because until the strong-willed child perceives themselves in the driver’s seat you will be suffering the misery of daily power struggles.

Try this: You’ll be shocked at how much sweeter this child becomes – and way more fun to parent.

Don't pick up the rope!

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