7 ways to melt the heart of your strong-willed child

Picture courtesy of http://www.essentialkids.com.au/older-kids/behaviour-and-discipline-for-older-kids/the-six-different-ways-parents-get-angry-with-their-kids-20110921-1kkv4.html

Photo courtesy of http://essentialkids.com.au

There have been times in my life that I have struggled with my strong-willed boy (I am intentionally leaving his name out) so much that I was a failure as a mother at many points in his life.  There were times that were so stressful, it felt like there was nothing that could solve this problem.

I remember one time in particular, asking him to do clean his room, and then ending up in a battle over it (obviously, he didn’t want to do it). I insisted that he calm down, but it seemed like he would just get louder, and louder in response.   Eventually, I ended up holding him in my lap, telling him I would hold him there with me till he calmed down… and that took a full hour and a half of him kicking and screaming in my arms until he fell asleep from exhaustion.  It was pure torture…and there were many such incidents, and each one left me horribly depressed.

I remember reading website after website, and book after book, just desperately trying everything under the sun to make his behavior more manageable.  Nothing I tried seemed to work.  I finally started worrying that maybe there was no solution to our problem.

I began seeing over time that I have to remember that my son is different from the other children, and as such, he requires a different approach.  He is a unique individual with a different “love language” than the other children, or even I have.  Over time, I became more sensitive to what he personally responded to.

I also realized that before I can even TRY to deal with his behavior, I have to first deal with my own.  Once I began the painful process of analyzing myself, I had to admit to myself that are many times that I became frustrated with his forceful and loud attitude, and would raise my voice to match his.  There are many times that I would go on long lectures (rants) about this or that, and bore him to death instead of reaching his heart. There are many times that I would respond with sarcasm, or I would mimic him (hoping that if he heard how he sounded, he would stop).  I was desperate, and I was not acting from a secure place where I was free to love him in the way a mother should.  I just didn’t know what to do, or where to turn.

Then one day I listened to this pastor who was talking about how to win the heart of your rebellious child, and he mentioned certain things that really convicted my heart and made me really feel the effects of the errors in my attitude and behavior.  After listening to him, praying to God, and repenting about the behavior I saw, I made a decision to treat my son differently from then on.

This is something that can’t happen overnight, at least not for me.  I would try, and fail ,many times in the following years.  And I still fail today!   But I notice a dramatic improvement from then till now, and I no longer have those unbearable tantrums coming from him…instead, I have a son who actually offers to help me and seems to see me as a friend as well as a parent.

Here are 7 things that I have done that have changed things for us:

1.)  I make he understands he is loved no matter what he does.

I started noticing that he took any criticism as a personal attack on his whole being.  So he would lash out in defense of himself, believing I was against him instead of understanding that I was only critical of his behavior.  Once I understood this, I empathized with him much more, and I felt so sorry for ever giving him this impression at all.

From then on, I made an effort to sit down and affirm how much I loved him, and hugging him and telling him that while I loved him, I hate to see that kind of behavior coming from him.  I told him that I knew he was capable of much better, and I reminded him of all the kind things he has done.

2.) I started spending more one on one time with him. 

I am still guilty of lacking in this area sometimes.  However, I have noticed that since I began spending more quality time with just my son (which is sometimes difficult when you have 6 children to take care of), he has responded in such a positive way. He loves to feel special, and loves to have an arm around his shoulder as he draws a picture.  He loves to know that I am watching and admiring his capabilities when he performs a stunt on his bicycle.

3.) I started praising him more often, sincerely.

I should mention that anything other than sincere praise is flattery, and your child will see right through it. So  I have made a conscious effort to take the time to look for things that my son has done that are positive, and to bring them up and praise him enthusiastically for it.   You should see his face beam when I do this.  He thrives on that praise.

4.) I stop focusing on his failures and am not as critical of his faults.

Sadly, I had previously sort of felt a “me against him” mentality (due to the seemingly constant stress and struggle), and I remembered to myself that “love doesn’t keep a record of wrongs”.  I decided that what I really needed to do was to forgive him of the past failures, and not keep bringing them up in my mind when something new would happen.

I heard Michelle Duggar (reality star of 19 Kids and Counting!) once say that you should praise a child 10 times more than you criticize.   That is easier said than done, but I can see improvement over the years and it is becoming easier to do this the more I put it into practice.

5.)  I try to understand things from his point of view.

Many times I have been guilty of forgetting what it’s like to be a child.  When you are a parent and you have bigger responsibilities and bigger problems…sometimes it is easy to minimize a valid concern your child has.  Many times I would be having what I felt was a HUGE problem…and my son would come to me with what I felt was a “little” problem….and I would dismiss him almost immediately.  I feel so bad thinking back on that, because I know now that to him, those things are the BIG things. And when I was little, I would have wanted someone to understand my “little” problems and care about them!   Now I try to listen more fully to what he is saying and respond in an understanding manner.

6.) When he is speaking to me, I try to always make good eye contact and listen.  

This one is kind of hard for me…not just because I get distracted by all the things going on during the day, but also because my son has a habit of running all over the place while he talks to me. It’s kind of funny (I am trying to teach him to stand still so I can look into his eyes while he talks, but it takes practice! He’s just very active.)  Even if he doesn’t, I simply listen well, and try to understand what he’s saying so that I can respond appropriately.  This has benefited a lot, because he feels like I actually care about what he has to say. It’s a huge deal to him.

7.) I hug him every day, no matter how old he gets.

I think a lot of times, I used to believe he didn’t want to be hugged, if he was being grouchy or defensive, it just seemed like he would probably push me away if I tried…but I learned quickly that my boy CRAVES hugs.  In fact, back when he was still having tantrums, I had read in one of Truett Cathy’s books (owner of Chick Fil A who passed away last month), It’s Better to Build Boys than to Mend Men, that he would take in foster children, and when they would act up, he would pick them up, sit with them in a rocking chair, and lovingly “rock the mean out of them”.  That made such an impression on me that one day I tried it, while saying, “I love you”, “I love you” again and again.   I was AMAZED at how well he responded to it.  He smiled and leaned on me, just like a little child.  It warmed my heart, and I think healed us both in many ways.

My son has changed and grown so much over the years, and I believe wholeheartedly that these things helped very much.  Have you had to work with a strong-willed child?  What are some techniques that helped you along the way? I would love to hear your opinions.

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19 thoughts on “7 ways to melt the heart of your strong-willed child

  1. Ronna Stanley

    Great article, we have 7 children ( 2 still home + adopting 3 extended grand babies under 4. Strong willed at times is putting it mildly as culture and household environment is being relearned from thier infancy. thanks you for the parenting reminders, Blessings-peace

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    1. Bethany Post author

      Ronna, it sounds like you have a really big challenge! 3 under the age of 4, wow! That is definitely hard. I hope that things will get easier on you very soon. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Momys.com, but check it out. It stands for “Moms to many young siblings”, and has a discussion forum where you can find lots of advice for rearing many small children all at once. It makes life so much easier when you have support of others who have been in your shoes!

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  2. Christina

    This is a timely article for me. My son is three and strong willed to the extreme. My husband and I are praying for a way to capture his heart. Your post gives me some things to try. I know the change has to start with me. Thank you!

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    1. Bethany

      I’m so sorry to hear that, Christina! I hope that things will get easier for you very soon. I know how difficult it can be. I once read a book that was wonderful for helping me with this … It gave a great idea of “tomato staking”…

      Basically, the idea is to keep the child (the one you’re having problems with) by your side all day – ALL day – so that you can be there to correct problems immediately before they get out of hand. They have to stay there while you clean, while you do your daily tasks. It seems like they would hate this treatment but I think it actually ends up being a treat for them because they get to know you better and feel closer to you. It helps heal your relationship. The book is called “Raising Godly Tomatoes”. I think you can find it on amazon.com.

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  3. Jessica

    My husband and I were both strong-willed growing up, so our son has a double dose of it! He is 8 now, and over the past several years, I have tried many different things to reach his heart. The thing I have found most effective is whenever his rebellion starts to come out:
    I take a deep breath.
    I lower my voice.
    I make us both sit down next to each other (or he in my lap).
    I relate what he’s doing to a story (or person) in the Bible.
    I end with showing him what his attitude and actions are telling God–I make his behavior less about him and me and more about God. When he can see the big picture (not just–I’m not getting my way and I’m mad about that–but more–Jesus suffered and died for me and I’m basically spitting in his face right now), his heart breaks over his behavior.
    As the days/weeks/months go on, his heart breaks earlier and earlier in this process.

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  4. Staci

    My middle daughter is so strong willed. My mom says she is just like my middle brother. He had her so upset once that she walked over to a window and my oldest brother begged my mom not to jump! LOL I do find that making my daughter feel special, paying attention to her, and being loving help. But other times, I respond how you said you did in the beginning. I will mimic her, compare her with her older sister, etc. All BAD things to do, I know. I keep praying for wisdom. She has so many good qualities, but her attitude make those seem so pale in comparison. We also have a very angry bus kid at church. He’s always so hateful, rude, and angry. Lately, I have been trying to thank him when he is well behaved, place a hand on his shoulder when we stand to sing, smile at him a lot. This week, I was holding his 5-year-old sister. He passed me a note asking if I loved her. I passed it back with, “Yes, and I love you, too!” He seemed shocked. Then he half smiled and put the paper away. Hoping to become better responding at all the tough kids the Lord has put in my life!

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    1. Bethany Post author

      It is HARD to respond in love when a child has the poor attitude. But it is something we must do if we want to reach their heart. I have found that my strong willed boy masks his deep emotions of insecurity by attempting to act strong an arrogant and defensive.

      Once I realized this, I was able to see all of those acts of pride and rudeness as a desperate attempt for me to show him that I loved him unconditionally.

      Don’t beat yourself up if you fail… We all do! Just tell your child humbly that you were wrong and apologize when you know you’ve responded in a way that was not loving.

      Then seek to so better again. You may have to apologize 100 times before it becomes a habit… But don’t give up! It’s worth it.

      When you admit to your child you’ve been wrong (without qualifying it with excuses), you:
      1. Teach them how to apologize themselves by your example
      2. Develop humility in yourself
      3. Soften their heart toward you.

      I hope that your relationship with your daughter improves, and I’m sure it will because it sounds like you love her and are trying your best!

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  5. Christine

    Amazing article! I wish I would have read this 20 years ago. My oldest is now 22 and in jail. Breaks my heart. I have a 17yo heading in the same direction and we adopted another. He is only 3 now, but I do see a lot of the same tendencies in him. Maybe, just maybe I will get it better this time around. Thank you very much for this article!

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