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Dealing with a strong-willed child

A strong-willed child is born pushing the limits of his parents' patience. This is the child who, the moment you say "Please don't touch the vase", proceeds to do just that. You may even wonder, "Is my child normal?" because his behaviour seems so extreme. No, strong-willed children are not abnormal, just very different in how they learn about their world.

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A strong-willed child is born pushing the limits of his parents' patience. This is the child who, the moment you say "Please don't touch the vase", proceeds to do just that. You may even wonder, "Is my child normal?" because his behaviour seems so extreme. No, strong-willed children are not abnormal, just very different in how they learn about their world.

By temperament, strong-willed children tend to be high in 'negative persistence', which means they are stubborn in the face of rules or authority; and resist limits. Once you learn how your child's temperament shapes his behaviour, it begins to make sense.

Naturally, strong-willed children need a lot of guidance and direction from parents, but once you accept your child without trying to fit him into a pre-conceived mould, life becomes less stressful. You stop asking, "Why do I have to keep repeating myself?"

You realise that your child was born to test your rules and that your job is to keep guiding him in the right direction. You also begin to realise that your child is not purposely defying you to be malicious or rebellious. It is part of how he is learning about his world, and understanding social rules.

Understanding how your child's temperament works is a very important part of dealing with him. This is because the strong-willed child's behaviour often leaves parents feeling angry, resentful and exhausted. One mother confided, "We have stopped visiting any of our friends' houses because it is so difficult to control my daughter."

Teachers too feel relieved when she is absent from school "because it makes such a difference not having her in class". If the parents' own temperament is a bad match it makes things worse.

Easy-to-manage children are easy to love but it's hard to feel affectionate towards a strong-willed child. So, the very first step is to let go of what your ideal picture of a perfect child is, and accept your child for what he really is.

Strong-willed children learn rules the hard way: by testing them again and again. American psychologist Robert Mackenzie says, "When our words do not match our actions, children learn to ignore our words and base their beliefs on what they experience."

Here is a common example: eight-year-old Jeremy is playing with his toys which are all over the floor. Jeremy asks his mother, "Can I go to Tom's house?" "Sure," she replies "but first pick up your toys." Saying this she leaves the room. When she returns, Jeremy's toys are lying on the floor, and he's gone.

"What should I do with this kid?" she mutters angrily and puts away all his toys. Later, when Jeremy returns home, he notices the toys have been picked up. He smiles to himself because his mother's actions confirm what he knows: when she said pick up your toys, she didn't really mean it.

All children test our rules constantly in order to find out how serious adults are about rules and limits. But, strong-willed children are more aggressive in their search. "To them, the word stop is just theory. They want to know what will happen if they don't stop, and they know how to find out," says Mackenzie. Parents must give them lots of opportunity to experience consistency.

They have to strike a balance between firmness and respect. They must learn to give a clear message using words, teach skills, and follow through with consequences that are logically related to the behaviour.

Consequences don't have to be punishing, but they need to be instructive. For example, if Tom fails to put his bike away after many reminders, and you say, "No ice-cream for dinner", the consequence is not related to the behaviour. The logical consequence would be "no biking for a day".

This way the child learns responsibility despite the initial resentment, hurt and anger. Here is a perfect illustration of an approach that works when your children are constantly fighting and arguing with each other:

Mom: (in a matter-of-fact voice): "Guys, stop the yelling. I'm sure you can find a better way to share the TV without fighting."

Brother: "I was here first, and then she pulled the remote out of my hand."

Sister: "He always gets to watch what he wants. It's not fair!"

Mom: "Whose turn is it to choose?"

Brother: "It's hers."

Mom: "Good, I'm glad that's settled. If there's any more fighting, you'll both have to do without TV tomorrow."

The parent stopped the misbehaviour, modelled how to talk respectfully, hinted at a consequence, and taught her children the skills they need to solve problems on their own.

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