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A strong-willed child is not a reflection of poor parenting skills

Somewhere between my two-year-old daughter insisting she wear the same Hello Kitty shirt everyday, and me frantically hand-washing it and then drying it with a hair dryer in order to get her to stop screaming uncontrollably, I decided something was wrong. This was more than the average ‘terrible two phase. I had heard of the term ‘strong-willed’ before, and it was only then I read up about it. Each article hit home as I felt like they were describing my child.

Since my first-born turned 18 months, I often doubted my abilities as a mother, always wondering “What am I doing wrong?”

My perspective changed when I realised  she has all the characteristics of a strong-willed child (see here and here ). It wasn’t my incompetent parenting causing her to be so short-fused, but her inherent trait all along.

Although it was not easy to raise a strong-willed child, I have come to appreciate the positive side of her strong character – the unrelenting force when she knows what she wants, her unshakeable opinions, her deep affection when she is content, and her smart little mind which surprises me often.

Raising a strong-willed daughter requires more than the usual parenting tips and tricks – she is beyond that.

After much online research and consulting other mummies with strong-willed children, I learned how to better handle my daughter during those tough toddler days.

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Here I offer some tried and tested pointers that I hope will help you as they did with me: 

Give strong-willed kids options

Strong-willed children love being able to make their own decisions instead of being told what to do.

When it’s shower time, I take out 3 dresses for my daughter to choose from. Once she has happily decided on a dress, I quickly shower her before the excitement of changing into it wears off.

To get her to eat her meals, offer options such as “do you want to eat with your hands or with a spoon?” or “do you want mummy or daddy to feed you?”

To get them to go to bed, offer options such as “which of these books would you like for your bedtime story?”.

Be cautious about offering too many options though, such as “pick out the dress you want” while showing her the entire closet. They are too young to handle that many options and may not be able to decide.

Also, avoid asking questions with Yes or No answers, such as “Do you want to eat?” or “Do you want to shower?” because this will make them think they have options.

Be firm, like a brick wall

Get used to it: Strong-willed children will throw tantrums.

I remember distinctly the time my daughter stood right in front of the TV, her nose almost touching the screen. When we asked her to sit down away from it, she threw the biggest tantrum. It turned into a wresting match with me having to cart her away and she struggling to get back to the TV.

We turned the TV off but she couldn’t handle us saying No for something she felt was totally acceptable. So she continued screaming, rolling on the floor, pushing me and doing everything she could to show how upset she was.

I didn’t budge. I tuned out her screams and pretended to be a brick wall.

She, too, didn’t budge. For an hour. That’s a strong-willed child for you.

After she was all worn out from the screaming and crying, we hugged and she fell asleep.

Guess what? That was the last time we fought about standing too close to the TV. 

Prepare a lot of mini rewards

Oh, this is a lifesaver when you have strong-willed children. You may think it’s bribery, but I prefer to think of it as a reward.

I often scouted craft stores for things my daughter liked – glitter glue, stickers, craft sets, cheap toys and such. I would open up the packaging and split the stuff into money (angpow) packets. For instance, I would put one glitter glue stick in one angpow packet, and I get 5 mini rewards from one packet of glitter glue. Of course, if you have time, you can wrap them up individually in cute wrapping papers.

I would give out these rewards liberally whenever I needed her to shower or go to the toilet or shampoo her hair.

A word of caution – Avoid rewarding them with sweet treats. Sugar and toddlers do not go well together.

For those concerned about the  rewarding culture and its adverse effects, fret not. My girl outgrew this phase at about three-and-a-half years of age, and I no longer needed to reward her for basic daily routines. 

The time out chair

Yelling rarely ruffles strong-willed kids. They are not easily intimidated and rarely buy into threats.

For our toddler, the time out chair worked well. 

Not that she readily sat there quietly when ordered to. I had to be firm and hold her down a couple of times before she got the message. 

This method involves:

  • Preparing a dedicated time out chair in a lonely corner. Don’t use this chair for any other purpose.
  • Giving ample warning before sending them to the time out chair. For instance,  “If you hit your baby sister one more time, you are going to the time out chair!”
  • Follow through, always. If you have to carry them and hold them down firmly onto the chair so they can’t run away then that’s what you need to do. Yes, a strong-willed child will try to squirm their way out.
  • One minute time-out is long enough for a two-year-old.
  • Explain clearly to the child why they are being reprimanded. For instance, “You cannot hit your sister, she can get hurt.”

Be generous with compliments

Whenever my daughter does something that she is expected to do, I would make a BIG deal out of it.  For instance, “You finished your breakfast, I am so proud of you. You did very well!” or “Wow you smell so nice after showering”.

They love knowing they are behaving well, probably because strong-willed children are met with a lot of NOs throughout the day. Positive reinforcement is so refreshing to them. 

Often, during bedtime, I would tell my daughter what she did well throughout the day. I would say things like “I am so proud of you today, you finished your lunch, you showered and changed your pyjamas, you played with your puzzles really well and you were good to your baby sister!”

I found that after we established a routine, she looked forward to hearing what she did well each day. In a way, it also helped me focus on the positive things that she did instead of the difficult tantrums.

It gets better, with practice

Things turned around remarkably for us and became more manageable after we employed these techniques on  our strong-willed toddler. If you are feeling exasperated with your strong-willed child, the good news is that it gets better as they grow. By the time my daughter turned three, I could see her becoming more “rational”.  I could reason  with her, and she could comprehend my logic. Strong-willed children will still have that fire in them, still be highly opinionated, and won’t conform to norms, but the tantrums will slowly disappear as they get older.

My strong-willed daughter is now four-years-old. She still insists that “she likes messy hair” and never lets me tie her hair for school. But she can understand the logic that she needs to be able to see oncoming cars when we cross the road, and that her  hair shouldn’t cover her eyes. So we meet in the middle, she lets me put one small hair clip to make sure her fringe doesn’t block her eyesight.

Strong-willed children may be challenging to raise in their toddler years, but know that everything in parenting is just a phase. With consistent employment of these 5 tips, they should outgrow this “season” soon. I certainly hope they help you get through to the other side, and I’ll meet you there!