Parenting Challenges of a Strong-Willed Child

Dr. Lauren Stokes
Dr. Lauren Drerup Stokes

We have all heard of the “strong-willed child” and many of you likely have a strong-willed child in your family. These children are characterized by an intense need to do things by themselves. They may voice their opinions frequently and have a hard time being flexible. Often times, these children may be quite intellectually curious, so keeping them entertained and out of trouble is tough. They tend to push the limits and ask a lot of questions.


The majority of these attributes will serve these children well in the future. They will be bold, courageous, and fight for that they want. They will grow up into young men and women who will make their parents proud.  Right now though, parents of strong-willed children are often left feeling frustrated and unsure how to respond to their child’s needs appropriately. Many of the tried and true parenting methods do not seem to work, and long-term, these difficulties could affect the whole family unit and even start causing problems in school. When this is the case, there may be an underlying psychological or psychiatric reason that further complicates the parenting difficulties of raising a strong-willed child. While most strong-willed children do not need psychological treatment, it is not uncommon for some children to have an underlying attention problem, sensory processing issue, social deficit, or difficulties complying with rules and following instructions of authority figures.


Depending upon the multiple factors involved in a child’s difficulties, a range of treatment recommendations are provided; however, one of the main components is behavioral therapy. The techniques listed below are key components of behavioral therapy, but they also work very well for parents who are raising a strong-willed child without underlying psychological difficulties.

 1. Pay Positive Attention: By praising and commenting on the positives more often than the negatives, children will learn exactly what you expect of them and get positive attention for it. For example, you could say, “Great job using your walking feet,” when your child is not running instead of saying, “Don’t run in the hall!”

2. Selective Attention: Focus on the positives and ignore the negatives (within reason). Instead of continually giving negative attention to misbehaviors, show your child that you ignore minor misbehaviors and give attention to the positive behaviors. Children will quickly learn what will get your attention and you will see a decrease in those minor misbehaviors.

3. Give Effective Instructions: One of the best ways to make sure your child will comply is to make sure you are setting them up to succeed with good instructions. Make sure you have their attention and eye contact. Give instructions in simple language. Have your child repeat the instruction back to you. Provide immediate praise when the task is completed.

4. Rewards and Consequences: Set up your child’s environment so that he/she knows that when a positive behavior is displayed a reward is provided. This reward may simply be an acknowledgement by the parent, a compliment, or a tangible reward. Tangible rewards are best when you are trying to teach your child a new behavior or strongly reinforce a behavior that needs to occur more often. A consequence should be provided when a negative behavior is displayed. This could be a verbal warning, a chore, a removal of privileges, or a time-out.


As with everything, these techniques are easier said than done and require parental patience and commitment. By using these techniques consistently, you should see an improvement in your strong-willed child’s behavior. If your child’s behavior is not improving and you have concerns that your child may have an underlying psychological difficulty, the best thing you can do is talk to your child’s pediatrician. It may be appropriate to refer your child to see a pediatric psychologist.