How to Discipline a Strong-Willed Child

Parenting your strong-willed child can feel like a constant uphill battle — like Sisyphus and his boulder. Everything from getting their shoes on to putting away their toys before supper becomes a power struggle. 

At this point, you have three options: give in, buckle down or try something new. The first two approaches will only lead to further challenges, but what can you try that you haven’t already?

Parenting your strong-willed child can feel like a constant uphill battle, but there are solutions to the problems that you'll find here

Enter Positive Parenting

Positive parenting goes by several names — gentle, peaceful and authoritative are a few — but the practice is the same. The goal is to approach discipline from a place of love, teamwork and connection. In all things, prioritize the relationship you have with your child.

While on the surface this may sound like permissive parenting, the two methods are quite different. In permissive parenting, the adults take a backseat to the child’s wants and desires. With positive parenting, the family unit is a team.

Children’s views and feelings are valued, but rules, boundaries, expectations and routines are still in place.  

What Discipline Is and Isn’t

How do you discipline your child with positive parenting? You first need to understand what it is and what it isn’t. Effective discipline:

  • Isn’t using physical force, harsh words or withdrawal of basic needs.
  • Is teaching your child and helping them learn from mistakes.  
Parenting your strong-willed child can feel like a constant uphill battle, but there are solutions to the problems that you'll find here

Tips for Disciplining Your Strong-Willed Child

A basic understanding will help guide you as you move through these tips for disciplining your child positively and gently. 

1. Use Appropriate Consequences

It’s easy to lose control of your temper and take away everything you can think of. Your child won’t listen to your directions, so you remove their iPad, TV privileges, favorite toys — and the cycle continues until a small situation has escalated to a major problem.

The extreme consequences only make your strong-willed child feel the need to win and rebel further. 

Instead, learn to use appropriate consequences for their actions. There’s almost always an obvious choice or two once you know what to look for. For example, your child refuses to brush their teeth before bed.

You remind them when story time starts and that if they haven’t done it by then, they won’t be able to have a book. They get to make a choice and you follow through with the consequence. 

2. Offer Choices You Can Live With

Strong-willed kids crave control. Give them some by consistently offering two or three choices you can live with. Instead of struggling to get your child to the breakfast table and start eating, you can ask them if they’d like to pour the milk or if they’d like you to help them.

This gives your child a sense of control over their actions, and you’ll be pleased with the outcome. You’ll be far less likely to encounter a power struggle. 

Parenting your strong-willed child can feel like a constant uphill battle, but there are solutions to the problems that you'll find here

3. Try Positive Reinforcement

Common discipline practices revolve around punishment — taking a privilege or item away as a consequence of not following established rules or meeting expectations.

This method can be effective in certain situations, but it’s only a reaction to a negative outcome rather than being proactive.

Positive reinforcement is another tool for you to try, and it focuses on rewarding good behavior. Instead of spotting rule-breaking, look for excuses to praise your child. 

4. Approach With Calm

As unfair as it may sound, your mood will set the tone for the entire conversation. Your kids are experts at pushing your buttons, and you’ll almost certainly reach points where you’re ready to blow. However, the result is a disconnect between you and them.

They get scared and overwhelmed, which can turn to defiance, and you may feel regret later.

Reigning in your anger and keeping your voice calm and reassuring yet firm will let your child know you mean business but encourages connection. You can help them self-regulate their emotions by responding to their needs and soothing them when they feel upset.

Don’t immediately get angry, but rather ask them what’s wrong. Your demeanor sets a model for them to follow.   

Parenting your strong-willed child can feel like a constant uphill battle, but there are solutions to the problems that you'll find here

5. Offer Do-Overs 

Have you ever said something you didn’t mean out of anger or did something you wish you could take back? Your kids do, too.

Get in the habit of offering do-overs for unacceptable behavior. Redirection can be as simple as asking them to try again with a different attitude.

They may need help deciding on a better action or thing to say. Talking through it as a team and following through with the do-over will reinforce your bond and the lesson. 

6. Prioritize Connection 

Your relationship with your strong-willed child is the foundation for every positive or negative interaction. Find little ways to spend time together every day, showing your kids they’re a priority for you.

Have an indoor picnic, volunteer, solve problems and play games. Bonding as a team will also support your desire to work through discipline together. 

7. Search for the Root

When your child acts out or says something they shouldn’t, take a moment to put yourself in their shoes. Assess the situation from their perspective and ask questions to find the root of the issue.

Likely, your kids have some need that’s not being met or should be redirected to a more appropriate activity. Spend time listening to them, fully hearing them out, free of your own preconceived opinions. 

Discipline with positive parenting is listening to your child, validating their feelings and needs, yet still holding them accountable for their actions. 

8. Ditch Traditional Time-Outs

Traditional time-outs involve sending your child to be alone as a punishment for misbehavior. However, that leaves them to sort through big feelings on their own and can make them feel ashamed. 

As an alternative, try using a time-in as a de-escalation strategy. Your child still benefits from being removed from the situation to deal with their feelings, but you remain available for guidance and comfort.

Give them space, but let them know you’re there when they’re ready. Later, you can discuss what happened and what could go differently next time.    

9. Follow Through With Consequences

Aside from connection, the most crucial ingredient for disciplining a strong-willed child is to follow through with the consequence.

If your kids learn they only need to cry or apologize to get out of trouble, they’ll try it every time, and your job as a parent will only get more challenging.

Kids need to grow up understanding that all actions have positive and negative consequences. Shielding them from that truth would only cripple them as adults.  

10. Be Willing to Apologize

All parents make mistakes occasionally — OK, we make lots of them, probably daily. Rather than brushing past it and moving on, use these moments as opportunities for further connection. Own up to what you did or said and explain how you could have done things differently. 

For example, if you lose control of your anger and shout at your child, you can choose to calm down for a moment and apologize. Then, talk out some solutions you could have used to channel your emotions, like taking deep breaths or walking away for a minute.

Your children will appreciate your honesty, and you’re modeling how to take responsibility for your actions and problem-solve. 

Reframing Your Mindset Is the Key

The most important part of disciplining a strong-willed child is to shift your mindset. If you approach it with an us vs. them mentality, both parties will always lose.

Instead, work as a team to help kids maintain a sense of self and build confidence while operating within the set expectations and boundaries.

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