Parenting a strong willed child
Have you come across a toddler who throws food on their plate? Or the one who won’t stop cranky-crying for hours? I have seen such children. These are ‘strong willed children’.
A strong willed behavior is synonym to dysregulation, impulsive response and being insensitive to the surrounding. This results in parents investing most of their time correcting their child’s behavior instead of finding out the reason behind such behavior. The adult and child conversation turns into order and demands; and parents fall out in their consistency since the child is highly inconsistent in their behavior.
This further aggravates the child’s temperament and they throw more tantrums in order to grab our attention. Which in return overwhelms the parent and we are stuck in this vicious circle; confused as to how to deal with this situation. However, in this process, often do we forget to look beyond the child’s behavior and try to dig deeper to know the reason behind such behavior.
In his TEDx speech, Dr Stuart Ablon very beautifully highlights a child’s characteristic. He says, “If the kid is not doing well, it’s about the skill and not their will.” What he means is that if a child is not willing to do something, it is because he does not know how to do it well. Therefore, our goal here should be to help them do a work, instead of orienting them into habits of rewards, punishments, and timeouts or detention. He describes that the researches in neuroscience has shown that challenging kid do not lack the will to behave well but skills to behave well. These skills are:
- Problem solving skills — Children cannot do a certain thing in a certain way, not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t have the skill for it. Suppose we want a 2 year old to put their clothes in laundry. First let’s answer these questions in our head: Does the child know which clothes to put in the laundry? Does the child know where is the laundry basket kept? Does the child have the coordination to walk over a distance holding clothes in their hands? Are there any steps on the way that the child may have to climb up and down? Is the child capable of climbing those steps with clothes in their hands?
Now once you have run through these questions, check the probability of the child being successful doing this activity. It will give you an answer as to why the child would not listen to you. Probably because the child must have tried climbing the steps but was struggling; or the child cannot see in front while walking with all the clothes in their hands; and hence opposes the activity. So am I suggesting not to engage them in any activity? Not at all.
Children need collaboration. They need us to model the behavior and approach to deal with a situation or do a work. So how to collaborate? Let’s take the same example of laundry. We model carrying our clothes and show how they need to make a ball of the clothes, keeping it close to the tummy. If there is a step in the way, show the child to put the clothes down and first climb the step. Then again pick up the clothes and walk to the laundry area. This increases the success rate of the child and hence encourages them to repeat this activity the next time. Also, it gives them the confidence and ability for problem solving.
An important point to keep in mind is: Don’t solve the problem for the child. It is quick but the child does not learn any skill at all.
2. Flexibility — You were supposed to go on a family trip. You have been planning for weeks and going shopping for the trip. The plan gets cancelled in the last minute because your husband has an urgent requirement at work. Your mood gets sour, isn’t it? It takes some time to process and rationalize everything. Why does it happen? It is because there was an order set in our mind. As individuals, the slight change in the order disturb us, as we tend to be less flexible by nature.
A child is still building their sense of order. Therefore, they lack flexibility. Which is exhibited in the form of tantrums, stubborness, and lot of hue and cry. We think the child is misbehaving, but the truth is that their order is disturbed and the child doesn’t know any other way to show their frustration.
By consistent order/routine and behavior in various situations, we can help the child. If the routine needs to be changed, it should be communicated to the child in advance. For example, if we can’t take the child to the park one day, we may say, “Today we will not be able to go to the park in the evening as I have work. However, I promise we will go tomorrow.” Meet your promise. This builds the child’s trust in us. This also ensures a harmonious environment as the child believes in our commitments.
3. Frustration tolerance — The lack of problem solving skills and flexibility leads to frustration in a child. The only way to help children be less frustrated is by helping them understand what they are feeling. This is possible by giving them language to their emotions.
Using the previous example, suppose the child is screaming and crying when we said we can’t go to the park, we must get down to the child’s level and say, “Ohhh, I see that you are upset. Are you upset because Mumma is not taking you to the park?” If the child nods, continue to say, “I understand its frustrating, but Mumma has work today in the evening. However, since you’ll be at home, would you like to do some pouring activity or help mumma finish her work faster?” What we did here was, we offered choice to the child. This encourages the child to exercise their will in the right direction.
Deborah Tillman, from America’s Supernanny, says that often do we misunderstand a strong willed child to be unruly and destructive. However, she claims that being a strong willed child is good. She believes that these children are very clear about their needs and wants, and if we steer them the right way they can become great leaders in future.
When we meet a strong willed child with strong will approach, we are causing more harm than putting the child in discipline. Instead, if we are empathetic and understanding of what the child must be going through, we arrive at a solution without enough power struggle. The discipline should come from within. And it is only possible when children are supported to acquire all the skills mentioned above.