8 steps to handling your strong-willed toddler

Got a pint-sized person who’s stubborn, demanding and always likes taking charge? You might be raising a strong-willed toddler…

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So yeah, it’s not easy parenting a toddler. Their defiance can be relentless and their demands, exhausting. Yet, some toddlers are a lot tougher to handle than others.

If you’re a mum of more than one kid, you’d have inevitably compared your children: Kid A didn’t use to throw such epic tantrums; or Kid B is so much harder to handle, compared to his older sis.

So, why is one child more challenging than the other? If you find that your tot is difficult and has a nothing-is-gonna-stop-me type of determination, you might have a strong-willed child on your hands.

Daniel Koh, a psychologist at Insights Mind Centre, notes that such children may have a “bad temper, impatient, are tough to reason with, angry or aggressive, are not willing to listen or give in, have temper outbursts and are controlling and sensitive.”

“Challenging as they are to raise, strong-willed children can grow up to be men and women of strong character.”

On the plus side, these same children may also be “firm, consistent, insist on finishing or learning something, never give up, constantly try to improve, and are sure of their own abilities,” Koh adds.

James Dobson, author of The New Strong-Willed Child writes that “Challenging as they are to raise, strong-willed children can grow up to be men and women of strong character ― if lovingly guided with understanding and the right kind of discipline”.

Dawn Teo, mum to Evan, 2, and Elijah, 5, is certain that her second son comes under the category of a strong-willed child.

“My first son was a horrible sleeper and picky eater, but he was always generally in a good mood. Evan, on the other hand, sleeps and eats well, but oh my, his tantrums are just insane,” Teo laughs. “If he doesn’t want to get into the shower, there’s nothing I can do. If smacks his brother, he insists he isn’t wrong. I’ve never seen such a strong personality – every day is full of drama with Evan,” she says.

She recalls an instance where Evan pinched his cousin because she used his crayons. “In his mind, she had clearly done him wrong, and he said he pinched her because of that,” says Teo. And even after explaining to him over and over again why he shouldn’t have hurt her, he just refused to apologise.

Teo made him stand in the corner and told him he wasn’t allowed to move till he said he was sorry. “He actually stood there for 45 minutes, silently, without shedding a tear. We started lunch and he still refused to move. In the end, I had to give in and told him to come have lunch.”

Does your child sound like Evan? Read on for tips on how to handle a strong-willed child.


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Before you assume that your child falls under the strong-willed category, Koh points out that things like temper tantrums and resisting control may also be due to other behavioural issues, like ADHD, conduct disorder, oppositional defiance disorder, anxiety or stress. He advises, “If you can’t control the anger or the child during his outburst, or if he becomes violent, then it’s important to seek professional assessment.”

Koh also recommends that parents monitor the triggers to see if they are situational, and to check if the child has any learning difficulties they cannot cope with. “It is best to seek help if the duration, frequency or intensity is very high,” he says.

As with parenting any child, it’s ideal if the parents are responsive to him or her. “This, together with understanding, support and love will encourage a child to be self-reliant and confident. For challenging children, more patience is needed,” Koh advises.

Using your authority in a way that doesn’t give your mini-me a choice will almost definitely rile your child.

Here are tips on parenting a strong-minded child:

1. Avoid power struggles
As much as you know that you are right, and your child is in the wrong, you shouldn’t make this a battle of wills, nor need to prove that you are right. You might want your child to do something (like change his clothes, or get ready for school), but you shouldn’t try to break your child’s will. While he has to toe the line now, he is still his own person and therefore allowed to have his own opinions about things.

2. Lead firmly
“Send the message across early that you are the parent and that you hold the authority,” Koh says. Set boundaries and rules when your child is calm. If there is an angry outburst, tell your child that you will only speak to him when he calms down. “Once he sees that the particular behaviour has no effect on you, he is less likely to display it” he points out. Avoid phrases like, “Do what I say, now!” Using your authority in a way that doesn’t give your mini-me a choice will almost definitely rile your child

3. Give him a sense of control
“Strong-willed children want to have control over you and gain authority,” Koh explains. “They may aim to make you feel hopeless and helpless so that you give up, so communicating and explaining the issue to them can be hard.” One way to deal with this is to give junior choices, so that he feels a sense of control: “Do you want to leave now, or five minutes later with no fuss?” or “Since you don’t want to wear your sweater now, we’ll put it in your backpack, so that you can use it when you feel cold.”

4. Have clear limits
Your strong-willed tot knows that you’ve set limits, but boy, does he love to test them! Show him that it’s important to have a healthy respect for boundaries ― if you allow him to break them (or break them yourself), he’s only going to keep pushing them. Be firm and clear about what can and cannot be done.

More tips, up ahead!

5. Understand the behaviour
Your child is acting up for a reason and understanding this reason will allow you to know how to reach him. He has an opinion that is making him stay firm to his position, so the only way to find out why he is opposing you is to listen to him. “Is it due to frustration because he can’t communicate his feelings, or is there a change in the environment or within the family? Be patient and revisit the issue in a calm manner later, to understand what changes can be made,” says Koh.

6. Watch how you react
When you lose your own temper and shout at your child, his immediate instinct is to push back in a similar way. Speak to your child in the same way you want to be spoken to. Strong-willed children often fight to be respected, and they feel that their integrity is compromised if they are forced to do something against their will. So, watch your words when speaking to your peewee: If you tell him that everyone speaks kindly to each other in your family, make sure you do that, too.

Strong-willed children often fight to be respected, and they feel that their integrity is compromised if they are forced to do something against their will.

7. Focus on the positive traits
While your child can be challenging, there are commendable traits that make him who is, as well. A lot of strong-willed children have strong problem-solving skills, are spirited and courageous, and determined to complete a task to their liking. Work with your child’s temperament, rather than against it.

8. Praise and appreciate good behaviour
Just like many other children, the strong-willed child thrives on attention. Recognise good behaviour and give him lots of attention and praise when he behaves well. You will be constantly frustrated by his challenging conduct, but don’t let it overwhelm you ― your child will soon figure out that good behaviour gets him more attention than when he behaves badly.

“Avoid comparing him to others, putting him down, or neglecting him, as this can cause emotional distress. Show him you love and care for him. If he acts up, show that you are unhappy with the behaviour, and not him,” says Koh.

Photos: iStock

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