“I think I might possibly have a strong-willed child”-said no parent ever.
If you have a strong-willed or “spirited” (as it was rebranded) child, you know it. You know what feels like stubborn on steroids and you’ve lived through tantrums that are more like hostage standoffs. Maybe you’ve offered every reward from candy to Chuck E Cheese to cash$$ to get your child to cooperate or you’ve threatened to take away a prized possession to no avail. You know that transitions are impossible for strong-willed children. Their opinions are like a Crossfit competition-insanely strong and seemingly crazy. They produce enough tears to irrigate the Sahara and stir up enough drama to make Jerry Springer proud. Once they have set their mind to something, there is no going back.
No one “wonders if” their child might be strong-willed. They either seek out some explanation for their child’s behavior (WTF am I doing wrong?!) and have an aha! moment, or maybe some other parent of a spirited child tips them off. Realizing you have a spirited child is a mix of relief (It’s not just me!) and fear (now what?!)
I realized early on that my oldest child’s temperament was not like other kids’. He was certainly colicky, but there was something about him that seemed very intense. Not just stubborn. Not just defiant. Very determined, persistent, and frustrating as hell.
As a toddler and preschooler he would scream at playdates, argue with me about seemingly meaningless things, and demand my attention and energy in a way that his peers were not. I would leave playgrounds and play dates in tears because I couldn’t figure out why he was acting that way. He had an opinion on EVERYTHING. He didn’t want to play what anyone else was playing. He refused to wear weather appropriate clothing even if it was his favorite shirt. He wouldn’t eat anything I presented even if it was his favorite food, including cake. He somehow controlled when he would sleep through sheer will (i.e. not at 3 a.m. or during nap time, but 5:00 p.m. was perfect.) I remember actually fighting about the color of the sky and the order of the alphabet. I was exasperated and I chalked it up to poor parenting skills on my part.
I realized how atypical my oldest’s behavior was when his younger siblings were born. My daughter goes with the grain, for the most part, whereas her brothers don’t just go against the grain, they plow down any grain in their path.*
So what do you do with a strong-willed/spirited child? Well, I’m definitely still learning, but the best advice I’ve gotten is that you don’t have to join every argument to which you are invited. There will be constant arguments, but trying to verbally spar with the strong-willed child is usually hopeless. When I do argue with my strong-willed ones, I don’t want either of us to “lose” the battle. If I win, he loses. If he wins, I lose. I make sure to pick my battles.
I’ve also learned (more about) is setting limits for my strong-willed kids without crushing their spirit.** My mother says my oldest is “on fire,” and I love this analogy. He is constantly burning, igniting, and torching his own path. He is passionate and often scorches those around him with his determination and passion. My challenge as his parent is to find a balance so his fire doesn’t extinguish or rage out of control. I try my best to let him be in control as much as he can be. He often chooses what to have for dinner (see this post) and make his own decisions in terms of clothes and his physical abilities (see this post). It has not been easy, but now that he is in school I see many people and institutions trying to crush his spiritedness, and that’s hard to watch, too.
My other advice is to do yourself a favor and find other parents who also have at least one strong-willed kid. It is incredibly comforting to be with people who understand the struggles you face every day. Playdates where all the kids have epic meltdowns and fight constantly are the norm, but no one cares. If you are lucky (as I have been) theses parents may turn out to be pretty great people, too.
Spirit/strong will is a powerful and wonderful personality trait to possess. It’s also frustrating and exhausting for strong-willed children-and their parents.Writings on spirited children list famous leaders who were likely strong-willed kids (and continue to be strong-willed adults…it doesn’t just fade away). I’m not holding out for a future president, but I am looking forward to days when they are arguing with someone besides me.
*My younger son is not only spirited/strong-willed, but also has the diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). I sometimes say SPD is like strong willed on steroids, but it is much more complex. I written about SPD here and here.
**This is a big theme in Raising your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurinka. A great resource for parents looking for help with their strong-willed ones.