The Strong-Willed Child: Parental Coping Mechanisms
Any parent actively involved in a child’s life is going to experience stress to some degree. The parent of a strong-willed child is going to experience stress to an even higher degree (Turner, 2013). The battle of the wills cannot occur without taking a casualty now and then. In Caring for People God’s Way, the authors point out that it is the response to stress, not stress itself that causes emotional and physical damage (Clinton, Hart, & Ohlschlager, 2005). In order to properly care for anyone else, parents must take the time to care for themselves. Stressors are not going away; how one responds to stress can make a difference in how well one can manage parenthood and life in general.
A starting point for stressed-out parents of strong-willed children is to aim for a healthy thought process. For example, it would not be uncommon for such a parent to set a goal of making little Johnny behave. The idea behind this goal is that in order to be considered worthwhile as a parent, the child must be well-behaved. Rather than equating worth with how someone else behaves, the parent should change that thought to, “I am worthwhile as a responsible child of God” (Crabb, 1977). This does not mean neglecting parental responsibilities as discussed previously, but it does mean accepting that our worth is in Christ, and Christ alone. Additionally, although being a follower of Jesus does not exempt anyone from the pressures of life, it does guarantee His presence when dealing with those stressors.
It would stand to reason that not only do parents feel the stress of raising a strong-willed child but that the child would also feel the stress of day-to-day life. In fact, Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein noted that “escalating anxiety in children can be expressed as defiant behavior” (2014). Suggestions to assist both parent and child with anxiety management include practicing deep, controlled breathing with them, tensing and relaxing different muscles, and imagining a serene place in order to relax the mind (Bernstein, 2014). Thought replacement is also helpful in children; negative ideas of not being good enough or not being able to successfully complete a task can be traded for positive thoughts regarding getting better with practice (Bernstein, 2014). It is important to promote optimism in the child; a parent can teach the child to look for the good in each day, even when it seemed that all went wrong (Bernstein, 2014). Teaching children healthy means of managing stress could reduce their outbursts of defiant behavior, and in turn, reduce the stress of the parent.
In turn, parents who have higher levels of stress are more likely to display their tension in their interactions and discipline of their children (Turner, 2013). This can create a vicious cycle of reacting to the negative behavior of each another. It is a parent’s responsibility to herself and to her child to find healthy practices in reducing or managing her reactions to stress. One suggestion offered by Dr. Meeker (2010) is to avoid taking on every fight all at once. Strong-willed children want and demand their own way. It is likely that every situation could pose a battle, and that alone is enough to wear a parent down and out. Parents should choose one or two “offensive behaviors” to pursue correcting first, allowing less important battles to wait until later (Meeker, 2010). Once the child is obedient in those areas, parents can move on to the others.
Although the previous suggestions involved interaction with the strong-willed child, parents should also pursue measures toward stress management on their own. As hectic as life may be, Mom and Dad need to aim for a healthy lifestyle in order to be at their best. Eating well-balanced and nutritious meals, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and praying are all beneficial in battling anxiety (Clinton, Hart, & Ohlschlager, 2005). Parents must make time – and take that time – for themselves (Turner, 2013). Taking a break may seem nearly impossible when any child requires extra attention and effort; however, it is actually therapeutic for both parent and child to spend time away from one another (Turner, 2010). Personal time can involve practicing a favorite hobby, getting therapeutic massages, or spending time with friends. Friendships and solid support systems are crucial to handling parental stressors. Having someone dependable to talk to, as well as someone trustworthy to care for the child in order to provide self-care time for the parent, is extremely valuable. In addition, support systems can provide recommendations on what techniques work with their children (Turner, 2013). The pressures of raising a strong-willed child can steer a parent toward depression; isolation is not the answer and is discouraged (Clinton, Hart, & Ohlschlager, 2005).
When parents need someone to talk to, seeking a counselor or therapist can be beneficial (Turner, 2013). Not only can a counselor assist the parent in stress management, but the therapist may also be qualified in helping the strong-willed child and other family members. Professional psychologists can offer parents resources on handling problem behaviors, and they will have information that can help the child diminish those same behaviors (Turner, 2013). Christian counselors will offer biblical wisdom and prayer in addition to psychological guidance.
American Association of Christian Counselors (2006). Angry, defiant, and violent kids (presentation). Available from Liberty University Online.
Bernstein, J. (2014, February 26). Five anxiety-lowering strategies for children [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog.liking-the-child-you-love/201402/five-anxiety-lowering-strategies-children
Clinton, T., Hart, A., & Ohlschlager, G. (2005). Caring for people God’s way. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.
Clinton, T., & Sibcy, G. (2006). Loving your child too much. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Cloud, H., & Townsend, J. (1998). Boundaries with kids. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Crabb, L. (1977). Effective biblical counseling. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Dobbs, J. (2004). The new strong-willed child. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Flaskerud, J.H. (2011). Discipline and effective parenting. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 32,82-84. doi: 10.3109/01612840.2010.498078
Karreman, A., de Hass, S., van Tuijl, C., van Aken, M., & Dekovic, M. (2009). Relations among temperament, parenting and problem behavior in young children. Infant Behavior & Development, 33, 39-49. doi: 10.1016/j.infbeh.2009.10.008
Meeker, M. (2010, May 4). Staying sane with strong-willed kids [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/family-matters/201005/staying-sane-strong-willed-kids
Strong-willed. (n.d.). In Cambridge dictionaries online. Retrieved from http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/american-english/strong-willed
Turner, E. (2013, June 24). 4 tips for managing parenting stress [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-race-good-health/201306/4-tips-managing-parenting-stress