A letter from a parent:
We are parents of a three-year-old boy and nine-month-old girl. We love our three-year-old very much, but lately we are at a loss how to deal with him. He is defiant and out of control, he hits us when we tell him NO, and the house has become, at times, an unpleasant place. What can we do to help him improve his behavior and restore some peace in our home? He is (as I am sure you have heard the expression before) a strong-willed child.
Here are some tips to help you out:
1. Balance your authority with his independence:
Our goal as parents is to teach our children enough life skills so that they can one day manage on their own and become productive members of society. Strong-willed children already have a strong dose of the independence they need to make it on their own and it should be recognized as a strength. Remember that many great people were strong-willed and mischievous. It is a sign of good character, creativity and persistence.
Parents often think that we need to subdue our children and always make them listen to what we say. This is not the case. We should cultivate a child’s independence. It does not have to be at the expense of maintaining our authority as parents in our homes.
2. Be a detective:
Try to find the reasons why he acts the way he does and what sets him off in the first place:
Is it jealousy of his little sister? Does he have trouble transitioning from activity to activity? Is he tired, hungry? Does he need extra attention? Does he have trouble processing and following directions? Does he have trouble expressing himself with words? Is he with too many unfamiliar people?
There are many different things that can cause misbehavior. Once you find out what his triggers are you can start to reduce or eliminate the causes for misbehavior. You can set your child up for success. For example if he has trouble processing directions you would give him a visual cue, show him the door or his coat if you are leaving, tactile cues, touch him and make eye contact so you know he has heard you and give him warnings 5-10 minutes before you are ready to go.
3. Get his input:
Get him used to problem solving and sequencing his activities “Bedtime is at 7pm. How do you want to work out getting ready for bed?” When do you think a good time is to start if you want to play around, brush your teeth, get into pajamas and read a bedtime book?”
The object is not to have military precision when going to bed. It is just an exercise in helping him take charge of his time and his responsibilities.
4. Positive reinforcement:
Anytime he behaves well you want to mention it. When we praise children we want to be specific and descriptive. He does not have to do anything out of the ordinary:
“You held my hand when you crossed the street, which is called being safe and taking care of yourself.”
“You asked for a cookie with a please, that is using good manners.”
“You shared your toy with your friend that is called being kind and thoughtful.”
5. Have a “Cup Half Full” Mentality:
Try to view all of his behavior in a positive light. It is easy to see the bad. To really be effective with a tough kid you need to always look for the good in every interaction. For example, if he gives you a difficult time getting into the car to go to school, but he did get into the car, you want to focus on what he did in the end.
Instead of: “You gave me such a hard time getting into bed, it took you forever and you kept on crying and misbehaving.”
Say: “You got into bed, you did not want to, you were so sad and upset about going to sleep, but you did it anyway. That is called being flexible and following through.”
6. Don’t allow the hitting:
When he hits:
“You must be so angry and you can’t tell me with words, so you are hitting.”
Focus on the Positive:
“You know how to be kind and use your words. Yesterday you told Rikki to go away when she touched your toys instead of hitting her.”
“I can’t be with you when you hit. I have to move away”.
Show you have faith in his ability to be correct his misbehavior:
“I know next time you will use your words to tell me how angry you are.”
When it is calm talk to him gently about the incident:
“Remember before you were so angry, you seemed very upset because I ran out of the juice that you liked. Next time it is better to use words instead of hitting, “Mommy I am so angry that you didn’t have my juice, can you buy some as soon as possible!” and when you calm down an even better way of saying it is, “Mommy please remember to buy me the juice that I like. It is so hard to remember to use respectful language when we are angry but I know you will try next time”
7. Get some rest:
Dealing with a strong-willed child is exhausting. You need to be on your toes mentally and physically. It is hard to think creatively on how to manage their behavior when you are tired and overwhelmed. Give yourself lots of breaks, and try to get a good night’s sleep. Try to work together with your spouse and support each other when one of you has spent a lot of time with the strong-willed child. Often, if I see the morning is not going well, I will say to my husband, “I don’t have the patience to deal with the whining this morning, are you able to take over?” More times than not he is able to do it.
8. Understand that, more than anything, children want their parents’ approval:
If all else fails and you find yourself despairing, it helps to remember that strong-willed children desperately want to behave appropriately but they don’t have the necessary basic people skills or emotional intelligence to do so. All children want their parents’ approval and some children just don’t know how to achieve that. The suggestions mentioned in this article will help us instruct strong-willed children gently and respectfully to improve their behavior so that they can succeed at behaving. Try to find a technique that works for you and stick with it. Any attempt to connect with your child will be greatly appreciated. You will find yourself thinking more positively about your child and yourself. You will be well on your way to managing your strong-willed son.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.