My Way or the Highway

Q: My nine-year-old son is a real akshan, and he is becoming more and more stubborn as time goes on. If he were an only child, he’d probably be much happier — because for him, it’s his way or no way. Can you give us some guidelines so we can help him?

A: It is often said that being strong-willed is an asset in life. Great people are driven by lofty ideals and high aspirations, and they succeed through their determination. But strong-willed people also need to learn to be flexible. And as a parent, you can help your child develop this middah.

In reality, being one out of many siblings is an asset for a stubborn child. If such a child were an only child, it would surely be more challenging for him to get along in society at large. He would find it difficult when things didn’t go his way or were out of his control, and might be angry at the prospect of change. Learning to share is an important developmental task for all children, especially stubborn ones.

While all parents need to strive to be consistent with their children, it is even more important when dealing with a stubborn child. A stubborn child will “corner you” with your inconstancies, and find that opening in order to crawl in and get his or her way! And if a person does weaken to the demands of a stubborn child due to the incessant whining and crying, capitulating will only lead to more whining and more crying. If it succeeded once, why not attempt it again?

Though a parent should not give in to the demands of a child, he should also not be excessively stern, as a means to “put a child in his place.” To do this would be role modelling a stubborn, demanding parent — which is the last thing you want to do with such a child. One should rather speak in a controlled manner, staying neutral and not showing much emotion. The parent thus makes clear who the authority is and whose opinion will be final, without creating an emotion-filled confrontation.

Avoiding confrontation with a stubborn child is an important, constructive preventative measure. (This doesn’t mean that a parent hides toys or candy as a way of preventing a child from demanding them. A child need not be protected from the realization that “I cannot receive everything I want.” This is crucial for a child to learn.) Avoiding confrontation is accomplished by a parent who watches how he speaks. Stubborn children are challenged by statements expressing ultimatums and severe threats, and when they are spoken to in that manner, it will likely lead to a power struggle. A parent must give children guidelines and enforce limitations, but one’s tone of voice can reflect the difference between limitations — and ultimatums.

Adolescents by nature tend to be stubborn; it is their way of asserting their independence. The skill of negotiation and problem-solving is a technique most successfully applied with strong-willed individuals, and often a daily necessity when dealing with teenagers. Though your child is still young, it may not be too early to employ problem-solving techniques, which are very helpful and definitely not in the category of “spoiling” a child. A child thus learns that he can redirect his desires, and that the wants of others must be responded to and taken into account. Both parent and child jointly discuss what they desire, and attempt to brainstorm ideas that could lead to a compromise. (Problem-solving, however, should be used for major issues that do not seem to be resolving themselves. It is not to be used on a continual basis for a child’s every request.)

As in all situations with children, giving praise cannot be overestimated. A stubborn child whose self-esteem is bolstered will become more flexible. The more secure the child is, the more he will be able to listen to the other, and view the changing world around him as less threatening. Thus, he will become less stubborn in his responses and reactions to other individuals. In general, there is no more important endeavor of a parent than building a child’s self-esteem.