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?

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

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

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.

The Only 6 Back-to-School Tips You Will Ever Need

Stephanie Owen, LMFT

The beginning of a new school year brings a lot of challenges and adjustments --- new teachers, different class schedule, and new school demands. This can be one of the most stressful times of the year for parents, and even more so for your children.  Planning, preparing and patience are the keys to a better and more manageable back-to-school transition.

Here’s a quick round-up of effective tips for a smooth start to the school year:

1. Bedtime is quite a big deal.

Children thrive when they consistently get enough sleep. When children don’t sleep enough, it makes it harder for them to control their emotions. The problem most parents have is how to help them sleep. One way you can do this is to ensure a predictable bedtime routine by making it a priority. Preschool-aged children should be getting about 10-13 hours of sleep, school-aged children (6-13 years old), 9-11 hours, and teens, at least 8-10 hours. Regular activity every night signals their body to slow down and prepare for a restful sleep. Turn off all overly stimulating activities like gadgets and toys (tablets, smartphones, video games). Encourage quiet activities instead, such as books, calming music and podcasts: Storynory - stories, such as myths, original stories and poems, Bedtime History - inspirational and educational stories, and Peace Out - relaxation and mindfulness stories.

2.  Make a positive morning habit.

Creating a checklist of tasks with your children on what to do from the time they wake up time to the time they leave makes a big difference. Getting your children involved instills the value of responsibility for them early on AND reduces overall stress because you’re working together, instead of against each other. Most importantly, find a time to connect and bond each day. It takes as little as 10 minutes to make an impact. You can have a quick chat at breakfast reminiscing on a favorite time together or sharing excitement about what is coming up. For younger kids, a cuddle while dressing them up or ask them to help you prepare or make something will create connection, too. Turn off all sources of distraction (you will get to those emails as soon as you get to work, I promise!) and focus on your child knowing this will make a lasting change.

3.  Get organized ahead of chaos.

Plan ahead. Introduce a daily routine with as little as 15 minutes each night planning and preparing for the next day. A checklist will be helpful to begin with until the essential steps become a habit. For younger kids, you can create a visual board of the to-do’s with drawn pictures or photos from a magazine of each morning and afternoon task. A family calendar is helpful to track academic and extracurricular school activities, as well family plans. Downloadable apps, like My Study Life and Time Tree, have shareable access to make sure no one misses out.

4.  Watch out for back-to-school anxiety.

Most children are excited to start a new school year, while some can be nervous and dread it leading to draining energy and increasing anxiety. Reasons may vary from separation anxiety, bullying, and perfectionism, to name a few. Allow your children to talk about their anxiety -- and no, it will not get worse if you talk about it. Listen and normalize what they’re going through by sharing a time when you felt similarly. They will likely feel relieved and less alone. If they’re open to hearing solutions, give them the tool of square breathing, which is a helpful strategy to focus on their breath and stay grounded throughout the day. It’s easy to do: Make a square in the air or on paper. Trace one side of the box and breathe in for 4 seconds, continue to trace the other side of the box and breathe for 4 seconds, and continue again for the other two sides. Practice it with them, too!  

5.  After-school routines make a huge difference.

It is important to discuss after-school routines that work for your children. Ideally, it’s best to  have a quiet area at home with a comfortable study table and chair in a well-lit space that’s personalized and inviting for them to want to use. Bring in bright colors, pegboards for organizing, and all the supplies needed for them to feel equipped and look forward to their after school routine. What other ideas do your children have to create their space?

6.  Parent-Teacher relationship is crucial.

School is your child’s second home. It is crucial for parents to build strong relationships with teachers. Work with your teachers to help them understand your child’s unique personality, strengths, talents, and interests as their learning patterns emerge. Just like all relationships, they take time to build. Similarly, your parent-teacher relationship won’t happen overnight. It is built with constant communication, collaboration and shared goals.

What else would you add to this list? Share comments below, we’d love learn how else you’re creating a smooth and stress-free back-to-school transition. Share with others and tag a friend who could use this, too!