The Modern Day Parents’ Guide to Defusing Power Struggles with Strong-Willed Children

Stephanie Owen, LMFT

If you’re reading this I’m fairly certain you know you have a strong-willed child. You likely feel like a “bad” parent more days than not. Or perhaps your child isn’t who you thought they would be. You’ve probably also felt judged by others who have said you need to be more disciplined. Either way, you’re working really hard at being a parent; something you thought should be easier.

Modern day parenting comes with many pressures and little support. Parents today fear children’s strong feelings more than ever while constantly putting their needs before your own, which ultimately creates power struggles anytime to try to regain control. On top of it all, strong-willed children are outspoken, self-motivated and determined, making it that much harder for you stay patient! The upside is these children become driven and determined teens and young adults. Parents who resist the impulse to “break their will” often make strong-willed children into leaders.

If you can avoid giving in to every argument you’re invited to, you can gain strength at decreasing power struggles. Studies have shown that parents can defuse power struggles by empathically setting limits, offering choices and showing respect. To raise strong-willed children effectively, it’s key to maintain cooperation while keeping their spirited nature intact.

Here are 5 everyday strategies to help you understand and encourage cooperation:

1. Connect and direct.

Never underestimate the power of connection, as it fuels cooperation. Positive Discipline, a model of discipline I teach that promotes kind and firm parenting at the same time, has a tool called “Connection Before Correction.” Research shows that you cannot influence children positively until you first connect. Here are some simple and powerful age-appropriate strategies to try:

  • Preschoolers - Before asking them to put their toys away, show appreciation and enthusiasm about the structure they built for them to feel confident and valued

  • School-aged - Driving your children to and from school is a great time to not ask a million questions, which can feel like an interrogation. Instead, try saying, “I missed you today” and sharing something you’re looking forward to doing with them, which models vulnerability and invites connection

  • Teens - Schedule a time together that you both can look forward to together, like cooking, playing board games or an outdoor activity. Ask them to teach you something when you’re together, which they will feel encouraged and excited to share a new skill

2. Let them be heard.

When strong-willed children feel interrupted during an activity, they have difficulty moving on until their feelings are recognized. It is important to allow them to feel their feelings without judgment or moving them quicker through their emotions. This does not change what is ultimately expected from them, it’s a matter of first acknowledging and respecting how they’re feeling. For instance, when your child is feeling frustrated, you can invite connection by saying, “I notice you’re feeling frustrated.” Naming the feeling will let their guard down to feel accepted. Also, often times, simply naming the feeling might be all they need.

3. Direct and don’t request.

When a strong-willed child is asked to follow directions and cooperate the answer is usually an emphatic, “NO!” Instead of yelling back, do our best to stay calm to prevent parenting burnout and then tell them exactly what to do. For instance, with young ones you might say, “It’s time to pack away, please” rather than “Can you pack away?” The first gives a polite direction, while the second asks a question, thus giving your child the chance to not follow your request. For school-age children, you can say, “Only gentle touches, please,” compared with, “Don’t hit!” Similarly, you’re succinctly telling them what to do, versus what not to do.

4. Stay away from negotiating when it’s non-negotiable.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that most times you negotiate you likely end up in a power struggle. A practical and highly effective tool you can use when power struggles come up is to provide your child with two choices that lead to the same outcome.

For instance, if your child wants to play on their tablet and it’s non-negotiable because it’s dinner time, then give them the power in the situation with two negotiable options instead that lead to the same non-negotiable outcome of having dinner. You could let them be heard (back to #2), “I hear you want to play on the iPad,” and state the non-negotiable, “and the iPad isn’t for playing right now because it’s dinnertime,” then share two other choices that are negotiable, “you can either sit next to me or next to your brother. Where would you like to sit?” This strategy gets your needs met with the same outcome of sitting as a family for dinner while also defusing the power struggle by giving the power back to your child in the form of two choices.

5. Avoid punishment.

One of the biggest ways to support strong-willed children to listen and cooperate is to establish their trust. You want them to do what you say because they trust you and know that you have their best interest at heart. Punishment may increase their obedience in the short-term, but decreases their desire to work together with you in the long run. Research has shown the effect of punishment on children results in lower levels of moral reasoning. This means they are dependent on external control to comply. Children who trust and feel respected by parents are more open to listen and cooperate because they want to. The alternative? Consequences.

A good rule of thumb in considering what’s a punishment versus consequence is asking yourself, “Does the punishment fit the ‘crime’?” Try using family meetings as a way to address a situation by brainstorming respectful, reasonable, and related solutions to the problem. Even more, schedule weekly family meetings to continue to repair your relationships.

Strong-willed children can be extremely challenging, as well as an amazing source of love, happiness and fulfillment. By trying these strategies, modern day parenting could be a little easier with more cooperative and happier children, too.

I’d love to know more from you! What another ways you’ve found that have helped you better manage your strong-willed children? What other approaches would you add to this list?