Dealing with a strong willed child

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Hi Diane,

I have a very strong willed 4 year old girl. We seem to bang heads at just about every request I give her. I have tried pre-warning her that bath time is coming up or we need to do her hair soon. Or I try and give her a choice, if she would like to sit in the bedroom or lounge to get hair done. I just read your book on Time Out. I can tell with 10 seconds of asking then going over to tell her to do something she will not. I tried ignoring her until the task is done, but she continues to whinge and pull at me till she wears me down. She is very determined! I have tried locking her in her bedroom, she then precedes to yell and bang on door, till i feel so guilty I have to go to her. When I open the door she throws herself at me and insist’s on being held while still throwing herself around. She can be such a delightful little girl and loves to help out at home. I just don’t want to waste this precious time i have with her. She is the youngest of 3.

Hi Mum of Strong-willed Child

When you have a child this strong-willed, it is better not to offer choices around simple compliance. It just gives her another focus of battle – “I am not going to let any of your ideas work”. While I agree that that it seems reasonable for you to pre-warn her, it is also likely that she ignores all the pre-warnings and begins the battle when you try to follow through on your request. Save your breath!!

Ignoring her till the task is done won’t work as she just assumes that you will “get over it”. It simply isn’t powerful enough and she can outlast you.

What is happening when you use a variety of methods to somehow make a simple request for compliance more palatable is that she uses the opportunity to exploit your good will.

Suggestion One

If you would like a bedtime routine to work, you need to start with the first fuss of the day in the morning. If you can establish yourself as the boss of the morning, the rest of the day will go a lot smoother.

Just work on the idea that, after she wakes up, each request will have to be done and there is no negotiation or sweetening. You may have to lock horns and bang heads (metaphorically) but you do need to be the person in charge of the boundaries. The thing to have in mind is that, if you ask her to do something, then that is the next thing that is going to happen. If she doesn’t wish to do it right away, she will have to wait in her room till she is ready. It may take one minute: it may take one hour: but nothing else will be happening for her until it is done.

Let’s say your first request is that she holds still while you dress her. Take her into her room. Say “Let’s get you dressed” – and start. If she resists or fusses, just say, “We are not starting the day like that. Call out when you are ready to be dressed,” leave and close the door. If you are swift, calm and sure, she will not have time to rev up into a full-blown rage – and you won’t have time to fuel it.

It is highly likely that she will fuss and cry. After all, that has worked in the past. Should she become terribly distressed, go into the room, close the door, sit down and put out your arms to her without a word. Either she will accept comfort to calm down and then be ready to comply – or – they are crocodile tears of angry manipulation and she has no intention of complying. At this point you only option is to let her yell it out till she works out that nothing else is going to happen until she is ready to be dressed.

Once she is dressed, move straight on to your next request and make sure that either she does it right away, or she waits in her room until she is ready to comply.

By the time you have got your third request complied with, your daughter will have got the idea that, when you ask her to do something, nothing else is happening until that is done.

It is a tough way to start the days, but it should give you a much more pleasant and cooperative child.

Most of us would far rather begin the day in a pleasant way and hope that our child will be pleasant in return. This is called “the triumph of hope over experience”!

I would prefer that it worked that way too but, in my experience, children are much more cooperative and pleasant when the boundaries are clear and immoveable.

Suggestion Two

Here is a suggestion that often appeals to a strong-willed child. It tells them what needs to happen and gives them a degree of responsibility and control.

Get a clip-board and pen and paper and write down the bath/bed routine with tick-boxes for each completed task. Since it is unlikely that your four-year-old can read, use little sketches of each activity. Show her how to tick off each activity when it is complete.

Get undressed

Bath

Hair

Pyjamas

Teeth

Story

Cuddle

Bed

Often by being handed a routine broken down into “manageable bites”, a strong-willed child will choose to take responsibility.

Suggestion Three

Never bother getting into a food battle with a strong-willed child. They will always win – or you may win but at tremendous cost to your relationship and energy levels.

Your job is to put out food, five times a day, that she sort-of reasonably likes.

Her job is to eat according to her appetite.

How does it work in practice? At breakfast time, you put her breakfast on the table and call her to eat.

If she declines, just put the breakfast aside until she is hungry.

If she eats some and then wants to stop, let her down from the table and keep the food.

If she returns late and wants to eat, give her her plate back.

If she doesn’t like what is in front of her, say “That’s what is going for breakfast today.”

Keep the food aside till morning tea time. Then trash it and put out morning tea food.

Repeat this for each meal.

This way, you offer hear reasonably healthy food, you keep out of battles and you don’t put any of your energy into whether she eats or not.

Good luck! I hope one of these strategies works for you!

Diane

Diane Levy

Diane Levy’s warm, humorous, practical and commonsense approach to raising children is evident in her writing, her speaking and her private practice in Auckland as a family therapist. Her main focus is on coaching parents.

She is also the author of the best-seller “Of course I love you…NOW GO TO YOUR ROOM”, “They look so lovely when they’re asleep” and “Time Out for tots, teens and everyone in between."

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