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How to Parent a Strong-Willed Child

Help your strong-willed child grow into the natural-born leader that they are.

My wife and I are blessed with two strong-willed children. I don’t say blessed lightly or sarcastically. While parenting strong-willed kids is challenging (Parenting, in general, is challenging, am I right?), I’m excited for what the future holds.

So, what makes a child strong-willed anyway?

Don’t all kids strive for independence and push boundaries? Don’t all kids test how far they can push their parents to get what they want? Yes, this is a normal part of childhood. All kids test boundaries to see how far they can go. It’s how they discover safety and security. Strong-willed kids just exhibit these traits more consistently. This doesn’t mean they are “bad kids.” They’re just determined to do things their way. 

Strong-willed kids are passionate and courageous. They’re natural-born leaders. They desire to learn on their own terms, questioning what they’re told. They test limits, want to be in charge, prize independence, and live life with the gas pedal to the floor. 

As parents of strong-willed children, we have to balance parenting without breaking their will. I want my children to be successful, independent adults who care about and positively influence others. My job is to help prepare them for that future and to give them the environment to grow into who they’re meant to be.

Here are 5 ways to strengthen your relationship with your strong-willed child:

1. Help them learn through experience.

Strong-willed kids want to learn on their own terms, not just from our experiences. They want to experience it for themselves. Let your child explore what they like. Let them push beyond what they think they can do. Encourage them along the way. With two strong-willed kids, I’ve learned that failure isn’t the end. It’s just a stepping stone to understanding what works.

2. Offer explanations as to why.

My daughter’s teacher looked at us the other day and said, “I’ve realized I can’t just tell your daughter not to go beyond the playground fence. I have to tell her the fence is there to keep her from getting hit by a car.” Saying “Because I said so” doesn’t suffice for a strong-willed child. They want answers and reasons. Knowing this, you can offer an explanation before they ever ask why. Slowing down and explaining the why behind decisions can help you avoid power struggles.

3. Stick to your word.

It’s crucial to do what you say you’ll do. My son may forget much of what we tell him, but he never forgets what we say we’ll do. To be honest, we’ve become wise with our choice of words. We don’t offer too many specifics because we aren’t the type of people who stick to specifics. We are more free-spirited when it comes to plans. He’s not. He wants the details, and he will hold you to those details. And if I don’t do what I said I would do, he’s crushed. To help your strong-willed child, be sure to follow through on what you say. If something derails your plans, explain what happened and how you can handle it together.

4. Offer choices.

Remember, strong-willed kids desire to be in control. This means when we want something done, and we only offer one choice, they’ll push back. It’s their nature. They aren’t necessarily being defiant. So, the best thing to do is present two choices. If cleaning their room feels like a power struggle, present some options. You can clean your room now, or you can play for 30 minutes and then clean your room. Either way, the room must be cleaned. They can choose the timeframe. When possible, offer your child choices so they have a say in the decision-making process.

5. Listen to them.

Strong-willed kids have desires, thoughts, and knowledge they want to share. You, as the parent, may well know best, but they have opinions and beliefs they feel strongly about. Ask your child for their input. Get their views on a family decision. Including their ideas and opinions in family discussions makes them feel valued and heard.

Parenting a strong-willed child may require constant adjustment. Take the time to learn about your child’s needs. You have the opportunity to help your strong-willed child grow into the natural-born leader that they are. 

Other helpful blogs:

I Feel Like I’m In A Constant Power Struggle With My Child!

6 Ways Your Child Will Know You Love Them

My Kids Are Driving Me Crazy: 30 Tips to Stay Sane

How To Identify Your Child’s Strengths

How To Encourage Your Child’s Strengths

What is your teen asking you about the future? Do you have answers?

“What am I gonna do about school and soccer, Dad?” my 14-year-old son asked me. I didn’t know. I’d been asking myself the same questions for weeks and didn’t have any answers. It feels like new information comes out every day that undermines my decisions. Everything feels tentative. The future feels like a collection of shreds and patches. 

The last few months have left the foreseeable teen future uncertain. Your teen may be feeling a lot of anxiety: What will school look like? Will I be able to get a part-time job, play sports, play my favorite instrument in the band? What about prom and graduation?

And don’t forget their favorite part of school—seeing their friends. There’s so much unknown for them to process.

Don’t forget, they are old enough to wonder about your adult future and the family’s future. You may feel secure about your job situation, your finances, the health of family members—and something like divorce may be totally out of the question. This doesn’t stop your teen from worrying about those things.

All of these unknowns can easily translate into anxiety, stress, and depression for your teenager. (They can for us adults, too.)

When it comes to the important things in life, we all prefer certainty to uncertainty. But our adult brains are developmentally better suited to live with some uncertainty than our teen’s brain is. Their brain is still developing and processing so many unknowns (that they are invested in) can be particularly difficult for them. How can we help them?

[Read this blog that describes what is happening to teens developmentally.]

1. Model The Behaviors And Attitudes You Want For Your Teen

  • Self-Care: Tending to your physical health and emotional health.
  • Mindfulness: Deep breaths. Self-awareness. Focus. 
  • Critical Thinking: Decisions based on the most reliable information.
  • Optimism: “We are going to come out on the other side even stronger.”
  • Resilience: “We are going to take it one day at a time as a family.”
  • Gratitude: “We still have a lot to be thankful for…”
  • Service: “How can we help others who are struggling?” 

These are all things that your young adult needs to navigate uncertainties they will encounter as future adults.

2. Acknowledge When The Future Is Unknown & When You Just Don’t Know

We want to have answers for our teens and they often expect us to have them. It can be tempting to try to “fake it” or give the answer we think will make them feel better in the moment. Besides being disingenuous, in the long run, it will undermine their confidence in you. You don’t want to be seen as a source of false hope and misinformation.

It is totally appropriate (and honest) to admit it when we don’t know. Saying something like, “I don’t have enough information yet to confidently make a wise decision about that,” doesn’t undermine your trustworthiness and reliability; It enhances it. Your teen can relax (hopefully) and know that when you do make a decision it will be based on the best information and what’s best for the family.

3. Become A Student Of Your Teen 

Be on the lookout for the ways your teen might be struggling with anxiety and stress and depression. A very talkative teen may become quiet. A very quiet teen might become talkative. A normally social teen may become withdrawn. A teen that normally keeps to themselves might suddenly become a social butterfly. Look for any changes in their normal behavior. 

Keep in mind that sometimes teens deal with difficult emotions in unhealthy ways. Be on the lookout for outbursts, disrespect, risky, or harmful behavior. Watch their eating and sleeping habits. As you address their behavior, be sure to address what the real issue may be underneath it.

4. Be Open And Create Space For Your Teen To Express Their Anxiety

Teens will often “show” you when they are struggling before they will “tell” you they are struggling, but there are things you can do to keep the lines of communication open:

  • Make sure your teen knows you have an “open door” policy and that they can talk to you about anything, anytime.
  • Take advantage of car rides and other times you are alone with your teen that don’t feel like you are angling for a “big talk.” Teens often open up when you are doing something else, like cooking or watching television.
  • It’s okay to ask questions like, “How are you feeling about school this year?Then practice active listening skills.
  • Don’t “freak out” at what you hear. Keep that poker face.
  • Don’t ask a million questions, probe gently, empathize, and be a good listener.

5. Recognize When You Are Out Of Your Depth And Get Your Teen Help

Anxiety, stress, depression, and anger are significant and often complex problems—especially in the lives of teens. It is totally appropriate and necessary for you as a parent to recognize when you have reached the limits of how you can help your teen. Don’t stop there. Reach out for help. Contact a counselor.

The unknown is, well, unknown. It is normal to experience fear and anxiety concerning the unknown. There are lots of things that your teen cares deeply about that are just flat out up in the air at the moment. Don’t feel bad that you can’t make the unknown “knowable” for your teen. Model how to face the unknown, be there for your teen, and keep putting one foot in front of the other until the unknown becomes known.

In January of 2019, someone posted a video of a young man standing in front of a Native American veteran. The young man was accused of taunting the man while he was drumming, and his classmates who were standing nearby were accused of making disrespectful comments aimed at the Native American. The video blew up on social media. Many people were jumping to conclusions. The teens’ school even responded to the incident, stating the teens would be disciplined up to and including expulsion.

However, when additional information and longer portions of video emerged, news anchors admonished viewers that jumping to conclusions can be harmful in so many ways. 

The teen at the center of attention shared his version of what happened. CNN’s Jake Tapper obtained a statement from Nick Sandmann, a junior at Covington Catholic High School, who said he is the student in the video. Sandmann said he was trying to diffuse a tense situation and denied insinuations that anyone in the crowd was acting out of racism or hatred.

An ancient proverb says it is foolish to answer a matter before you hear it.

Millions of people looked at the video and immediately jumped to conclusions without having context or perspective. As a result, a young man was accused of taunting a Native American veteran, being racist and numerous other things. Additionally, a young man who attends the same school was falsely identified as being present. His family was accused of being racists, and they received threats throughout the weekend.

Have we become a culture that responds to what we think we see? Or have we always been people who respond this way? Are we looking for any excuse to be outraged?

Just one day after this video was posted, another video started making the rounds. This one showed a barefoot 2-year-old girl with her hands held high in the air after getting out of a car stopped by police. Officers were in the midst of arresting the little girl’s father, who was a suspect. Looking at the video and seeing officers with their guns pointed at the car, many assumed the guns were pointed at the little girl. 

However, the arresting officer had his bodycam rolling. His footage shows the officers stop the vehicle and tell the suspected armed adults to step out of the truck. After the adults were out of the truck, the child unexpectedly climbed out and imitated her parents by walking toward the officers with her hands raised. An officer can be heard comforting the child, saying, “You’re OK, come over here sweetie, you’re OK,” and “Sweetie, put your hands down, you’re fine.”

Ultimately, two men were arrested and their mother was allowed to take care of the children. 

These are just two instances out of thousands of videos where people are put in a position to draw conclusions about what really happened. Is it possible that we are being baited?

This seems like a great teachable moment for us all. Many allowed their time, emotional energy and bandwidth to be hijacked by a situation that may or may not have been what it seemed to be. When people live on the edge with short fuses and expect to be offended, people can pretty much be assured that they will be. 

Jumping to conclusions can be very damaging to relationships, but these three tips can help you think more clearly about the things you see (or think you see). 

  • Pause. Relationship expert Hal Runkel stresses the importance of “the pause.” Pausing allows people to take in what they are seeing, obtain more information and then make a decision about the best way to respond.
  • Dig deeper. Ask questions and see if more information is available. Gather all the information you can, and look for other evidence on the subject – whether you agree with it or not.
  • Give the benefit of the doubt. Seeing is not always believing, especially at first or if you are being manipulated in some way. Relationships are built on trust, so make sure you know everything you can possibly know before you make an impulse decision about a matter.

This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on January 28, 2019.

Many parents would agree that a great deal of parenting time is spent teaching children right from wrong, the importance of honesty, responsibility, good character and much more. These are many of the essential qualities they will need to be successful in life – especially when your kids mess up. 

No matter how much effort we put into teaching our children, there are bound to be times when they disappoint us for one reason or another.

“I can remember the first time my son really disappointed me,” says Jim Smith.* “I was angry at him and at the same time I was beating myself over the head trying to figure out where I had gone wrong in raising him. For a long time, I felt sorry for him. Instead of trying to help correct what happened, I tried to compensate. Just when I thought things had turned around, he would do something else. It is hard to get past not thinking it is always your fault when your children make poor choices.”

This type of response from parents is common. Whether it’s bouncing checks, drug use, risky sexual behavior, driving recklessly, unhealthy relationships or lying, it hurts to see our children make mistakes, especially when their choices affect their future.

Often when children, young or old, do disappointing things, the first reaction is to try and fix it. When problems arise, parents often try to control their child’s choices and remove the consequences, thinking that their actions are the loving thing to do, but that may not be true. Sometimes the most loving thing a parent can do is let go.

When children are young, parents are typically directing behavior. When children enter the teen years and beyond, a parent’s role ideally shifts to coaching their children, along with helping them make their own decisions and accept personal responsibility for their choices.

If you are dealing with disappointment in your older child’s behavior, consider these things:

  • See your child as separate from you and making his/her own choices.
  • Understand that their behavior is not a direct reflection of who you are.
  • Stop rescuing. Let them fall and experience the consequences of their choices. Experience is a great teacher.
  • Recognize that you can love your child while allowing them to make their own choices. And it will probably be painful.
  • Make a conscious decision to go on with your life. Know that you have done the best job you knew how to do.
  • Take responsibility for those areas where you believe you fell short. Then move on and model healthy actions going forward. 

Smith says that he finally realized that he did everything he could to teach his son right from wrong. But his kid continues to mess up. 

“I finally told him that it isn’t that you are a bad person; it is the choices you keep making, and you will always have difficulty because of those choices,” Smith says. “At some point I had to stop taking it personally and let go, realizing I could not change him.”

Looking for more resources? Watch this episode of JulieB TV for an in-depth look on this topic!

The college transition is hard on both parents and kids. When college students return home for breaks after spending 10 months basically without a curfew, not having to answer to anybody about their comings and goings, and no chores, the homecoming has the potential to be a bit rocky, especially for freshmen.

“We weren’t exactly sure what to expect when our daughter came home from her freshman year,” says Kim Clausen. “She was used to being on her own. When I asked where she was going and when she would be back, I got looks like, ‘Why do you need to know that?’ We had to re-acclimate to her being home and she had to get used to being with us. We all survived, but it took some adjustment on everybody’s part. Things were definitely different.”

Planning Ahead for Adjustments Can Help

Like so many families, the Clausens had settled into a new routine with their two remaining teens at home. Excited about their daughter’s return, they honestly didn’t think a lot about making adjustments as they brought her back into the fold.

“If we had it to do over again, we would have a conversation prior to her returning home about expectations, schedules and the like,” Clausen says. “When she is away she can do what she wants, but when we are trying to juggle work, the schedules of our other two teens and life in general, we need everybody to be on the same page.”

Clara Sale-Davis also found herself in the same position as the Clausen family. Before her daughter made the college transition, she thought about how to make the move easier.

“I remember when I went home for the summer,” says Sale-Davis. “I thought I was going to be running around doing whatever I wanted. Mom would wash my clothes and have dinner ready. I quickly found out I was delusional. While I am honored that my daughter wants to come home for the summer, I wanted to be proactive with her so she would know what to expect.”

Sale-Davis let her daughter know that while they wanted home to be a safe haven, it would not be a resort. She encouraged her daughter to find a job and told her that chores would be awaiting her. She also discussed what seemed reasonable for everyone when it comes to staying out late with friends.

“I thought it would be better to have the conversation ahead of time,” Sale-Davis says. “We talked over the phone and I could hear her eyes rolling. It isn’t that I don’t trust her. We just don’t need to worry unnecessarily.”

Here are some suggestions for making it a pleasant break for everyone.

  • Establish expectations. Know your priorities, communicate them clearly and discuss what is and is not negotiable. Be clear about what will happen if they do not adhere to your expectations.
  • Don’t expect your young adult to have the same mindset they had when they left for college. They have been making decisions for themselves, so encourage them to continue to do so while respecting the house rules.
  • Choose your battles carefully. If you are encouraging them to make their own decisions, realize that they may not make the same decisions you would make for them.
  • Take this time to help your college student understand what it will be like when they are finally out on their own, paying rent, bills and doing their own laundry.

The college transition to home can be interesting, to say the least. While young adults are in the process of becoming more independent, they still rely on their parents in many ways – including providing a roof over their head during the breaks – not to mention paying college tuition.

Image from Unsplash.com

“I was excited about going away to college,” said Grace Hopkins. “I have basically done everything my entire life with my sister. This will be the first time for both of us to be on our own for an extended period of time.”

As excited and prepared as Grace thought she was, she experienced some rude awakenings as a freshman.

“My parents made it a point to teach us how to do laundry, clean our rooms and manage money. I thought I was totally prepared for being on my own,” Grace said.

“It was kind of a shock when things like time management and budgeting got the best of me. I have always been good about managing my time, BUT I was with friends who were also excited about the newness of college and wanted to have fun first. They encouraged me to have fun and I let some things fall behind.”

Even though Grace budgeted her money before she went to college, she wasn’t used to having to pay for everything herself.

“It was just so tempting when your friends wanted to go grab something to eat,” Grace shared. “I figured out pretty quickly that if I kept spending money like this,I was going to be broke before we made it to midterms.”

Grace is in good company. Many college freshmen have struggled with exactly the same issues. Here are Grace’s thoughts on what she would say to her freshman self:

  • Time management is key. “As a freshman, you will want to do it all and experience as much as you can but you have to consider your responsibilities first. You don’t want to wake up at exam time and realize that you are really behind.”
  • Get involved. “I joined a couple of clubs. That was a good way to meet people outside of the people you meet at orientation. It’s a great way to get to know some upperclassmen.”
  • Be prepared for the “roommate thing.” “I had not shared a room with someone in many years so it took some getting used to,” said Grace. “We put together a roommate contract the first day about things like expectations concerning bedtime, who could be in the room and when. Even with the written agreement, there were still challenges.”
  • Beware of the little expenditures. “Everything adds up real quick.”
  • Getting enough sleep makes a huge difference. “Staying up with friends until 2 a.m. and having to get up for a 9 a.m. class did not work out real well for me.”

Many teens are anxious to transition to this new phase of life. On the outside, they act confident but on the inside they are wondering: Am I really prepared?

Encourage your teen to take Grace’s advice. Help them with strategies for balancing their newfound freedom and responsibility.

Discuss potential risks and the difficult choices they may have to make. Mistakes are inevitable, but you can prepare and empower your teen to enter into their freshman year with confidence. In the end, experience will be their best teacher.

Image from Unsplash.com

Parenting to encourage your child’s independence is not easy. I remember the day well. I went to pick up our daughter from school. She got in the car with a smirk on her face and blurted out, “Why did you let me fail my tree project?” I asked her exactly how I let her fail her project. “You didn’t help me,” she replied. However, I distinctly remember asking her if she needed any help when she brought the assignment home, and she said no. She then told me I needed to go talk with her teacher about it and fix it.

I reminded her that I did not have a problem with the teacher, but I mentioned that if she would like to talk with the teacher, I would be happy to stand in the hallway. I don’t think she was super happy about my response, but we headed up to the teacher’s room and she did all the talking.

Fast forward to today. My daughter still talks about this experience, not because she is still angry at me, but because she learned some important things that day: how to talk with an authority figure about a difficult situation, what it means to problem-solve, and that while her parents are supportive, they will not snowplow the road of life for her. Don’t think for one minute that there wasn’t a lot of drama around that moment or that we got it right all the time as parents, because we didn’t. 

One thing is for sure though: teaching your child independence is a powerful gift. When parents take the lead in situations such as this, they can rob their children of a potential transformational experience.

Karen Fancher, a college professor, lamented in a blog post about the number of students who show up on campus unprepared to navigate life on their own. 

“We are now observing a different parenting style: ‘Lawnmower Parents,’” says Fancher. “These are the parents who rush ahead to intervene, saving the child from any potential inconvenience, problem or discomfort… this kind of parental behavior can have long-lasting, detrimental effects on your child.”

According to Fancher, this parenting style can lead to children being poorly equipped to deal with routine growing and learning experiences, along with a lack of personal motivation or drive since they only know how to follow the path the “Lawnmower Parent” has already prepared. Perhaps the most potentially-devastating outcome occurs because the “Lawnmower Parent” repeatedly demonstrates their lack of trust in their child’s ability to accomplish things on their own. As a result, their child will lack independence and may feel they aren’t good enough to do things for themselves. If that sounds really scary to you in terms of preparing your child for the real world, there are ways you can intentionally avoid being a “Lawnmower Parent.”

For example, let your children speak for themselves. When you go out to eat, let them order. Teach them to ask for directions. When they ask to do something after school with a friend, let them orchestrate the details instead of doing it for them.

As your child enters middle and high school, there are opportunities for them to do even more for themselves. When it comes to dealing with things at school, resist the urge to take matters into your own hands. Process with them, but let them handle it as much as possible. When drama occurs in friendships, ask them how they think they should handle the situation instead of jumping in with the answers.

In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey makes two powerful statements worth remembering when it comes to raising children. First, begin with the end in mind, as in, don’t lose sight of your goal to raise confident adults who know how to function independently of their parents. Secondly, seek to understand before understood. Be curious. Ask your child to tell you more. Many teens complain that their parents never listen, but seeking to understand requires us to listen. 

As parents, we may or may not have the answers our kids need. And it’s not always easy to step back and let them do things on their own. It may even be messy. Although we may fear that they will fail or get hurt in the process, remember that many people learn best from their mistakes and gain confidence through independence. And sometimes, they just need to figure things out for themselves.

In Dr. Phil Zimbardo’s TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) talk about the demise of guys, he states that boys are flaming out academically and wiping out socially with girls and sexually with women.

In response to Zimbardo’s talk, Dr. Gary Wilson explains why guys are flaming out and what we can do about it. He bases his reasoning on years of research concerning the neuroscience of reward, sex and bonding.

According to Wilson, most boys seek porn by age 10. At that age, a brain that is suddenly fascinated by sex drives the boys. Thanks to high-speed internet, boys have access to unending novelty. The boy’s brain releases dopamine with each new image, and he will keep going as long as he can keep clicking.

Eventually, the brain wires itself to everything associated with porn such as: being alone, constant clicking, voyeurism, shock and surprise – instead of learning about real sex, which involves interaction with a real person, courtship, commitment, touching, being touched and emotional connection.

Porn Is A Serious Addiction for Boys

In 2009, a Canadian researcher attempting to study the impact of porn could not find any college males who weren’t using porn, so he had no control group for his research. He asked 20 male students who had been using porn for at least a decade if they thought porn was affecting them or their relationships with women. All of them said they didn’t think so. However, many of these males were dealing with social anxiety, performance anxiety, depression and concentration problems.

“Of all the activities on the internet, porn has the most potential to be addictive,” says Wilson. “Everything in the porn user’s life is boring except porn.”

Interestingly, there are thousands of men, young and old, who are giving up porn. Why? Because it is killing their sexual performance.

A guy in his 20s reports, “I have been to psychologists and psychiatrists off and on for the last eight years. I was diagnosed with depression, social anxiety, severe memory impairment, tried numerous medications, dropped out of college twice, have been fired twice, used pot to calm my nerves, and have been approached by women but they quickly left because of my weirdness.

“I have been a hardcore porn addict since age 14.” He says, “I stopped porn completely two months ago. It has been hard. I have quit all of the medication I was taking. My anxiety is nonexistent… My memory and focus are sharper than they have ever been and my erectile dysfunction is gone. I feel like I have a second chance at life.”

“Widespread youthful erectile dysfunction has never been seen before,” Wilson says. “This is the only symptom that gets their attention.”

The high-speed internet has taken porn to a new level and it is messing with our children. Watching porn digitally rewires boys’ brains in a totally new way for change, constant arousal, novelty and excitement. This creates real issues when it comes to romantic relationships that grow gradually and subtly.

Do your children know what healthy relationships look like? Have you taught them about the perils of the internet? Are you paying attention to their computer use?

It’s time to take back our boys. Their health and future relationships are hanging in the balance.