It’s late afternoon and we’re at the supermarket. My 4 yo daughter, Lila, spots a shelf filled with packets of dried fruit. Her favourite food! She picks up a pack of the best – dried mango!
“I want these” she says to her Daddy, who’s feeling stressed about getting her home for dinner and certainly does NOT want her eating dried mango on the way home. And they’re not organic ones either (we’re pretty hardcore into chemical-free food)!
I’m on the other side of the store so he grapples with it. “No Lila we can’t buy them. Put them back.” “Yes! I want them!” “No, put them back.” He tries to take the packet away from her and she holds on tighter. Starts shouting: “Yes! I’m having the mangos!”
Feeling embarrassed about the scene, Daddy gets me over. “Do something!”
I squat down at her eye level. I pull her onto my knee, cuddle her.
Quietly but firmly I say: “Lila we don’t buy these. They’re full of yukky chemicals. Let’s put them back.” I gently take them and put the mangos back on the shelf, and stand up cuddling her on my hip. “Let’s have a snack in the car.” We walk out to the car.
(No, I did not say “It’s nearly dinner time, you can’t have those.” Because I knew that she’d just say “Yes I can! I’m hungry.” And dig in more!)
And yes I’m Mummy, and I’m comforting. I know that. I have a big advantage over Daddy or anyone else! (Though actually, my daughter is way more compliant with babysitters than she is with us!)
But the reason she listened is that I’ve built this rapport over time.
I rarely ever shout at her or get angry. I always explain everything in detail so she’s on board. I listen to her point of view. I give her as much choice and control in things as I can each day. And she responds to this. It’s not just some mama-magic-power. It’s effort that I’ve put in over a long time.
And it was not always this good. When my daughter was 2 I was still trying some old-school tactics like getting angry and loud, forcing her to do things, and threatening bad consequences (You’ll be late for preschool! As if she cared…)
Finally one day when she scratched my face so hard it bled, I realised I had to find a better way to get a powerfully stubborn child to come on board with my plans – you can read this story here.
So I figured out what works – and here are my tried and tested techniques to get through the day smoothly with your stubborn, strong-willed or difficult child.
1. Build Trust & Connection With Your Child Over Time
Yes kids are more likely to do what you say if they feel connected to you and loved. That seems obvious. But we actually have to work at this so that they feel it all the time and come to totally trust us.
When they trust us they will WANT to do what we ask, rather than just doing things to avoid our punishments or shouting. Anger, threats or spanking are sure-fire ways to erode trust with your kids, so try these approaches instead:
- Speak in a patient, loving way, rather than sounding angry, when they do things wrong or don’t listen.
- Be positive with them - tell them what they can do and what they have done right whenever possible, rather than saying “Stop doing that!” or criticising them. Eg “You can put your shoes in the rack.” instead of “Stop leaving your shoes around!”
- Having fun with them and joking around or playing as much as you can.
- Daily cuddling, chatting or close one-to-one connection – aim for at least 10 minutes each day per child.
2. Give Your Child as Many Choices and Control as Possible
I get through the day more smoothly by giving my fiercely resistant child choices about as many things as I can. But the choices are always between two good options that I am happy with (of course)!
So to ensure she eats dinner, I get her to choose what shape pasta she wants or what vegies to cook (beans or carrot). To get her dressed I ask which top she wants or which shoes (runners or boots). To get her into the car seat I ask her which music she wants on the car stereo (Wiggles or Bananas). And so on.
This also helps her to feel like it was her idea to do things that I need her to do (like get dressed)!
And of course it doesn’t always work – for example, if she doesn’t want music in the car, then I find out what will help her get in the car seat and see if I can provide that (Want to play I Spy?!).
This works SO well – I really encourage you to try it!
3. Always Explain What’s Going On
My daughter is very chatty and loves to know what’s going on. Understandably she feels left out if we don’t include her in the plans.
So I make a point of running through the schedule for the day so she knows what’s happening. Or I include her in deciding what gift to get grandma and we talk about it at great length. Or we plan dinner together on the way to the supermarket.
Basically the more I include her, the more on-board she is with the plans and the fewer complaints and resistance I get! Try it and see.
It might seem tiring having to explain everything - but it’s less tiring than having to deal with a big, fat NO all the time!
4. Give Your Child the Feeling of Freedom
Ensure each day that your child has free time to play the way he or she wants to. Kids can feel over-structured with our busy school and work day schedules - and strong-willed kids can push back by refusing to stick to the structure!
So make time each day for them to get outside or elsewhere for some playtime - where they are in charge, not the adults! Read my blog on free play for some inspiration.
5. Agree with your partner on the non-negotiables and relax about the rest
Most of the time we parents are on a mission – to get our kids dressed, fed, toothbrushed, toileted, fed, bathed, slept. So when our child derails our plans, it can be really hard. We dig in and a battle results.
But often if we just let go of some of the “rules” we have in our head and let our child do it their way, it can give them the sense of empowerment they are craving.
The way we do this in my house is to decide in advance what are the important rules to stick to, and then the rest of the time we can be flexible if our child has other plans.
We always stick to things like: wearing a bike helmet on the bike, brushing teeth before bed, no feet on the dinner table, eating some breakfast before going out and so on.
Next time you’re in a battle with your child – ask yourself “does this really matter?” If it doesn’t matter, then it’s often worth letting your child choose. See it as an investment for later on when you aren’t able to give them a choice!
So there you have it: the way to end the battles with your strong-willed child.
Note that some of these methods are long term and will take some time to have an effect (like building trust), while some are short term and will help right now today. Use them all!
And don't forget that, while it's very hard work having a strong-willed child, they're very likely to be strong, determined adults who really change the world (as long as we don't crush their spirit in the mean time!).
Here’s to a smoother ride in your household.
PS Would you like a summary of the techniques you can use to get your children to co-operate and to avoid meltdowns?! DOWNLOAD THE CO-OPERATIVE KIDS CHEAT SHEET HERE!