Strong Willed Children and getting their co-operation


I think many parents would say they have a strong-willed child. Certainly, most will have experienced it when their children were toddlers, and if you’re not at this stage yet, you will almost certainly experience it again when your kids are teenagers. Even in between these two, often apocalyptic, eras in a child’s life, many children will have strong opinions and desires that clash with our own.

Why am I writing about this this month – because boy oh boy, have I had a month of a strong-willed 3 year old and it’s got me thinking. My little one is absolutely refusing to wash her hands and I have used every trick in the book to try and get her to do this. Believe me, I have been tearing my hair out because it is just something that needs to be done, and not only that, but several times a day!

So, what have I learnt from my experiences to help you?

One thing I know for sure is that using my power to force her to wash her hand when I have been at the brink of my patience, has been a sure-fire route to disaster. I also felt awful about it and I know it is not what I want to model to her for her future. How am I going to feel if she says to a friend, ‘You have to do what I want you to do and you have no choice or I won’t play with you’? As we well know, force always creates opposition with a person of any age. So how do we avoid this?

The first question in a power struggle with a child is does this need to be something we have to do? And does it need to be done my way?

In the case of hand-washing, the answer is yes, she does have to wash her hands. So, it is really important, when our agenda has to be followed, that we acknowledge what it is that our child wants to do and how they feel. We can say things like I know you’d like to play for longer as you’re having so much fun building your Lego and I know you don’t want to stop and do your homework. You love it when you have the opportunity to lose yourself in your imaginary world don’t you and I sense that your cross that you have to stop now. I wonder if we can think of a way together to make it easier for you to start your homework? Last time, I built the last bit of Lego with you and then we put on some music while we got your books out. Would you like to choose the music for tonight? I did all this with my daughter with washing her hands but she still didn’t want to wash them. This emotion coaching, where we get in touch with our children’s feelings is important though as they feel listened to and understood in the first instance. If the answer is no, this isn’t something we have to do then you’ve got your own answer.

In the case of does this need to be done ‘my way’ the answer to that is definitely no! So, to try and avert a power-struggle I started by offeing her a choice about where she washes her hands. This works really well with strong-willed children as they can have some control over a situation – you just need to make sure that both choices are acceptable to you and that you help them achieve the thing that they have chosen. Another top tip for getting out of power struggles is to take the fight out of the situation – if you simply say to a child , OK you can wash your hands any time that suits you in the next five minutes they will often comply because they have been given a choice about when to do it and kids generally do want to please us as their parents.

On top of this, toddlers and teenagers in particular are trying to figure out what the rules are in any given situation. So, as adults, we need to make sure that the rules are always the same. Believe me, I know how hard that is – even with hand washing I sometimes let it go because if it has become something of a battle and I don’t want the fight. But when I do this, I know that I have to start again from scratch with the hand washing power struggle. So, to help me, and to help her know what the rules were, we made a laminated picture of her washing her hands with the rule at the top of it – ‘We wash our hands after using the toilet and before every meal’. It was simple and put positively and we said that each time she washed her hands, she could have a smiley face on the picture and when she got to 10 she could have a reward. She chose to build a den in the lounge and have a snack in it and was very motivated by this. This idea of having written rules for your children is really important so that they know what the limits are. Predictability means your child knows what to expect. This can help massively with homework and music practice battles too, for example, if they know there is a set time to do these things. Also, if your children are in a routine and things go wrong and they have a meltdown, it is much easier for us to stay calm as we realise there is more going on under the surface because they usually get on with the routine just fine.

The other success we have had with hand washing is that we have had many races to the sink with her to see who can wash their hands first. This latter idea worked well for a while and it reminded me that while there are really important connections to make with your children when they are struggling with a big emotion, sometimes a good bit of light-hearted fun can take the pain out of a situation quite simply. Fun does require us to be very inventive as parents, and when we are shattered a lot of the time that can be quite hard. Thank goodness for all our Halloween toys coming out of the box today as we are now racing to wash our hands before the Halloween toys can get to the sink!

Ultimately, the stronger our connection is with our children the more they will want to do as we ask. This means spending as much positive time with your child as possible where we are not doing chores or they are doing homework. Try to schedule this every day or it won’t happen! Also, use all your skills to let your child know how much you appreciate them. See my newsletter on the power of describe for more on this This also works for describing how you think your child is feeling from their perspective and letting them know that this feeling is OK.

Ultimately, we have to remember that strong willed children are not just being difficult, they genuinely feel passionate about their point of view and so the most important thing is to make sure that your child feels heard and understood. When we try to empathise with how they are feeling, when we give them choices and look for a compromise with them and are able to work with their ideas for problem solving, they will respect us more than if we just tell them what they can and can’t do.

If we go into battle with our children, even if we win the point there and then, we ultimately lose a bit of our relationship with our children. The hardest thing to do when we are feeling like erupting ourselves is to model self-regulation. This is not easy but it is possible. And the more you practice this skill the more it will become an automatic response.

Taking a deep breath and seeking to understand our children’s thoughts and emotions; stopping to listen; realising that their frustration, stubbornness, anger, independence, assertiveness, strong will etc is genuine and caused by something will help us to stay calmer in the face of what we perceive to be a fight or flight threat. Yes, genuinely this is the response that is provoked in us when our children ‘threaten’ our core beliefs about how they should behave, so it’s no wonder as parents we lose it sometimes.

Back to blog