6 Ways to Respond to a Strong-Willed Child

  • By Danny Huerta, PsyD, MSW, LCSW, LSSW
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

Raising strong-willed children can be demanding, but it’s also incredibly gratifying. When taught with patience and firm, loving guidance, they can become life-changing leaders.

Have you ever pictured the apostle Paul as a strong-willed child during his early years? Have you ever wondered how his parents corrected, guided, and helped shape his strong convictions? God confronted and later used Paul’s high-spirited nature to spread the gospel across the known world in the Book of Acts. We get to glimpse into Paul’s drive and courage as we read about his various missionary journeys and imprisonments. Paul learned to relentlessly follow Christ for an intimate relationship with God while listening carefully to the Holy Spirit. He learned how to base his strength on love.

I imagine Paul’s parents had many exhausting days raising him because parenting a strong-willed child can be exhausting, challenging, and also rewarding. These “high spirited” children typically have a stubborn, independent mentality. However, they can also be overflowing with confidence, determination, drive, and focus. 

In my private practice, I worked with a couple parenting a strong-willed child. This teenager’s mom and dad were peacemakers who were afraid of him when he got angry because he was big, strong, and had an explosive temper. He was used to calling the shots because of his charm, size, and intimidating outbursts. His parents had not learned how to mold him into an influential leader and wanted peace at home. They were warm, sensitive, and loving — but not directive or consistent. As the son took more authority and power, he became angrier and more frustrated. What he longed for were consistent, clear boundaries and guidance. 

Discipline and Training

Strong-willed children can be inflexible, stubborn, and tend to get emotionally stuck in frustration and anger if they don’t get their way. They can be opinionated and hyper-focused on doing things their way (“the right way”). They can seem relentless in pursuit of power and control. But for all this, when they learn humility, kindness, and self-control, these children can develop into outstanding leaders. 

The Bible tells us, “For the moment, all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). We must discipline and train our strong-willed children so that they can grow into the fullness of what God has for them.

Training requires intentionality through goals. Creating structure takes time, repetition, and hard work. What are you training your strong-willed child to pursue and do? I picture strong-willed children as wild stallions clamoring to run and go no matter what. You get to train and lead your child toward what God has in store for them within the Kingdom of God! As the Bible says, “Discipline your son, and he will give you rest; he will give delight to your heart” (Proverbs 29:17).

6 Ways To Respond to a Strong-Willed Child

Here are six practical ways to respond when parenting a strong-willed child to help them grow into the best person they can be:

1. Be Calm

Calmness helps you tap into your intuition and parenting intelligences. It lets you respond to their beliefs rather than their behaviors. For example, your child may have an outburst, but instead of immediately correcting the behavior, you can try understanding what he sees and wants. Help him learn how to better interpret what he’s experiencing or more effectively pursue what he wants. Your calmness helps calm a chaotic strong-willed child’s brain. Make your calmness contagious and not your child’s emotions.

2. Be Clear

Clarity helps you reinforce boundaries rather than spend your time and energy nagging and arguing. Tell your child the rules and consequences – good and bad – and reinforce what you have discussed. It’s a great idea to have your child play an active part in developing the rules and consequences. You can use the important phrase, “What do you hear me saying?” Take time to make sure things have been communicated clearly.

3. Be Consistent

Consistency helps strong-willed children learn that being in charge is not up for grabs. While it’s not always easy, the parents must be united in their approach. Otherwise, the child quickly realizes that authority and power are wavering and divided. Strong-willed children respond to competence and confidence.

4. Follow Through

Strong-willed children want to know that you mean what you say. They respect and trust resolute authority. When you follow through, it is as if you’re putting money in the Bank of Trust between you and your child.

5. Delegate Some Control

Give your child opportunities to earn an appropriate measure of decision-making privilege in your house – she can’t simply demand it. For example, you can assign her control over choosing what trail you will bike, but not whether you’re going biking. She could also come up with practical solutions to clean and maintain the house.

6. Teach and Reinforce Empathy and Humility

Most importantly, teach and reinforce empathy and humility early and often. Help them learn to listen and care about others. Talk about what it looks like to be honest, faithful, loyal, sincere, ethical, and genuinely loving and encouraging of others. When strong-willed children learn how to be empathic and humble (two foundational relational traits), they can become extraordinary leaders. Help them see the value of other people — their thoughts, opinions, and well-being — as they learn to influence rather than dominate.

If their brain gets stuck, help them break free.  You can say, “It looks like your brain is stuck. I’m getting a brain tow truck to get your brain unstuck so you can be free.”  Or, when your child is emotionally all over the place, you can say, “Your brain is running around the room, and we need to catch it and put it back in the driver’s seat. It seems your body is driving without a driver.”

Young, strong-willed children also do well with distractions. For example, if they are stuck on a thought, tell them a random fact like, “Did you know some cats are actually allergic to humans?” Or you can ask a random question, “How many teeth do sharks have?”

Strong-Willed Individuals Can Have Historic Impact

I love considering the amazing contributions in history from strong-willed individuals.  Thomas Edison (inventor of the light bulb) said, “I never allow myself to become discouraged under any circumstances. I recall that after we had conducted thousands of experiments on a certain project without solving the problem, one of my associates, after we had conducted the crowning experiment and it had proved a failure, expressed discouragement and disgust over our having failed ‘to find out anything.’ I cheerily assured him that we had learned something, for we had learned for a certainty that the thing couldn’t be done that way and that we would have to try some other way.” Having a stubborn will can get us through discouragement, obstacles, and moments of failure. 

Although parenting strong-willed children can be demanding, it can also be incredibly gratifying and powerful. However, it also involves your own growth in adaptability, respect, intentionality, steadfast love, boundaries, graceful forgiveness, and gratitude. What an incredible opportunity for personal growth as you guide an influencer and contributor in God’s kingdom.

When taught with patience and firm, loving guidance, strong-willed children can become life-changing leaders like Paul, Peter, Esther, and Daniel in the Bible or the Thomas Edisons of the world. © 2021 by Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.  Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.

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