As if parenting weren't hard enough just trying to keep your kid alive, are you dealing with a serious case of the stubborns too? If you have a child who is particularly strong-willed, it can be enough to make you want to catch the next flight to Acapulco — alone.
Is there a right way to deal with a stubborn child? One who digs their heels in and seems to want to fight you at every turn? Whose default response to everything seems to be a definitive no?
First, it’s important to understand that just because your kid is obstinate, that doesn’t mean something is wrong with them — or that you did something wrong in parenting to cause the stubbornness. In fact, the characteristics of a strong-willed kid —questioning, countering and being assertive — are the very same qualities that make for brilliant leaders in adults, according to a 2016 research study published by the Development Psychology Journal. So while your child might be the cause of your extra gray hairs, know that their tenacity may serve them well in the future.
And some kids are just hardwired that way. Maybe your child has been headstrong from birth — or maybe they learned to take after a certain stubborn someone (ahem, you). Regardless, raising a strong-willed kid can be trying, emotional and mentally and physically exhausting. And you definitely don't want to let your personality clashes create lifelong issues or rifts between you and your child.
The good news? There are some easy things you can do as a parent to approach your strong-willed child that will lower your stress levels and be likely to persuade them to cooperate. Read on for expert advice from clinical psychologist Maureen Healy and recent studies that will guide you through those challenging moments with your stubborn child.
"What I have found helpful when connecting with stubborn children is validating their feelings and perspective — even if you don't agree! — and then establishing a strong as well as trusted connection with them," clinical psychologist Maureen Healy, author of Growing Happy Kids and The Emotionally Healthy Child, told SheKnows. "When your connection with them is strong, they can receive your coaching —actually hear it — and begin to make choices, which serve them and others better. Said differently, they can learn how to be more cooperative."
1. Default to kindness
If your boss barked an order at you, would you be more likely or less likely to want to do it? Yeah, thought so. The same holds true for your kid, even if they're just barely a toddler. We’re all more motivated to listen and do what someone is asking when it’s asked in a considerate and friendly way, according to Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D. wrote in Psychology Today.
2. Double down
It’s easy to ask your kid to do something in a nice way, but when your stubborn child plants their feet, crosses their arms and says no, it becomes increasingly more challenging not to get frustrated and raise your voice. This is when it’s most important that you stay calm and keep your tone and your words inclusive and calm. You are more likely to get to a yes that way.
3. Affirmative reinforcement
When your child does listen to you and picks those toys up and puts them back in the toy box, let them know they’ve done a good job. Just like when you receive accolades at work or get mail that tells us someone's thinking of us, our bodies respond physiologically to praise and positive attention with a rush of feel-good hormones, according to Terri Apter, Ph.D., author of The Confident Child. Take the time to tell your child what a good job they did, and they are likely to want to repeat good behavior again to get more praise.
4. Don’t make a scene
A stubborn child who gets yelled at in front of a roomful of people is more likely to feel ganged up on and under attack — and will naturally take an even more aggressive stance. Use a low voice, even a whisper, when you’re asking your child to do something in public. And if punishment is in order, carry it out in private or as discreetly as possible.
5. Bribe if needed
Of course, don't simply resort to bribery for everything. Your kid should eat their vegetables and brush their teeth and clean up their toys when asked without having to be bribed. And certainly, the bribe itself shouldn’t be something extravagant. Kids shouldn’t expect a gift just because they took a bath. But it’s OK to use little tricks and treats to incentivize good behavior. Maybe you have a sticker chart and your kid gets a sticker for completing certain tasks without giving you a hard time; when they reach 10 stickers, they can get another prize or privilege.
It will never be a breeze to navigate parenthood with a child who is stubborn, but remember you have control over how you approach them — and you can find the right set of tactics that make everyone’s lives easier. And hey, if you play your cards right, you might just be raising the world's next great leader.