The Strong-Willed Toddler: Peaceful Parenting Strategies for Success
- About 10% of children are genetically predisposed to having a strong-willed temperament. It has nothing to do with passive parenting or your child being “bad” or “rebellious.”
- All toddlers are willful and prone to meltdowns from time to time. It’s important to differentiate between typical toddler behavior and being strong-willed.
- A strong-willed child tends to engage in power struggles and is less adaptive, more controlling, and highly emotional.
- There are many ways you can use positive parenting to nurture your child’s gifts for leadership when parenting a strong-willed toddler.
Is your son or daughter a boss baby? Do they engage in epic power struggles with you and other caregivers? Are they doggedly persistent, highly determined, and prone to big, emotional outbursts if they don’t get their way? Then congratulations! It sounds like you have a strong-willed child.
Having a strong-willed child is something to be proud of. Strong-willed kids are incredibly special human beings. They are the most likely of all personality types to grow into high income earners—they often become CEOs and esteemed leaders in their communities. Do you think any presidents or billionaire entrepreneurs were not first strong-willed young children?
Why Are Some Toddler’s So Strong-Willed?
Toddlerhood is a time when your baby transitions from wanting comfort, closeness, and their basic needs met to needing autonomy. This means that they’re seeking to be self-sufficient and want to do everything for themselves. Surely you have cringed while waiting impatiently for your child to pour their own cup of milk or zip up their jacket. This is their autonomy in action.
This is a normal developmental stage for all children, but what makes a toddler strong willed? It’s their temperament, which is the biologically based foundation for their unique personality. It has nothing to do with how strict your parenting is or isn’t.
How Do I Know If I Have a Strong-Willed Toddler?
Any parent of a strong-willed child will tell you that they could see their child’s determination and vigor since birth, and that parenting a strong-willed toddler is dramatically different than raising a clingy toddler, or a passive, go-with-the-flow child.
Strong willed toddlers tend to:
- Engage in power struggles.
- Want to control the behavior of others when playing.
- Have emotional outbursts and meltdowns when they don’t get their way.
- Be determined and persistent.
- Be highly active.
- Be less inhibited in activities they want to do, but more inhibited when it’s something they don’t want to do.
- Become distractible and disinterested in things they don’t feel a motivation to engage in.
If you are unsure if your toddler’s aggression is normal and are beginning to worry, please consult with your pediatrician or a child psychologist.
Is it Good or Bad that My Toddler is Strong-Willed?
Strong-willed kids are a challenge, but this characteristic is also a blessing. For one, strong-willed children are less susceptible to peer pressure than other kids. When your toddler is driving you up the wall with their determination and demands to know “why?” remember that they’re more likely to stick to their values and not be swayed when they’re teenagers.
These children are often terrific teens, inclined to do what’s right, regardless of the situation or person pressuring them. They’re natural leaders and set examples for those around them. As young adults, they come up with innovative ideas and nothing stops them from pursuing their passions.
However, strong-willed children require firm, clear boundaries and leadership. If they don’t have rules to follow, a strong-willed toddler will often cause chaos in your home. With clearly defined, fair rules and an emphasis on self-discipline, manners, and politeness (an often-neglected trait of the strong-willed child), your toddler’s temperament will become their greatest asset and superpower.
What’s the Best Way to Parent a Strong-Willed Toddler?
Avoid Power Struggles
Your strong-willed daughter or son needs parents who are in charge. Preemptive parenting strategies, often referred to as front-loading, include anticipating triggering events and proactively handling the situation. This is especially useful for mitigating bedtime tantrums, which are common for all toddlers.
For example, imagine your spirited child is insisting on buckling his car seatbelt himself even though you’re running late for a doctor’s appointment. If you buckle the belt yourself, he’s going to scream, “I do it!” and have a big, emotional outburst that could last for hours.
Instead, try offering him a job that gives him a sense of autonomy and importance but is unrelated to the seatbelt. Try saying something like, “I need your help, buddy. Can you be in charge of this shopping list for me today?” It could be anything, a small object or task that gives him an important job and distracts him from his need to control the situation. And without realizing it, your toddler is buckled up and you’re on the road.
Acknowledge Big Feelings
When your toddler feels like her passionate feelings aren’t being heard, they’re likely to get bigger. It’s tempting, but try not to say things like, “It’s not a big deal.” Remember, it’s not a big deal to you, but it might be a big deal to them.
Dismissing your toddler’s big feelings will only cause frustration and prolonged fits of anger. Instead, try offering sympathy, and put yourself in your child’s perspective.
With strong-willed children it’s best to highlight the good in the situation, no matter how small it may be. This empowers them and helps them process intense emotions.
Provide a Brief Explanation
The key is to keep it brief. Strong willed children are experts at demanding explanation after explanation, even as toddlers. Over-explaining yourself isn’t helpful during a tantrum and only gives them wiggle room to dominate the situation.
Give your child an explanation that shows there’s a reason behind your rules that aren’t simply to control them. But maintain a firm stance on your role as the authority and parent. Strong willed toddlers often get caught up in the feeling of disappointment or frustration without understanding that the reason behind it isn’t personal.
Examples of strong-willed kids’ power struggles, what to say, and what to avoid saying:
- Your toddler refuses to hold your hand while walking through a busy parking lot.
Avoid saying, “It’s not safe! You could get hit by a car.”
Instead try, “You must hold my hand when walking through the parking lot because this helps me to keep you safe.” Explaining why it’s not safe is unnecessary and could further instigate the situation.
- Your child hits his brother for taking his toy.
Avoid saying, “Stop hitting! You’re so aggressive.”
Instead try, “Hitting is not allowed, even though you’re angry. Use your words next time and say, ‘toy back please’.” Avoid using labels that could make your child feel bad and insecure. Even terms like “strong-willed” in front of your child can make them insecure.
- Your child barks orders at you and is being rude.
Avoid saying, “You don’t talk to me that way!”
Instead try, “Can you try a kinder way to ask me for that?” Many strong-willed toddlers don’t understand how they come across. Simple redirection, with an emphasis on the positive like, “It makes my heart so happy when you say please and thank you,” are great ways to change their way of speaking.
- Your toddler has an intense emotional outburst over not getting the color cup he wanted.
Avoid saying, “It’s just a cup, it’s not a big deal!”
Instead try, “I see you have some really big feelings right now and that’s OK. I’m here if you think a hug might help you calm down.” If they’re not hurting anybody, give them space to feel and process big emotions.
- Your child only eats a couple of bites of her dinner.
Avoid saying, “You didn’t eat anything. I’m not making you anything else.”
Instead try, “I like that you tried a bite of your peas. I’m proud of you for trying something new,” and leave it at that.
Even as toddlers, strong-willed children love to find loopholes and ways to get away with things. Therefore, you need to keep your explanations brief and firm. If they’re asking for something that’s reasonable but not at the moment, give them an idea of when you can do that.
It can be difficult to navigate how to discipline a 1-year-old or young toddlers with limited speech. Oftentimes, explanations won’t help them. In this case, give simple commands like, “No hitting,” and redirect his behavior.
Dealing with Impatience and Lack of Motivation
Strong-willed children tend to move at their own pace. When they want something, they want it right now. When they are disinterested, they show a complete lack of motivation. This is where reinforcing boundaries and your authority is necessary.
Offer two choices when possible. No more than two choices though or it makes things confusing. Giving your child a sense of power by choosing is priceless.
Instead of saying, “You’re getting in the bath now!” Try, “Would you like to get in the bath now?” Or “I can set a timer for 10 minutes of playtime and then you get in the tub.” My daughter will always go for the 10 minutes of extra play and happily hop in the bathtub afterwards because she feels like she’s in control of the situation. It doesn’t matter that the outcome for both is the same.
Seek out the situation where you can let your strong-willed child be in control of their destiny. Choosing between spaghetti or burritos for dinner or picking out their own clothes really helps your child nurture his inner leader and feel like he is being listened to and valued.
Encourage Problem Solving
Strong-willed kids find their answers through their own experiences. This can be very frustrating for a parent because most strong-willed children will not simply take your word for it. They’re experiential learners and want to see for themselves why things have to be a certain way.
Encouraging problem solving is a way to empower your child. When possible, let your child figure out how to do things for himself. Zipping up his jacket or fastening his seat belt can be very satisfying. Celebrate when he solves problems on his own.
Reward and Consequence with a Strong-Willed Toddler
Avoid Too Many Rules and Restrictions
Too many rules are overwhelming and encourage the dreaded power struggle in spirited toddlers. When there are constant rules and restrictions, kids will often lose all motivation to abide by any of them. Learn to pick your battles and let minor things go when possible, but make sure that important issues have clear and natural consequences.
If your toddler is hitting playfully and it’s getting out of hand, practice showing gentle touches that don’t hurt. If he’s throwing things and needs to get out his energy, then go outside where he can throw a ball as hard as he can. Give him opportunities to kick a ball, swing a bat, or do other big expressive and therapeutic activities that allow him to process big feelings.
Use Reward More Than Consequence
There are many ways to reward a strong-willed child instead of punishing them. A token economy system can effectively reward good behavior and naturally deflect your toddler away from unwanted behavior without it feeling like a punishment. Phrasing things in an optimistic way enforces positive parenting and encourages cooperative interaction without them realizing they aren’t in control.
Praise them for small accomplishments. Ask them to suggest a solution or idea. Stay calm and don’t match their aggression or energy when they get upset. Instead let them feel their feelings and acknowledge those feelings so long as they’re not hurting anybody. Always highlight your child’s strongest, most positive attributes and make them feel proud of who they are.
Be Clear with Consequences and Follow Through
Strong willed or stubborn toddlers often have selective hearing. They will purposely ignore the boundaries that don’t appeal to them. This is why it is important to be clear about your directions and the consequences that will follow.
Show your toddler that you mean what you say and that they cannot manipulate their way out of it. Give them one warning, tell them the consequence, and always follow through. The last thing a strong-willed child needs is to see that their attempts at control and negotiation are working.
Having a toddler question your boundaries and test the limits is a natural part of their development. However, it’s a different challenge when you have a strong-willed toddler. You will need to be clear with the boundaries and what you expect for everyone in your home to abide by. Put an emphasis on politeness and manners. Often, seeking alternatives to time outs can be helpful if your child doesn’t respond well to them.
A strong-willed toddler will test your patience. Remember to use reward more than punishment, offer them choices, and give them opportunities to be their own problem solver and leader. Most importantly, keep your cool and don’t match any intense emotions. As their parent, you should be a safe space for them to share their big feelings and be themselves.
Helping your child cope with separation anxiety at school can feel like an uphill battle without the right tools. Learn how to set them up for success here!
Find out how to recognize the signs and symptoms of oppositional defiant disorder, the conditions associated with it, and the treatments that can help.