Peacefully Parenting your Strong Willed Child
Some parents have said that peaceful parenting wouldn’t work, or hasn’t worked, with their strong willed child, that they need a more strict approach. And indeed each child is unique and each parent child relationship is both unique and complex. Yet, I believe that peaceful parenting is especially important for the very strong willed spirited children who can feel so deeply and passionately. The more traditional authoritarian parenting approaches can result in a lot of unnecessary and heart-breaking conflict and power struggles for parent and child alike. These children tend to have such a strong need for some autonomy over decisions that affect them, and they crave to be treated fairly and respectfully. Yet, they equally need to feel held and guided and grounded.
From authoritarian to permissive parenting. When parents start to practice a more peaceful gentle parenting approach, it can take a while to figure out how to maintain the limits and boundaries without resorting to punishments, imposing consequences, reward systems or threats such as; “if you don’t, then there’ll be no computer time for you today”. There’s often a tricky period between deciding not to use punishments, but before new skills have been learned or mastered. And consequently, the pendulum can swing back and forth between an authoritarian (parent's will overpowers the child's will) style and a more permissive (child's will overpowers their parent's will) style, and this can result in quite a bit of chaos and confusion. The authoritarian and the permissive approaches lack the skillful holding, guidance and support that the child needs. If this sounds a bit like where you’re at, I want to encourage you to not give up! And know that you're not alone! In fact, all the resources that I offer are aimed at helping parents learn and master the new skills that can decrease the power struggles and increase harmony, inch by inch. Beautiful changes can happen when we start to make that shift from wondering how we can make our child (or partner!) do this or not do that, to truly opening our heart to wondering how we can help our child (or partner) overcome the current challenge.
“Come on child, work with me here!” When parenting has been quite the battle ground, parents may understandably feel so desperately in need of some proof, or at least hope, that their increased patience and kindness are paying off. Yet, sometimes, not only does the child not express gratitude, but their protests get even louder! Because the spirited child tends to be so much less compliant than a child with a different personality type, they often attract a lot of pressure and hostility at home, at kindy, at school and in their social group. These children have so often felt very controlled, powerless, blamed and misunderstood for acting in ways that often feel beyond their control. And they may have lost some of their trust in their parent’s and teacher’s guidance, making this a difficult transition for them too.
What helps to ease the transition? Quite often, those who believe that peaceful parenting doesn’t work may need to put increased focus on the rebuilding of trust, perhaps increasing their one on one quality time with their child. Play and laughter can really help, and especially power reversal games where the parent takes the less powerful, less intelligent, less on-to-it role can be very healing during such transitions. Sometimes, in a commitment to reduce conflicts, parents can become overly permissive, leaving their strong willed child too much at the mercy of their intense desires. Children need a lot of help developing self-discipline and skills to manage their impulse control. The child who picks up that their parent now has more patience to hear their frustrations, can experience quite the swelling of frustration, sadness, anger and even rage that has built up when the relationship has been filled with conflict. Yet as difficult as it may be to listen to your child expressing strong feelings and complaints, your child gaining your understanding of their struggles and frustrations plays an essential role in bringing about more healing, understanding and eventually greatly increased cooperation and depth of connection in the relationship.
Meg's experiences with her strong willed child. Meg Rodney, one of our peaceful parenting mentors (and forum admin), shares a little about parenting her strong willed son: “I did not peacefully parent my strong-willed son from the get-go. I always envisioned being a calm, sweet mama whose kiddos did the right thing because it was the right thing. I thought to myself, “I’m nice. My hubby is nice. We were both ‘good’ ‘easy-going’ kids. We’ll have ‘good, easy-going’ kids.” Alas! My oldest was anything but easy-going. He was contrary and moody and felt things so intensely! He had a very strong sense of fairness. We had such a hard time getting him to behave and listen. We resorted to punishments and we were constantly having to shift our rewards for him because we couldn’t figure out his ‘currency.’ We couldn’t motivate him. He was so strong-willed, and the parent I had become to him broke my heart and left me feeling awful about myself. I didn’t want to be punishing him all the time, but I thought that there was no other way to parent a strong-willed child.
When I first discovered some of the peaceful parenting techniques, I remember thinking, “I can see this working for my youngest, but there is no way it will work for my oldest.” I remember thinking that *some* of the techniques might be handy but my oldest didn’t have that internal eagerness to please that my youngest did. I remember thinking he needed to learn to take responsibility for his actions and to understand his role when things didn’t go right.
Over time, more concepts started to click with me – I began to look to the underlying cause/issue/feeling instead of reacting to the behaviour. I began understanding the need to connect before all things – before correcting, before transitioning, before requesting. I began to understand my own actions and how they were actually disrespectful – when I would interrupt my son’s important work (play) in order to have him do something I deemed more important, when I would bark orders, or give exasperated sighs, when I would try to get him to see my side without trying to view things from his point of view, how I minimized his feelings by not letting him have them, etc.
Once I started employing peaceful parenting concepts to our daily lives, my relationship with this strong-willed boy transformed. Once he felt respected and valued, he began to treat me, my hubby, and our other son with more respect. Once allowed to feel what he felt, he was able to see how his actions might affect other people. Once I saw his behaviour as communication, I could slow down and address his heart. Was the transition easy? No way. Did his behavior instantly improve? Nope. Was it worth the long nights of rage and loooooong talks? Absolutely.
I now believe that not only can strong-willed children be peacefully parented; but by parenting with compassion and respect, the strong-willed child gets the strong foundation that they need to reach their full potential. Peaceful parenting does that for all children, but I think the difference is more profound with strong-willed children.
Holding your child with love, not force. Spirited children are often great communicators and can have these mega minds and present the most appealing arguments to support their current cause of the moment. And it's important that we truly listen and show them that we're able to be flexible. Yet what they want and what they need, like for all kids, isn't always the same thing. So yes, they need us to really listen and work with them, yet it’s also important to know where to hold the loving limits. These are kids who can often go at life full throttle without always being able to appreciate, or accept, their limitations, or other people’s limitations, and hence can crash and burn out at times.
It’s important not to put all the blame and responsibility to change on their young shoulders. They feel at the mercy of their strong frustrations and need us to provide relief through our loving limits, our heartfelt empathy and lots of stress releasing play and laughter. They need to know that we can forgive them and hold their goodness in our minds and hearts even when they are themselves so at the mercy of their very strong emotions and desires. Even when those strong emotions and desires lead to the difficult and even aggressive behaviours. They also dearly need for their strengths, their many gifts and their contributions to be recognized and valued.
Parenting my strong willed son. When my son was young, and even through his teenage years (he’s now 18), I regularly had these moments of "oops hang on, we need to slow things down" when I'd realized that we were just doing way too much doing and he was all frazzled. My son gives his endeavours his 100%, yet all that dynamic energy can be exhausting. So at times I'd follow my instincts and put on the brakes, saying no to the play dates, say no to the skate park, no to then putting on a movie when he couldn't slow down and wanted more entertainment and excitement. I’d hold steady in response to those big cathartic upsets that would seem so sad and heart-breaking for him because he SO passionately wanted to play with his friend, go to the park, or watch a dvd. And boy does it take a lot of strength, love and will to hold strong in the face of our cherished child being so heartbroken as a result of us saying “no”. Oh my gosh the passion!
But it was the times when I really put on the brakes that would help him slow down and make his way back to greater peace and contentment. We would sit it out at home, and I would make myself very available to him and pour out my empathy when he found himself sitting in the discomfort of feeling restricted. It was these very times that I'd see him slowly but surely landing back into himself. There would be some upset and then lots of cuddles. Then I would smile as I watched him remembering how much he enjoyed playing for hours with his cars and his blocks, or his lego, or finger knitting or skate or making his hut in the garden from bits of wood and branches or spending hours doing his art. He'd become so calm and settled again, but still never stop vocalizing while awake!
I shudder to think about the battles that would have ensued for my beautiful boy had he grown up with parents who were focused on forcefully controlling, containing and taming his often larger than life energy, his strong opinions, strong feelings and passion.
The strong willed child is likely to fight or resist cooperation with a lot more determination and wit than most children. Parent and child can get caught in such power struggles filling daily life with stress, conflict and turmoil. Instead of seeing your child as being difficult, see them crying out to feel truly seen and heard.
If you have a highly spirited child, you’ve got your work cut out for you. These kids need loving limits for sure, but they also need lots of warm connection and fun. They need to be treated with care and kindness; they need for our love to be bigger than our urge to react.
Labels can cause children to feel defeated, trapped and misunderstood. It’s all too easy for these kids to become labelled as being too much, too intense, too demanding, too stubborn. These children can pick up very early that adults view them to be difficult, contrary, oppositional, inflexible, naughty, selfish, a handful. And all that labelling can result in children feeling like they're too much for their family to cope with. Children can feel powerless and hopeless and destined to be "too difficult", and negative feedback loops of increased stress, pressure and sadness ensue. Stressed parents need to somehow figure out how to keep coming back to the interactions and rituals which increase connection and compassion to keep the balance.
The journey from feeling powerless to regaining your confidence as a parent. The more the parent can see and own how they are contributing to the dynamic, (we've all been trained to blame), the more relief they can bring to their child, thereby inviting them into a more cooperative dance where the needs of both parent and child are important and valued. Each time the parent reframes their view of the incident to include consideration of the child's stress levels, a shift can happen: "that was really stressful for me AND for her, we both get really stuck in being reactive". Reframing the situation to connect with and care about the feelings and needs of oneself as the parent and the child helps to soften the hearts again. Each and every time that the parent successfully regains compassion for their child (always a victory!), instead of seeing themselves as the victim of their child's intensity, the parent regains their role as the parent whose job it is to help their child. This process of softening our hearts as parents in very difficult situations is NOT easy, it can be hugely difficult and sometimes can be a project over several hours, days, weeks or even months, but it's generally what's most needed to regain more harmony.
Transitioning from traditional to peaceful parenting isn't without it's challenges. It's tricky especially to be in the middle ground where you've committed to not yell or punish, yet you're still grappling to learn and practice the new skills. But hang in there; it's so very worth it. You're likely changing patterns that have been passed down through the generations, inch by inch change can happen. Try to be as patient with yourself as you're endeavouring to be with your child.
First published in The Natural Parent Magazine, distributed in New Zealand and Australia, but available by mail order anywhere in the world.