Twin Cities Mom Collective

Parenting a Strong-Willed Child

They say parents can determine their child’s personality within the first week of life.

As a mother of three small children, I have found this to be true.

When my first-born daughter was less than a week old, I was desperately trying to get her to latch correctly when trying to feed her. Time and time again, it was so difficult, and not to mention excruciatingly painful. She would latch on incorrectly, so I would take her off and try to put her back on to nurse. Over and over.  And each time, this new perfect baby of mine would cry and scream, getting so mad she would turn red in the face because she wasn’t getting what she wanted, when she wanted it.

She was determined.

My mother stayed with us the first week after she was born. As I was piled on the couch with my Hooter Hider, Boppy, nursing pads strewn about, and a screaming new baby in my arms, she looked at me and said, “I think you are going to have a handful with that girl!”

Of course, my mom was joking. Or maybe she really knew? But wow, if I only knew at the time how true that statement was. Looking back, I am amazed at how this little creature’s personality was forming within only a week of being outside of the womb!

Strong-willed. Determined. Spirited.

Sound familiar? Maybe you have one of your own?!? If you are not sure if you have a strong-willed child, you probably don’t. Yes, every child has their challenges and moments of questioning authority. However, if you have a strong-willed child, you know it. They not only question authority, but they also want to be the authority. They want to make the decisions, be the parent, drive the car. As Dr. Laura Markham says, “Strong-willed kids have big, passionate feelings and live at full throttle”

I am writing this post from a place of humility. I don’t know all of the answers. I’m not a perfect mother. It has been a journey for me, figuring out not only what the heck I am doing but also, how to be the mom of a particularly strong-willed child who likes to battle with me head-to-head with every decision I make. In fact, I probably fall into the strong-willed category myself (who am I kidding, I definitely fall into this category)!

Well moms, I am here to tell you a few things. First, I want you to know that being a strong-willed (or spirited, or determined) person, in and of itself, is not bad – it’s actually a great character trait!

“A strong-willed child is not easily daunted or discouraged, holds firm convictions, and doesn’t often accept defeat. A person using strong will in positive ways is fiercely loyal, determined to succeed, and often extraordinarily devoted to accomplishing goals” You Can’t Make Me by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias, an excellent book about this topic that I highly recommend.

A determined child is a blessing and will conquer many things in this life. With the right guidance and direction, my daughter will move mountains with her strong, determined spirit!

Choices and Control

Make sure to give your child plenty of choices and control. A strong-willed child doesn’t need to make the decisions, but they need to feel like they make the decisions. “From the very beginning, your strong-willed offspring will be testing what the boundaries are and how much of their universe they can control.” (Cynthia Ulrich Tobias)

I have found that giving my daughter choices in the small things has been huge. If she’s allowed to choose, she loves to cooperate. This is huge! She has choices about what she wants for a snack and how she makes her bed. If she wants to do something her way and that is not my way, oftentimes I try to let her do it her way – the results are usually the same (kind of). By giving her more control in the little things, I earn more respect when I decide the big things. Do you want to leave now, or in 5 minutes? Letting her make more decisions has helped channel her strong spirit and develop her little (err…big) personality for good things.

I’ve also learned that “because I said so” is not usually a sufficient answer for my daughter. Honestly, it’s not a sufficient answer for me, so why should I expect it to be for her? She wants to be reasoned with and respected, and explained why she isn’t allowed to do something, just as I want to be reasoned with and respected. I have heard that “rules without reason lead to rebellion” (James MacDonald), so I always to help her understand the why’s when I put my foot down.

Choose the Conflict

I’ve learned I have to choose my battles. “Save the conflict for the very important battles you will need to fight later” (Cynthia Tobias).

I know in parenting there are little things and there are big things. As the parent, I need to make the important decisions and put my foot down when it’s appropriate. However, I also need to let certain things go without conflict, in order to preserve my relationship with her.  She wants to wear leopard shoes with leopard pants and a leopard cardigan, all on the same day (with a cringe as I type). I have to say yes, or lead her to believe it was her decision to change her shoes! 🙂 Without conflict. Because really, I don’t want to be fighting all the time. I came to this conclusion a little over a year ago, when I realized we were fighting about what she wore. Every. Single. Day.

Be the Comforter and Giver of Unconditional Love

Every so often, my strong-willed-child (SWC) gets into one of her moods. It’s usually when she is tired after a long day and I can tell she is feeling overwhelmed. A little thing will totally set her off – like her sister getting into the car before she does. She will explode, do something mean to her sister, or start yelling and crying.  Maybe you have seen this mood in your SWC before – but watch out!

I have found the best solution to this type of behavior has been to give comfort. This is totally the opposite way that I would initially be inclined to react to a meltdown. But it works!

I take a moment, and kneel down to her level and give her a giant hug. Rubbing her back, I tell her that I love her no matter what she does, and that she is so special to me. Amazingly, that is just what it takes to cause her to snap out of her moodiness. Giving her a time-out or getting mad and yelling in return often seems to just make things worse. It’s incredible how well she responds to physical touch and comfort when she is at her worst. Once she snaps out of her funk, then we tackle the issue that triggered her meltdown whether that means apologizing to her sister or dishing out consequences to her actions.


Am I the perfect parent? Most definitely not. Are there days when I say no to the triple-leopard outfit and demand my own way? Um, yes. However, I have to admit that I have noticed some great changes in my daughter, lately. I believe that some of these parenting strategies have actually drawn her closer in relationship to us, which is really one of our ultimate goals as a parent.

“Home should be a place we always look forward to coming back to – a safe harbor where we are understood and valued for who we are.” (Cynthia Ulrich Tobias)


Original post published April 2014

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Nealy April 24, 2014 at 9:42 AM

Hi Sarah,

That is great to know that she is ready to talk about her behavior. I’m sure parenting changes so much the older the kids get. Thank you for the comment!

Cindy April 24, 2014 at 6:14 PM

Geez, so wearing three things leopard are not cool : ) You obviously were a SWC dear, and I hate to tell you this but the high school years are the worst! Lots to look forward to. : ) Love you and very nice article!

Nealy April 24, 2014 at 6:29 PM

Yes, I am a little worried about the high school/pre-teen years. Good thing you’ve been through it and can give me good advice! 😉

mary timmers April 28, 2014 at 4:41 PM


My strong-willed child is 43! I wish I had know the part about giving affection instead of punishment. So not what I would want to do, but this is one thing I learned after he was grown. Thanks for your wisdom, Nealy.


Christine Smith May 12, 2014 at 5:47 PM

3 of my 6 girls are very strong willed. I always say

I can make them do whatever they want to do.

In other words, when the ownership is theirs, the motivation is theirs also. It does take negotiating and giving them the ability to control their choices. And the unconditional love is also critical because sometimes their choices do fail and they need support then, not an “I told you so”. My oldest is 21 and has found her groove in life as I knew she would at some point. Because it is HER thing, she can run with it and WOW, is it fun to see her operating from a position of strength because she is not a quitter when it matters!!

Jen Davidson September 10, 2014 at 1:48 PM

For the first time I finally am reading a post of a SWC child in which the author is also SW. I cannot stress how much reading that made me happy. My five year old and me are both SW. EVERY single day its a struggle, a battle over something small or big.

This year my SWC child started Kindergarten. Every night she has homework and EVERY night there is a battle and a meltdown. I keep reading and trying but last night was the worst thus far. I feel like I’m at my breaking point. I want to help her and see her succeed but if it’s not her “idea” then how can we can past the homework battle?

Nita December 18, 2015 at 9:26 AM

SWC’s like to control the situation and when provided homework they feel out of control. Not sure this will work for yours but it is what worked for mine. I don’t ever say “you have to do your homework”.. Instead I’ll say: “After you do your homework, you can do xyz”. Or I ask where he’d like to do his homework and if he wants to be alone or could use some company. Maybe it is a matter of choosing a special pencil, creating a time chart that they fill in with what they want to do when their homework is done. Or choosing a special chair or space or listening to their favorite music. Giving them control of the situation, allows them to make finishing the homework a choice instead of a demand which then makes less of a battle.

Nealy December 20, 2015 at 11:28 AM

Nita, wow that is so helpful! Thank you so much for sharing! I will use this with my daughter for sure – she is in 1st grade this year. Thank you!

Jodi July 3, 2015 at 11:31 PM

Great article! Thank you!!!

I also greatly recommend the book
“Raising Your Spirited Child” by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. I haven’t even read the entire book, but gained so much insight into my child. Understanding that she is more in all things, more intense, more determined, more amazing! I also changed how I viewed her … Instead of sometimes referring to her as “the naughty one”, I changed her nick-name to “Sprinkle Star Shine” because she most often enters the room smiling, outgoing, my extra-extrovert. It has helped so much to view her determined qualities in a positive light. Great book and good support for parenting a spirited child.

Nita December 18, 2015 at 9:16 AM

Such a great post.
I have an SW boy, he came out of me on his terms, in his way, on his time and has been that way ever since. Thankfully we didn’t have trouble with the latch but when and how much of the feeding was definitely on his terms. And that pretty much is how everything else went, but I learned to have his choices within my boundaries. He is almost 13 and we are in a new stage of figuring this all out. He has questioned, negotiated, reasoned, manipulated, and stood firm in his thoughts, since a week old. And I’ve treated every moment as a blessing to help me through the difficult days. But honestly it wasn’t so bad. I knew he would go out in the world and do great things. That he wouldn’t be peer pressured or fold to doing something just because everyone else would. Every discussion where he tried to outwit me, I would take a deep breath and remember this was a good thing. Then think about how I’d want to be spoken to.

Like you, we provided win/win choices. And I embraced the picky too. I want him to know what he likes and what he doesn’t. So I provide all healthy options and no matter what he chooses, we are golden. I also chose battles. When he was little we did baby signs to help him communicate which I highly recommend for SWC babies. Because we avoided all of that frustration for him by not being able to tell us what he wanted.

As a toddler I created my own plan of “preventative parenting”. Trying to stay one step ahead, having food available before he was hungry, removing him from a situation before he got over stimulated and creating a calm space when he was about to be tired. Of course I couldn’t be on top of everything and well us SWC moms know what happens. Definitely not perfect. Ever!!

As a young boy, I loved the book “redirecting children’s behavior”. It was a game changer for me.

But now As a soon to be teen I’m seeing struggles while his hormones rage and he seeks his independence. The teachers aren’t going to provide win/win choices or manage his need to control his situation. And it is a tricky balance that we are still learning.

Thank you for this post and allowing my lengthy comment. It was one of those weeks where a reminder that others have these kids too is a wonderful thing.

Nealy December 29, 2015 at 8:48 AM

Hi Nita! I have read and reread your comment this holiday season and have already used some of your tips on my 7-year-old. Thank you so much! It sounds like you are a wonderful mom.

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