Some parents are envious of those with strongly independent kids who are assertive, confident, determined, and persistent. After all, who doesn’t love raising a kid that knows exactly what they want, when they want it, and how they will get it? But what they don’t know is that there are also negative traits associated with these behaviors, such as being stubborn, argumentative, and defiant. Here, I am describing the behavior of a strong-willed child.
This all comes down to a child’s temperament interacting with several factors, namely parenting, leading to actions that are then labeled as strong-willed. Temperament refers to a child’s inborn behavioral style or innate tendencies to act a certain way. It is also rooted in their ability to manage their emotions. To learn more about developing emotional self-regulation skills in children, see my blog on Emotional Regulation – A skill that every kid must learn.
So, how exactly do you go about parenting strong-willed children? The key is to nurture their positive traits while minimizing the impact of their negative traits. There are five important skills that every parent must learn in order to effectively manage their child’s strong will. Thanks to Rex Forehand and Nicolas Long’s amazing book, “Parenting the Strong-Willed Child,” there is a clinically proven five-week program to guide you through it all. This program, however, is specifically designed for parents with children between the ages of two to six. For a detailed schedule outlining the steps of each week, visit my Instagram (@dr.reneesimons) highlight titled ‘Strong-Willed Children.’
Week 1: Attending
Attending occurs when you describe your child’s behavior and, at times, imitate what they do. This is an important skill, as it lays the foundation for a positive parent-child relationship. It enables you to tune in to your child’s behavior while letting them know that you’re interested in the positive things they do.
The most effective way to learn attending skills is through practice. During these sessions, the parent describes aloud what the child is doing. Get started this week by scheduling at least two ten-minute periods each day. This should be when you and your child can sit down in a play situation without being interrupted.
Week 2: Rewarding
When you reward your child, you are making sure that they know you approve of what they’re doing. Rewards, however, do not replace attending. Instead, they build upon your attendance by adding praises and rewards to the desired behavior. There are four different types of rewards:
- Verbal Rewards – Praising your child’s desirable behavior (e.g., “Thank you for picking up your toys!“).
- Physical Rewards – Providing physical contact (e.g., A pat on the back) following your child’s desirable behavior.
- Activity Rewards – Doing activities selected by your child following their desirable behavior.
- Nonsocial Rewards – Giving toys or treats following your child’s desirable behavior.
To ensure your rewards are effective, specify the behavior you are praising by using labeled verbal rewards. Try to also reward them immediately, starting with small improvements in behavior, and working your way up each time it occurs. And remember, rewards should only be given for behaviors you want to increase in frequency.
Week 3: Ignoring
Now that you know how to respond to your child’s desirable behaviors, let’s talk about the undesirable behaviors. Ignoring is a skill that helps to decrease the occurrence of inappropriate behaviors, such as whining, tantrums, and arguing. The key here is to remove all attention from your child’s behavior and continue doing so until an appropriate behavior appears. There are three primary components of ignoring:
- No physical contact. Do not touch your child.
- No verbal contact. Do not talk to your child.
- No eye contact. Do not look at your child.
During this week, continue attending to and rewarding desirable behaviors throughout your practice sessions, while ignoring any undesirable behaviors that may arise.
Week 4: Giving Instructions
If you are noticing positive changes in your strong-willed child’s behavior, then this is a sign that you are well on your way to a better parent-child relationship. Your child is now more likely to cooperate with you and comply with our next skill, giving instructions.
When instructing your child, make sure to keep your instructions clear and simple. One way to recognize effective instructions is by comparing them with those you don’t want to use, including:
- Chain Instructions – Instructions that involve multiple steps.
- Vague Instructions – Instruction that isn’t clear and may be interpreted differently than intended.
- Question Instructions – Instruction in the form of a question, giving your child the option to say “no.”
- Let’s Instructions – Instruction that includes the parent in completing a task when the child is intended to complete it alone.
- Instruction Followed By Reason – Instruction after which the parent gives the child a reason for the task.
Besides avoiding these five types of ineffective instructions, there are also several critical components to consider that will help further enhance the effectiveness of your instructions:
- Think before giving an instruction and make sure you are willing to work on gaining compliance.
- Move close to your child, get their attention, make eye contact, and use their name before giving an instruction.
- Use a firm, but not loud or gruff, voice.
- Give an instruction that is specific and simple.
- Use physical gestures when appropriate (e.g., Pointing to where to put the toys).
- Use “do” instructions rather than “don’t” instructions
- Wait quietly for five seconds after giving the instruction.
- Reward compliance.
Week 5: Using Time-Outs
After the last four weeks, your child is now likely more compliant with your instructions. However, there may still be times when they refuse to listen. This is when giving your child a time-out would be effective. Time-out occurs when a parent puts their child in a boring place for several minutes and withholds their attention from them.
One of the first things to consider before giving a time-out is its location. Since time-out is the act of removing positive attention from your child, make sure the location you choose is away from toys, people, windows, televisions, radios, and anything else they enjoy. It should also be away from anything breakable. Some of the best time-out locations at home are the hallway, parent’s bedroom, and kitchen corner (for two- and three-year-olds).
Research shows that following a set procedure is the most effective way to use time-out. There are ten steps to giving your child a time-out:
- Issue an effective instruction.
- If your child doesn’t begin to comply within five seconds, issue a warning.
- If your child doesn’t begin to comply within five seconds, issue a time-out and state the reason for it.
- Lead your child to time-out without lecturing, scolding, or arguing.
- Ignore shouting, protesting, and promising to comply.
- Tell them to sit in the time-out chair.
- When they’re sitting quietly, set a timer for three minutes.
- When their time is over, including being quiet for the last fifteen seconds, return to the chair and tell them time-out is over.
- Restate the original instructions.
- Implement the time-out procedure again if your child doesn’t comply.
Parenting a strong-willed child is not an easy task. Just because this program takes place over five weeks does not mean that you have to complete it within five weeks. For some, it may take them longer, and maybe even shorter for others. This program is simply a guide to help you through your parenting challenges, so do not be discouraged if you do not see changes immediately. After all, parenting takes time and is a journey in itself.
- Forehand, R., & Long, N. (2010). Parenting the strong-willed child: The clinically proven five-week program for parents of two- to six-year-olds, third edition. McGraw Hill.