Consider yourself lucky if you’re the parent of a strong-willed child.
That’s right — lucky.
Stubborn young people know what they want and have the determination to go after it. While it is a blessing (and it is!), parenting this personality may feel like a curse at times.
But you can make that stubbornness pay off for both child and parent.
Stubborn children like to make decisions for themselves. This is absolutely appropriate at times and Mom and Dad can stay in charge by providing these children with many opportunities to make choices amid acceptable options.
For example, don’t simply tell your forthright child you need to pick a summer camp or program. This might work for a more mild-mannered kid who can be easily swayed if she picks a camp that isn’t feasible. No, for the more hard-headed kid, offer a few parent-approved camps for the choosing. Better yet, give her your non-negotiable list of criteria for a camp and let her do the research to learn which programs make the cut. That way, she’ll have a real sense of accomplishment when she selects her own program.
Maybe your little one combines a bit of rebellion with the stubbornness. Maybe your second-grade daughter suddenly wants to wear sundresses in January. Before panicking that the teacher will surely call the child welfare office, say to your daughter, "Sure, but put your fleece leggings on with them." If this also meets opposition, toss the leggings and a jacket into her backpack, put her on the bus, make a quick call to the teacher, and let natural consequences resolve the problem.
Knowing what is worth making a fuss about and what can be let go is the real parenting talent.
Arguments = Negotiations
Not every situation can be resolved with quick thinking, however. When you're parenting an obstinate kid, you may find yourself frequently pulled into arguments. In the mind of a stubborn (or most any) child, arguments are simply ongoing negotiations. If Mom is still talking and getting a bit tweaked, then the kid is empowered and full of hope that she will win the day. As we all know, in arguments there are no winners. Everyone involved walks away frustrated and upset.
Parents need to build skills to avoid arguments with their kids. This is no easy task, as it is human nature to respond to others — especially if that "other" is your child who is not happy with your decision. Remind yourself to give a clear answer that doesn’t leave room for negotiating. Don’t end sentences with the all-too-common, "OK?" It sends the message you’re not too certain about whatever you just said.
Also, let go of the last word. This will eventually help break the "but Mom!" cycle of pleading. Kids don’t have to be happy with the answer you gave. A little grumbling isn’t going to change anything and can be ignored. Typically, it takes two to argue, so if you don’t play, you have doused the fire. However, if your child is accustomed to arguing with you, he will likely increase his attempts to engage you.
It can’t be said often enough: Building good habits that include understood routines and expectations is especially helpful in reducing power struggles. If homework is always started at 4:00 p.m., it is much more likely to become the law of the land than if sometimes it’s at 4 and then other times it is at 7:30 p.m. If a young person is expected to pack his school lunch every night, he isn’t likely to whine, "Mom, are you doing it tonight or do I have to?"
If parents focus on the most essential habits for themselves and their children, these will become routine and make life much smoother in the long run — and this applies to more than homework and school lunches. Maybe it is important for your family to do a movie night every Friday night or go to the farmer’s market every Saturday morning. Make these things non-negotiable when children are young and these things will become an accepted part of the routine. Deciding that family time needs to be a priority when your stubborn child is 15 is like deciding the Titanic needed more life rafts in the middle of the North Sea.
No child is immune from a difficult or contrary phase. If you have the basics covered, it will make these times much easier to navigate and give you an opportunity to encourage a stubborn streak to be used for good.
Jill Kaufmann, LMFT, is a family therapist in Bend, Oregon.
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