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7 Effective Tips for Parenting a Strong-Willed Child

January 3, 2020, Author: Tamra Cater

It happened. Yesterday, I was faced with the growing reality that my daughter is very strong-willed. Honestly, it was probably one of the worst days we have had. My daughter did not want to get dressed, nor did she want to leave the house when it was time to go. In fact, she was put in the car without any shoes on just so I could get her to our godparents and get to work on time. And each time she did not get her way, we were faced with meltdowns and full-blown screaming. This happened all…. day… long… Something isn’t working, so it’s time for a change.

What is a Strong-Willed Child?

What does willfulness mean? According to Pickhardt (2005), willfulness refers to “a person’s power of self-determination to direct, to persist, to resist, and to prevail. ” It appears that my daughter was born with a tendency to be possibly more strong-willed (I think this may have come from my husband, as I’m honestly a bit of a pushover at times) than other children. However, one’s experiences can play a role too. So, essentially, practice makes for a powerful will. The more a strong-willed child gets what he or she wants, the more strong-willed they become.

parenting a strong willed child

The Pros of Having a Strong-Willed Child

When children express a “can’t do” attitude, this reflects a lack of will. This will influence a host of factors such as how one handles challenging problems and tasks and whether one persists. So, as parents, we should want our children to have a “can-do” attitude, as this helps them persist when solving problems. In essence, those with a strong-will take charge of their lives. Because of this, strong-willed children are more likely to be leaders. 

How Does a Strong-Willed Child Think?

One noticeable sign of a strong-willed child is that they get angry when they don’t get what they want. Strong-willed children become angry, because they turn what they want to have into something they believe they should have (Pickhardt, 2005). So, if a strong-willed child wants something (such as a toy), they also believe that they should get it.

I can’t count how many times my daughter has done this. I can tell her that “We can’t go to the park today, because it’s raining outside and it’s cold. Because of that, it won’t be any fun.” My daughter’s response is, “But I want to!! It’s not raining!”

So, this is known as one-step thinking. Babies are born with one-step thinking, which refers to immediate gratification of their wants and needs. For example, a baby learns to cry to get picked up. This is a one-step attempt to cope with an immediate need.

How Do We Adjust a Strong-Willed Child’s Thinking?

Instead of one-step thinking, we want our children to engage in two-step thinking. According to Pickhardt (2005), two-step thinking involves “delaying action long enough to consult judgment, reason, and values before acting on impulse, on feelings, and for immediate gratification.” Thus, this type of thinking allows a child’s willfulness to serve them well rather than badly.

Here’s an example of how I can encourage this thinking: My daughter loves candy. She is very persistent about eating candy on occasion, so when she doesn’t get it right away, this may result in a meltdown. I have found that one thing that helps is that I tell her that she can have “a piece” of candy after she eats something good for her. And this works! So, she’s surprisingly a fan of cucumbers and green peppers, so she usually takes to eating a good portion of this before eating any candy. And I do limit how much candy she eats in a day.

What Responsibility Should Parents Take?

Parents should consider how their behaviors could be making willful behavior even worse. For example, some parents may overindulge their child to the point that every want and desire is gratified. Thus, a feeling of entitlement develops. In our case, some family members have graciously agreed to take care of our daughter when we work or have other things that need to get done. While they adore and love her as their own, unfortunately, they have some responsibility in our child becoming overindulged and entitled. For example, we have found that they buy our daughter a toy nearly every day she is there. When our daughter comes home, she doesn’t always get what she wants, so it’s difficult for her to hear no.

In terms of our responsibility for her behavior, it may be that we are inconsistent in our consequences and when we say no. I think sometimes we also get worn down in the sense that we may be digging our toes in just as much as she does. This, in turn, results in our daughter taking a harder stance in her refusal to do something. These are things we will need to thoughtfully consider.

How Should Parents Handle Very Young Strong-Willed Children?

When a child is between the ages of 1-3, a distract-and-return technique can be effective (Pickhardt, 2005). For instance, when your child refuses to do something (such as letting you help put their shoes on), try to distract them with something positive. You could ask them to play with you for a minute. Once this is done, try your request again. If this doesn’t work, try going back to the positive request such as playing. If they do comply with your request, then reward that with praise and affection.

parenting a strong willed child

What are Other Effective Tips for Parenting Strong-Willed Children?

1. Give Them Choices.  For example, when it’s time to get dressed, I give my daughter 2-3 choices on what to wear. I don’t let her pick anything she wants, because when there are too many choices, children of this age can become overwhelmed. Thus, it’s important to let a child make some decisions and do some behaviors on their own.

2. Give her some independence when it comes to her body. I’ve had this battle with my daughter about putting on her jacket when it’s a bit cold outside. So, she’s gone without, although I will put it in a bag, so she can wear it later if she changes her mind. So, as long as your child is safe and healthy, then this should work.

3. Use routines and rules. For example, in our house, our daughter is not allowed to have candy until after she eats a good, healthy meal. She has gotten used to this, so we don’t have any power struggles any more over it.

4. Listen. Children want to feel heard. So, when I know my daughter is upset about not being able to go to the park, I tell her “I know you are sad about not being able to get to the park because it’s raining.” Or I try to get her to tell me why she’s mad and upset about something. This is just like us- We feel better when we know we are being heard and listened to. When we listen, we are connecting and nurturing our relationship with our child. And when we connect, our children are more likely to listen to us.

Final Thoughts on Parenting a Strong-Willed Child

We are parenting a strong-willed child. We are now starting to implement some of these strategies (including trying to get our family members on board for more consistency). So, I hope to see some improvements soon with our strong-willed daughter!

If you have a strong-willed child, I hope these tips help. If you have other tips you want to mention, please comment below!

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Markham, L.  Retrieved from

Pickhardt, C. E. (2005). The everything parent’s guide to the strong-willed child. Adams Media: Avon, MA.

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comments (4)

  • avatar image
    Great post. My daughter is a pretty strong willed child. And I do try to exercise a lot of these things. But some were quite new and doable. Along with these things I like to keep my daughter busy and entertained, and that's what I write about in my blog, so it works out for both of us :)


    January 3, 2020 Reply
    • avatar image
      Thanks! That’s a good point- I like to also keep my daughter entertained and busy as well, which helps!

      Tamra Cater

      January 3, 2020 Reply
  • avatar image
    My children are very strong-willed and they get it from me, lol. There was a time that I threw such a horrible tantrum in the mall parking lot because my mom wouldn't buy me a toy that onlookers thought she was kidnapping me and called the police. My kids are bigger than the toddler stage now, but it takes a lot of skill and patience to direct them against their will, especially when I know it's for their own good. I am not an expert by it at any means, so even applying the advice for the younger age group to helps me navigate through issues.


    January 5, 2020 Reply
  • avatar image
    This was a great post. I also have a strong-willed son and I felt everything you were saying! We’re working on getting him where he needs to be and I’m going to try some of these tips? Thank you!


    January 13, 2020 Reply