Parenting a strong willed toddler has given me a new definition for endurance and perseverance! At first, I thought “strong willed” just meant disobedient. That’s not true, because strong willed kids can learn to obey and they still deeply desire to please. However, they are opinionated and stubborn, and sometimes need to be approached a little differently to get their cooperation.
Strong willed kids have an agenda, and big emotions! They test the limits more than others, and force you to make super clear boundaries.
Here is how I changed my parenting approach with my strong willed 4 year old daughter. I didn’t ‘break’ her strong will or anything. She’ll always have that personality!
But she knows I’m ultimately in charge, that we have family rules even she has to follow, and I’m better at giving her some say when I can. It has transformed our days from awful and exhausting to joyful and I really love being with her now!
How I knew I had a strong willed daughter
I knew I had a strong willed child from the time she was about 1.
She wasn’t chill, had strong opinions, made her ideas known, and often had to try things out rather than take my word for it.
I think I realized she was strong willed because her older brother was so easy. He didn’t push back on every little thing, and was more willing to do what I asked.
By age 2 she was talking in full sentences ordering her older brother around and me too if I’d let her. She was louder, threw fits faster, and very very clever.
By age 3 the power struggle was so real that I began to feel quite desperate. Her personality was opposite of her older brother’s, and I didn’t know how to handle the push back.
Being strong willed is a gift, an asset. But, without boundaries it’s like wild fire. I saw quickly we had to focus on character training. Specifically respecting my authority as her mom, and speaking politely.
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You might have a strong willed toddler if…
Wondering what the characteristics of a strong willed child are? You may still see some of these in kids that are not “strong willed”, but likely it won’t be the qualities that seem to define them.
- Stubborn. They don’t back down easily.
- Opinionated. There’s a way to do things and they let you know.
- Great at leading. Too good, sometimes. They are fine telling other kids what to do, how to play, and don’t mind bossing mom and dad around either, if allowed.
- Very testy. Obviously ALL kids test limits. But power struggles seem more often with strong willed kids.
- They’ve got a plan. They are smart, and often you feel like you are trying to figure out what they want.
- Experiential learners. You tell them something but it’s in their nature to still want to figure it out for themselves.
Why strong willed kids need their parents to be in charge
Kids want to know who’s in charge, and it’s either you or them. This starts as early as the toddler stage when you tell them not to stick their finger in an outlet and they look at you, the outlet, and then try and touch it.
I think you can still be in charge & be reasonable, so long as your no is respected if it needs to be a no.
When a toddler knows that you mean what you say and will follow through (in a loving parent child relationship), they are learning to respect authority, to have self control, and to trust you.
I do struggle with finding my balance between the “I’m in charge, you do what I ask” mom and the “meet in the middle mom”.
The problem is if toddlers start to see that they often don’t have to do what you ask, it can be a safety concern! Plus, you can really confuse them if they are only expected to listen sometimes.
Also, if I’m making exceptions and compromises all the time for my strong willed child, then the other kids want the same and it can become difficult to just ask a simple request without resistance.
A parenting rule we use for safety and to build trust
We have a rule at my house with littles that you obey first, and ask second. I don’t remember how we learned this, but for 3 and 4 year old toddlers I think it’s especially important.
This is teaching them to trust me. I’ll often tell them why I asked them to do something after they do what I ask.
Safety example: When I ask them to hold my hand in a parking lot they don’t get to ask why. Once they obey, I praise them and explain there was a car backing up they didn’t know about.
Over time I hope they’ll learn that I’m trustworthy and have their best interests at heart.
This paid off HUGE when my 5 year old was riding his bike into the street just as a car ripped around the corner (my son didn’t check both ways) when his dad and I shouted “STOP!!!” He did, and it may have saved his life!
How I realized my strong willed toddler was in charge
When my second child turned 2, she just got more feisty. And by age 3 it seemed like we had a lot of new battles I’d never encountered with my laid back first child. She tested EVERYTHING, and it was so tiring.
For example, for weeks I’d put the cereal bowls on the table, and she would look at me and move it 2 inches and say “I’ll put it here”. Every time. I thought why not so I just let her.
Or I’d ask her to get into the van on my side of the car and she’d suggest “I’ll go out the other door.” She asked almost as though it were a question, but in reality she was telling me.
This happened every day, and she was constantly suggesting an alternative to whatever I’d say and push back when I’d ask her to do anything.
I was so frustrated. One day, it hit me…she’s testing me to see who’s in charge. And I’ll be honest, it was her up until this point.
How I set boundaries for my strong willed toddler
Some of the things she was asking for were fine in and of themselves but she was a little too comfortable ordering me around. My soft personality was getting run over HARD by a 3 year old and I didn’t even know it.
So I started saying, “Today, we are going to practice obeying mommy.”
I started moving her cereal bowl back to where I set it. And requiring her to come out the side of the van that I first asked her to.
This is pretty much against what most advice tells you to do for “strong willed” kids, as their stubbornness tends to shine when told to do something without being given a choice.
But for things to run smoothly, she needed to know mama is the queen, and she is the princess…not the other way around.
Once we started to get to the understanding that I am in authority, then I gave her more choices on the little things which she loves. By the way, I don’t move her cereal bowl anymore 😉
Over time this completely changed our relationship. She needed those boundaries and to know I am not a pushover.
How to parent a strong willed toddler to end (most) power struggles
It has taken me 2.5 years of working on these things every day to get to a place where I love being with my daughter!
She is actually a delight to be with now, maybe in part because she’s just a little older and has better impulse control. But I do think knowing how her brain works helps me to phrase things in a way that gains her cooperation more easily.
1. Praise them for the smallest things
Positive reinforcement is the best! If you find yourself snapping at your kids a lot, try forcing yourself to praise them when you catch them doing something right. Anything right.
For example, if your strong willed child often opposes you when you say time to get pajamas on, be sure to tell them good job when they DO it first time quickly!
I found my kids are highly motivated to be told good job. You may also notice that siblings begin to praise each other more too.
2. Ask your child to suggest an idea
My strong willed girl could not get her mind off finding a particular swim suit top to wear. I knew anything I suggested other than that one would get shot down. Her solution was to keep looking and employ all the troops to help.
She couldn’t find it anywhere, and instead of telling her “You can’t wear that because we need to go now”, I said, “What would be your second choice?”. And she ran and chose another.
3. Keep yourself calm
It’s so easy to get frustrated, especially when you are in a hurry or have asked too many times. (Those two things are actually different issues, I think. Which can be helped out by planning to leave earlier, or working on obeying first time which is HARD)
But the key I’ve found to gaining my child’s cooperation is to stay calm, keep my voice normal, and keep my control that way. Yelling and arguing is unfruitful (which I am reminded every time I do it). Plus, it leaves you feeling terrible and is a downward spiral.
4. Give strong willed toddlers a choice between two things that still ends in the result you want
One way to help my strong willed child feel like she gets some say in the matter (something she thrives on) is to giver her 2 GOOD choices when possible. Something that still accomplishes what I need done.
Examples: Do you want strawberries or a banana? No you can’t wear those shoes today but you can wear these or these. No you can’t get out the paint right now, but you can get markers or crayons.
5. When there’s no option, try phrasing it like there is
Similar to above, but sometimes there’s really only one option.
Like maybe you literally only want them to eat one snack in particular and nothing else. Phrasing it like there are two options gives them a little choice. I’ll say something like, “You can choose to eat this snack or wait till lunch”. (as she’s rummaging through the fridge). Or, “You can watch the show that I’ve picked out or we can turn it off”.
If she’s resisting picking up the Magnetic tiles with her brother, I’ll say, “You can help him right now, or I’ll have him leave some for you to finish putting away. What sounds better to you?”
This doesn’t end with them getting their way, but it does present that there is a better and worse option (aka consequences).
Sometimes a no just has to be a no, and if they don’t obey you then there will have to have a form of discipline.
6. When they get really frustrated, stop and listen
Strong willed kids get really bent out of shape when they feel unheard. And they respond really well when they feel understood.
When you see frustration on the rise in your toddler, try asking them calmly if they can explain why they’re upset.
I find that talking with my strong willed child to see what’s really bothering her helps deescalate things a lot. “Can you tell me why you don’t want to wear a ponytail?” (I guess her heart was set on wearing it down, little did I know).
So often it’s an easy fix or easy compromise, (for instance I said she could wear her hair down if she was willing to let me brush out the tangles…which hurts a bit). And because she wasn’t in the mood for hair brushing, she chose the ponytail.
Once she feels heard, she’s less frustrated and often ready to move on from there.
I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t have time to brush her hair…probably throw it in a ponytail and then we would have a not-so-fun teaching moment in disappointment.
7. Follow through with your threats
Make threats lightly mama. Or else your smart toddler will see right through you.
This is one reason I never threaten to leave a place that has taken me so much effort to get to… I feel it gives my kids a lot of power over a situation. There are generally other ways I can handle situations other than leaving.
For example, if my strong willed angel thinks he or she doesn’t need to wear a hat or sunscreen on a sunburn type day at the park (derm wife here!), I don’t threaten to gather up all my other kids and go home. They have to wear the hat or sunscreen.
When we go to a friend’s house and they are not listening well, I don’t threaten to leave. Perhaps I’ll make them come sit by me till they are ready to listen, which is boring.
Yes, leaving after they disobey if you told them you would leave is the right thing to do…because you are practicing follow through. But as you have more kids, this option just punishes you and the others.
8. Strong willed kids want to figure it out, so wait and make them ask for help
Strong willed kids seem to have a plan. They KNOW it’s going to work, even when you know it won’t. And sometimes they don’t want to hear your suggestions.
I’m tempted to step in too soon, it’s something I’m really working on NOT doing. For example, I know that Lego piece just won’t connect where she has it and I see her getting frustrated, but she doesn’t want my help…yet. So I’ll say, “Ok, I’ll be here to help if you ask me.”
I have also found that asking permission to help works really well. “Can I help you fix that?” Instead of “Let me help you fix that.” Don’t overthink it, because with time you will figure out what feels right to say.
Stubbornness can be such an asset in life, because they will not give up when things get tough! Stubbornness can also mean being too prideful to ask for help. So waiting till your stubborn toddler asks for help can encourage them to admit when they need it.
9. Stop branding them as strong willed or naughty while they are listening
I’m guilty of this.
Kids are always listening and will start to think of themselves as you say they are. You are only hurting yourself and your kid if you are talking about how strong willed they are or frustrating they are if they’re in earshot.
Instead, say things out loud you want to see more of! It’s so powerful! Like “Wow, I love how fast you got your shoes on after I asked. Good job!” Or, just save talking about your frustrations for a time when they are not around.
10. Set clear expectations before starting something
When strong willed kids get an idea in their mind, it’s really hard to get it out. But a little warning goes a long way I’ve found!
If we have to leave a friend’s house right after lunch, I’ll mention before lunch we will be leaving right after lunch. If I want her to come out my side of the van where it’s safer from cars and I can see her, I’ll mention that before I turn off the engine.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked my strong willed one to come out my side of the van only to hear well thought out excuses. Like “There’s no cars now mama” or “I’ll be super careful” or “It’s too messy to come out that way”. Which leads me to my next strategy.
P.S. if any of you can tell me how you keep a clean van, please share! Or send a car vacuum 😉
11. Yes mom, yes ma’am
When my strong willed one was 2.5 (and speaking full sentences, a shocking sight…) she’d ask why A LOT. Not the why that’s trying to understand how something works like “why does rain fall from the sky” (which would be a good question). But the “why do I have to put my shoes away” kind of why.
I started having her say “Ok mom”. And it was seriously magical. She would repeat it, then our back and forth was over. It went like this.
Me: “Want to help mom pack our lunches for nature group?”
Her: “Ya!” (and off she runs to grab all 3 of their Bento Boxes)
Me: “We can’t use those today, they take up too much room in my backpack”
Her: “But I’ll carry mine!”
Me: “Mom always ends up having to carry them, and I do not have enough hands to do that today on a long hike.”
Her: “I’ll carry them the whole time” (ya right…but she really loves packing these…)
Me: “Say ok mom” (Knowing she’ll ditch it in 5 minutes or whine about carrying it)
Sometimes I actually have the kids say “yes mom”, because I’m not southern enough to have them say “yes Ma’am” like everyone else here 😉 That’s what you get when you are raised in the Pacific North West.
12. Teach them to ask for things politely rather than tell you they want something
One thing I am working on daily with all my kids (not just my strong willed toddler) is to ask for things politely.
Instead of getting irritated when they demand “I want a snack”, I have them repeat after me saying “Can I have a snack please”. And when they repeat it I say, “Sure! Thanks for asking so nicely”.
Because strong willed kiddos can tend to be very good at being bossy, and telling you the plan, this helps to restore who’s in charge at home (mom & dad).
It also gives them a chance to do-over instead of jumping straight to a lecture about being rude…
And it has an easy natural consequence. If you don’t ask politely, you don’t get what you ask for. This has created such a change in the tone of our home! I feel more respected, and the kids are learning new polite habits.
This is also a super important tactic when you are teaching your toddler to be less whiney.
13. Pick your battles and compromise when you need to
When it comes to house rules, even strong willed kids have to obey like everyone else. But when it comes to the rest, it’s ok to let up a bit.
Example 1: I was getting pretty tired of so much push back from my opinionated one about what she wears. Colors and prints that don’t match. She likes bright prints grandma sends instead of the muted tones I love her in. And I can’t make myself get rid of all the pink stuff she loves…because she loves it.
So we came to a compromise. I pick her outfits on Sundays for church, and any occasion important to me. She picks the rest. This seemed to alleviate the daily fight.
Example 2: She wanted to put my earrings through her stuffed unicorn’s ears. I didn’t want her playing with my earrings, but didn’t really care about her making holes in the unicorn’s ear. I said “No, those are my nice earrings”.
So she went into my bathroom, found a different pair and said, “Remember these ones hurt your ears mom, so maybe I can use those”. Talk about smart! So I let her. O well if those ones get lost… after all they hurt my ears 😉
14. Spend more time together
I’m a stay at home mom, so I’m technically with my strong willed daughter all day. But I’m not always present.
By this I mean I’m often telling the kids to go play, go outside, or go do something that gives my ears some rest. But I have found when push away too much, her strong willed stubborn side comes out more. Which frustrates me more. Vicious cycle.
Quality time really helps. If you’ve got other kids or a baby and you sense your strong willed toddler needs more time with you, here’s a big list of ways to spend quality one on one time together, without having to hire a sitter or plan it in.
This may just be my kid and not yours, but a little one on one time on the couch, even 10 minutes just restores relationship and helps her want to please and do the right thing.
15. You don’t need to explain your rules to your strong willed toddler. Just have them.
I’ve spent a lot of time sharing how to be flexible with your opinionated strong willed little one. However, they also have to learn to respect rules.
There will be rules at home, rules at school, ways you act and ways you don’t in life. Once your toddler knows what those are, you can avoid so many power struggles IF they learn to follow rules. These will be unique to your family.
- “It’s the rule you have to wear shoes on the playground”.
- “It’s nap time! We always nap after lunch, it’s what we do”.
- “Mommy picks out your outfit for church. You can choose tomorrow. That’s how we always do it.”
- “You can’t come out of your room in the morning till the clock turns green.”
Disciplining a strong willed toddler
This should really be another post. But I think it’s important to get to know what works for your kid, and be flexible when you need to try something new.
The main thing is that discipline must be coming from love, not anger.
We often say, “It makes us sad to have to discipline you, but when you don’t listen, that’s what we have to do.”
I love this post on disciplining a strong willed child. And I agree that the sweet spot of parenting a strong willed child is establishing yourself as a “strong and respectful leader, not a dictator or doormat”.
More resources for parenting a strong willed toddler
Before you take anyones advice on parenting, do a little research to see what their philosophy is. Same goes for this blog. Ask yourself why should you do it that way, what tends to be the long term outcome of doing it that way, or not?
How are their kids turning out? Are they respectful? Do they listen to their mom and dad? Do they show signs of self control? Just food for thought. Here are a few posts I really enjoyed reading:
What sets them off? Understanding your strong willed child from Focus on the Family
Understanding their temperament by Nurture and Thrive Blog
What are some ways you have found work well (or not!) with your strong willed child? Leave a comment below!