Tips for Coping with Strong-Willed Children

Reader Selena writes in a comment:

“I’m currently dealing with a very (!) strong willed busy 3 yr old and trying not to use material rewards. I prefer using positive reinforcement as a tool . . . hugs and praise when she makes a good choice (i.e. use words or get help instead of lashing out on her little brother when he bothers her).”

Children are born with different temperaments. Some are quiet, introverted and compliant. But some are loud, disruptive and well, defiant not compliant. It gets really frustrating when a child decides that he does not like your plan for the day, or that she will not stop pouring paint on the carpet, hitting her brother or screaming.

Intervening often makes it worse, because these children seem to thrive on noise and tension. Yet if you do nothing, you feel like a helpless wimp. And you worry about how this all affects the other children in the family, if you have them. Most of all, you wonder how you will possibly stay sane. 

A while back I managed to write some sensible things about dealing with challenging children. To summarize:

  1. Let go of guilt.
  2. Get your partner involved.
  3. Make time for yourself.
  4. Don’t allow physical or emotional abuse, including among siblings. Never let children abuse you either.
  5. Maximize time for positive relationships with the challenging child. Someone outside the immediate family may be better at connecting for the time being.
  6. Get help from a support group, counselor or therapist as needed.

Many of these are long term solutions, and don’t help you deal with the events as they are happening.

What techniques work for you when an excitable child spins things out of control? Can you give suggestions for Selena, and the many other readers dealing with strong-willed kids?


Tips on Staying Home and Staying Sane

Staying Sane with a Challenging Child

image: mdanys



  1. be very consistant—in terms of what you allow and what you don’t.these kids need very,very clear bounderies.they are smart and will figure out inconsistancies—so be firm. absolutely no tolerance for violence against a sibling or destruction of property.”you’re not a big enough girl to play with x–so mommy is taking it away until you are bigger” and take it away for a few weeks.before you give x back–remind her that if she is destructive, you will take it away again.

    you may want to ask the gannenet(knidy teacher) how she deals with the “strong willed child”.

    make sure that your child gets plenty of sleep—when my “challenging child” was tired she ws “more of a challenge”.

    i found the book–“how to talk so children will listen and how to listen so children will talk” very helpful.
    short term counseling sessions with a child psychologist can also be of use—sometimes getting another perspective,getting other coping strategies from an outside ,neutral source is good.also–you can then vent your frustration in a “safe” setting.

    be patient—-these kids are amazing when given the right limits and the right encouragemwent

    • Completely agree about being firm and consistent. Positive reinforcement is good, but sometimes not enough with these kids. They just need lots of boundaries and those boundaries constantly need to be reinforced. You also need backup from your partner because it can be exhausting. The reinforcement should be as calm as possible, however infuriating the behavior is. A shrill response means the child has succeeded in getting a rise out of you, which pretty much reinforces the annoying behavior. 🙁

      The truth is, I think those nanny shows, as annoying as they can be, can be helpful at times in learning how to deal with kids like these, particularly the Israeli Super Nanny and the BBC Little Angels shows with Tanya Byron. Both women are no nonsense and very non-sensationalist. I think they really have the best interests of both parents and kids at heart. Good luck. It’s not easy.

  2. Toda raba!!! Thanks for posting this Hannah! When I wrote this comment, I was at the breaking point… Shai’s not violent but extremely high spirited and knows her own mind– a little too smart for her own good!
    I had to stop and look at what was going on in her life to make her craziness kick into overdrive! We’d just come back from a month in Israel (being spoiled by family/friends), had just packed up house, moved into a new home and toilet training. I guess I didn’t realise that I was bringing her to the breaking point.
    After asking for advice from friends, family and strangers (yes, I was desperate!), I’m beginning to try the following– carefully choose my battles BUT still keep firm/consistent when she misbehaves, keep her busy with activities at times I know she’s more likely to get bored and out of control, take time with just the two of us away from her baby brother and take more time for myself.
    I also just got in touch with the local Chabad to see if I can sign her up for a toddler playgroup.
    So far, things are slowly improving… would LOVE to hear some more tips!

  3. Strong incentives and firm, consistent consequences (that doesn’t mean striking a child) are helpful.

    Staying calm is helpful. And never, ever giving a child what she wants in order to stop a meltdown or tantrum is critical.

    Sleep and proper nutrition for the child is very helpful.

    A sedative for the mother is helpful (kidding – at least I think so 🙂

  4. The advice above is good advice: setting boundaries, being consistent, and not showing anger: being calm when you secretly feel like exploding (that’s one of the hardest parts!). Also, positive reinforcing of wanted behaviors, and redirecting when appropriate and possible.
    I would also add, building empathy for others is a very important value in raising children. From a very young age (infancy), it is important to reinforce “gentle” behavior and caring for others. In teaching and working with infants (who are now young toddlers 14-18 months), I have seen them develop from little ‘animals’ ‘potching’ each other, to smiling at each other and caressing each other, and toddling over to hug their friends who needed comforting, fell down, hurt themselves, etc. It gives me such a warm feeling to see this.

  5. It really amazes me that parents have the ability to collaborate and ‘ work with ‘ infants following their cues, being responsive to their needs and concerns and then when kids are older change to a doing to mindset using positive reinforcement , rewards and consequences to get compliance. Positive reinforcement or treating kids like pets giving them doggie biscuits just motivates them to get more rewards and reinforces nothing. Success and failure should be experienced as information, as feedback , not as reward or punishment. Boundaries and limits are important , but what is more important is how we set limits, parents alone in a unilateral way or together with kids , so they learn to internalize the limit , make it their own by understanding the underlying value. When a rule is broken , the situation demands a punishment , but when ‘ expectations’ are not being we ask how can we help our kid , what is getting in his way. Kids would prefer to do well and be adaptive , so they do not lack motivation . Kids don’t need Skinner drive extrinsic motivators like time -outs or positive reinforcements , they need help with coping skills. Positive reinforcements have another problem is that kids experience them as conditional love – you are loved more – get verbal praise , hugs etc when you perform , time-out = love withdrawel when you don’t perform. And then there are values , we want kids to appreciate the importance of consequences – not what will happen to you or what you will get , but how you impact on others. Healthy developments depends on healthy attachments and trust , and using seduction to control or positive reinforecements does the opposite.

    So what should we do when a kid is spinning out of control – We must first realize that problems are rarely solved in the moment and that your kid and you are not rational and calm enough for that . Secondly – the work is ‘ out of themoment – being proactive and collaborating with kids solving problems that are predictably and reliably occuring .So the best we can do is to try and distract and redirect , calm them down , let themhave their comfort corner

    out of the moment – do cps see my blogpost below collaborative problem solving – 3 yo hitting

  6. Before I saw that the person who posted was not living here, I was going to write that being obstinate/strong minded is an excellent characteristic for living in Israel.

    But for those with children like that in Israel, I have one child like, all the time I said to myself, “it is difficult now, but being an adult who can hold their own and stand up for themselves is a good characteristic…” I kept telling myself, that not letting people walk over you, or things like that, is good in a grownup, it is just hard for us, the parents” (in short, s/he wont be a frier…)

    Today he is a wonderful person, he decides to do things, he carries them out. He sets himself goals, and nothing can stop him fulfilling them. He is well equipped to survive in Israeli society.

    So that was another perspective.

    I have to second the reccomendation of the books, “How to talk so children will listen and listen so children will talk” You can google this. Excellent, ideas that really work straight away. It is difficult to bring up children like this, but they come out nicely in the end.

    • Thank you for your encouraging words and perspective, Keren. It’s nice to hear from someone with a grown spirited child. I will definitely have to take a look at that book. Thanks for the recommendation!

      At the moment, we live in Canada. My husband is Israeli and we haven’t ruled out living there in the future. For now, we generally visit once a year (3-4 weeks at a time). My Israeli relatives think I’m crazy and that Shai is completely normal and very Israeli ;). They tell me the same– it’s all good traits that make for a good strong adult.
      I guess, at times, it’s frustrating because it takes a lot of extra time and energy dealing with this type of child. The results are not always instant 😉 I know it will all pay off in the end. Shai’s definitely worth the effort 😉
      So nice to hear that your son turned out well ? You give me hope!

  7. sylvia_rachel says

    My daughter (who’s now almost 10) was a very challenging 3-year-old — I used to think all the time, Why do people talk about the “terrible twos”? Have none of them ever met a three-year-old?? I didn’t have the challenge that many people have, in that I didn’t also have a baby and/or an older child needing my energy and attention (although I did, and do, have a full-time job).

    Some of the things that helped have already been mentioned: making sure she got enough sleep (not always easy: she is not a fan of transitions, including going to sleep), trying not to stress her out when she was hungry and incipiently cranky, being consistent about what behaviour is acceptable, trying not to spend the whole day saying NO, redirecting, encouraging and modelling gentle interactions, trying very very hard to keep my cool. I didn’t always succeed. I spent a lot of time talking and explaining and reasoning (these days she calls it “lecturing” ;)), because she has always been a kid who wants to know WHY we do X and don’t do Y, and she doesn’t like it when rules apply to her but not to us ;).

    One of the main things I did was to remind myself, over and over again as necessary, that as difficult as it can be to have a 3-year-old, it’s even harder to BE a 3-year-old. Adults have hopefully at least some idea how to handle strong emotions, how to deal with disappointment when things don’t turn out the way we wanted/expected. We understand that sometimes the spaghetti the server brings you does not look exactly like the spaghetti of your imagination. We expect that setbacks will sometimes happen … yet we still throw the occasional tantrum 😉

    Also, I found it very helpful to make sure that questions are really questions and instructions are really instructions. To remind myself to make this distinction with DD, I would think about how much I didn’t like it when my mom would ask me if I wanted brussels sprouts (my least favourite vegetable) and then, when I said “No, thank you,” would give me a big helping anyway. And when I would forget and say “Hold my hand while we cross the street, okay?” I would sometimes have to give myself a do-over: “I’m sorry. What I meant to say was, You need to hold my hand while we cross the street.” Don’t sound like you’re offering choices when you aren’t! It just makes everybody frustrated.

    But it is good to offer choices. Three-year-olds have way more desire to control their lives than they have wisdom to make good choices or opportunities to choose. So picking your battles is key. (IMO this is part of taking care of yourself — not setting yourself up to fail — and letting go of guilt — the guilt you feel when your child is being a little so-and-so and you are convinced (a) that everyone is judging you and (b) that it really is your fault.) One frequent battleground at this age seems to be clothing. Does that need to be a fight? Assuming that all the available clothing choices are more or less age-appropriate, meet whatever your family’s standards of modesty are, and are clean, does it matter what the child chooses? (I used to wonder, when DD was little, how come so many of her friends were such snappy dressers, while I had this kid whose idea of a really awesome outfit was four different pieces of clothing with four wildly conflicting patterns: “See, Mama? Everything matches because it’s all STRIPED!” Then a few years ago I discovered the secret: those other mums tell their kids what to wear.)

    Another thing: Little kids sometimes have a lot of trouble hearing the words “No” and “Don’t” and sometimes even “Stop”. So sometimes you can have a lot more success with “You can run around in the backyard” than with “Stop running in the house!”

  8. Not much to add that hasn’t already been said except to say that I adore Selena and love that you featured her question/issue, which is a good one. There are great tips here. I especially find attempting to explain anything to the little guys is utterly futile. Consistency, boundaries, follow through–yes, yes, and yes!

    And ultimately, remember that YOU are in charge. Sometimes you might have to remind yourself, but the kids are not in charge. Period.

  9. Thank you all for the wonderful ideas–you are giving “hizuk” (strength/encouragement) to parents who are struggling with strong-willed kids.

    • I can’t thank you enough 🙂 So many great tips. I really needed this- “hizuk”! …and thanks for teaching me a new word to use with hubby!
      Hannah, your site is amazing (I also enjoy the articles you post on your FB page). You’ve really created such a wonderful supportive community.

  10. Nina says ,
    I especially find attempting to explain anything to the little guys is utterly futile.

    I agree that talking does not help and the reason is that we are doing the talking

  11. Thank you Selena, for initiating this thread, and Hannah, for giving it an audience. It’s a great boost to know that other parents have met with the same challenges to the usual pat answers, and to have the reminders to keep doing what I often know I need to be doing!

    • You’re right Nati, it is a boost 🙂
      I’m just SO excited too hear what others are doing- some of it is techniques I’m already using and some is new info. It’s great encouragement/validation that I’m on the right track and should continue. It’s a slow battle with the results not always instant so it’s wonderful to hear especially from those with grown children.
      I love the feedback on Hannah’s site. It’s always constructive and honest. no crazy mummy/parenting wars stuff that you’ll find elsewhere.

      • Thanks to both of you for the kind words. Selena, what a sweet comment. Unfortunately we are not completely free of the mommy wars here but we try to keep them to a minimum.

  12. Lots of good advice. Another good book is Setting Limits with Your Strong Willed Child by Ian McKenzie.

    Limit explanations and discussions, especially with younger children. Don’t be afraid to sound like a broken record, nor to assert authority. I’m not suggesting that you ignore what your child wants, and just giving orders without ever giving any explanation. But, everything needs to be limited, and it’s important to the child (and your mental health) to keep things from turning into interminable arguments or even “discussions” – especially with a toddler who really doesn’t have the capacity to act in an adult manner.

  13. We had this problem with our son. He is so strong willed that when he was 18 months, he could walk, but simply refused to do so outside the house. He would scream for hours rather than do something we asked him to do. I am not a pushover parent, and I can usually remain calm, but he drove me straight to the edge of my sanity. After he had difficulty in preschool,we met with a pediatric psychologist when he was 3. She spent 45 minutes with him, figured him out, told us how to work with him, and said she didn’t need to see us again.

    Basically, strong-willed kids want to make their own choices and be in control, not be told what to do. So all we needed to do is phrase things in a way that lets him make the choice, with a clear understanding of what the natural rewards and consequences will be.

    Instead of saying, “put away your toys” or “don’t hit your brother”, we had to say:
    “You can either put away your toys and then we can go to the park, or you if you don’t clean your toys, you will be sent to your room. Which one do you want?” Then, instead of looking at is as defiance, (my child not listening to me) it was simply a choice he made. Instead of me punishing him with anger, I was just carrying out his choice. You have to be 100% consistent and carry out whichever rewards and consequences you need – they will quickly learn you mean business. There is no room for discussion. No wasting time negotiating. In this moment, this is the choice to make, and then you have to accept whatever comes next.

    I know this sound like extra effort, but it works 100%. My son is 7 now. Last night he didn’t want to take a shower and started to throw a temper tantrum. I told him “You can take a shower now, or you can get punished in your room for 5 minutes, and then take a shower.” He chose to be punished, calmed down, then took a shower. I didn’t get angry for a second.

    • Lexie, thanks for your comment. Does your son always accept his punishment willingly?

    • Selena Azugy says

      I’ve also started to give two very simply choices and have found a big difference in Shai’s behaviour. I’ve realised that I was part of the problem. i wan’t being clear enough.
      Glad to hear this technique works long term 🙂

  14. Ms. Krieger says

    Everyone’s comments about setting boundaries, being consistent, and suggesting an alternate activity (running around outside instead of in the kitchen) are all good.

    I have one more than I have not seen yet– containment. When my three year old becomes completely physically out of control (rampaging around hitting, pulling hair, etc.) and will not stop or even stay in one place, I put her in the crib. (A big crib that converts into a toddler bed.) It has very high walls and she cannot climb out, and it physically contains her and allows her to calm down.

    We had to do this a lot when she was age two and three. I think it has helped her, because now that she is three and a half, she has learned to contain herself (most of the time.) If she is out of control, I point it out to her and say she needs a time out. She (usually) walks herself over to the stairs and sits on the step until I come and get her. If she is extremely upset she will go to her room and lay in her bed. I have been very impressed with this lately. Have not had to jail her in the crib for a month or two. (And yes, let’s be frank, it is jailing. But sometimes we need external limits to teach us internal limits.)

  15. Another thing with children who have a tendency to spin out of control. These children tend to need to stopped much earlier than other children. You have to know you child – some kids can get goofy or upset and it stays at that, so it gets counter productive to try to stop that. However, there are some children (I had one like that) who quickly spun out of control of she was allowed to get more than a very little wild, upset or goofy. Stopping her short at the beginning of the process worked much better for her – and for everyone else around her. (This lasted well past her third birthday…) She was much happier overall when we (parents and teachers) followed through on that.

  16. This is a really great post Hannah. We got a lot of great advice that we hope will be useful. We hope 🙂

  17. I like number 5. Sometimes I see something in a store that would make my daughter so happy, but she’s been so ungrateful and disrespectful. So I sign it from “Bubbe.” 😛