Too Strong Willed?

Q: I’d like to think that being strong-willed is a positive personality trait, but sometimes when I look at my 11-year-old son, I have my doubts. Though he’s one of five children, he often behaves as if he is an only child. Initially, I felt that this behavior reflected strength of character, but it’s becoming harder and harder not to lose patience with him. What can I do to defuse the situation?

A: It is true that being strong-willed can be an asset in life. Great people are driven to lofty ideals and high aspirations by their determination. However, strong-willed people also need to learn flexibility.

In reality, being one of several siblings is an asset for a stubborn child. If such a youngster were an only child, it would be more difficult for him to acclimate to society. He would constantly wonder why things didn’t go his way, and be angry at the process of change, or about things being constantly being out of his control. Learning to share is an important developmental task for all children, especially stubborn ones.

Parents must attempt to be consistent with all children, even more so with a stubborn one. Such a child will “corner” his parents if inconsistent, and find the chink in their armor in order to crawl in and get his way! And if parents weaken in the face of his incessant whining and crying, this will only encourage the child to engage in similar behavior in the future, because if it worked once, why not try again?

Though parents should not easily capitulate to the demands of a child, they should also not be excessively demanding in order to “put the child in his place.” Stubborn, demanding parental behavior is the least desirable conduct parents would wish to model for their child.

Rather, they should make a statement in a more controlled, neutral unemotional manner. This way, the parents make clear who the authority is, and whose opinion will be final, without creating an emotion-filled confrontation.

Avoiding confrontation is an important preventative measure. This doesn’t mean that parents should hide toys or candy as a way of preventing a child from demanding them. A child need not be protected from absorbing the message: “I cannot receive everything that I want.” Avoiding confrontation is accomplished by parents who watch how they speak. Stubborn children are challenged by ultimatums and severe threats that result in their perception of having entered into a power struggle with their parents. Adults need to give children limitations and guidelines, but their tone of voice can reflect the difference between a limitation and an ultimatum.&

The skill of negotiating and problem-solving is a technique that can be very successfully taught to strong-willed individuals. Though your child is young, there are times when problem-solving techniques are very helpful. A child can learn to redirect his desires and respond to someone else’s wishes as well. Both parent and child can jointly discuss what they want and attempt to brainstorm ideas that might lead to more of a compromise. (Clearly, this is not meant to be used on a continual basis for a child’s every request!)

As in all situations, the importance of giving praise must not be underestimated.

A stubborn child whose self-esteem is nurtured will more easily learn to be flexible.

Inner security is created when one’s self-esteem is strengthened. It will allow the child to listen better to others, as the changing world around him will be less of a threat. Thus, he will be less stubborn in his responses and actions towards other individuals.