The Strong-Willed Child: Guidance and Discipline
No matter what temperament rules a child’s being, parental guidance and discipline are essential. Adults must parent with a purpose, as explained by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend in their book, Boundaries With Kids. The authors point out that parents must consider more than the present when raising children – they must think about the future of their kids. When reflecting upon every aspect of parenting, the following must be remembered: “A person’s character is one’s destiny” (Cloud & Townsend, 1998). A child may be born with a strong will, but it is a parent’s responsibility to help mold that child’s character through a loving relationship and effective discipline.
Before addressing specific discipline techniques, it is important to explore building the relationship necessary for any type of success in parenting. Throughout their presentation, Clinton and Sibcy stated that “rules without relationship lead to rebellion” and “the quality of your relationship will determine the effectiveness of your discipline strategies” (AACC, 2006). If a parent does not appear to care about a child, adolescent, or teenager, then why would that child have any desire to respect the boundaries set by that parent? Clinton and Sibcy expressed this idea by stating that, “Boundaries make sense when given in love” (AACC, 2006). Parents can tell their kids they love them all day long, but any parent will agree that children believe behavior above spoken words. There is a tremendous amount of effort needed on the part of any parents who are truly dedicated to building a trust-worthy relationship with their children. There is no room for laziness or excuses. Perfection is not required of any parent, but love and care are absolutely necessary.
There are a variety of methods shown to build a healthy relationship with one’s child. According to Jacquelyn H. Flaskerud, RN, PhD, FAAN, of the University of California – Los Angeles School of Nursing (2011), maintaining a certain family environment is more fruitful in encouraging positive behavior. This environment includes the following: a positive emotional atmosphere, affection and compassion from the parents, regular schedules, and treating children with respect (Flaskerud, 2011). Flaskerud (2011) and Clinton and Sibcy (AACC, 2006) encouraged “special time,” which consists of being a participant in an activity of the child’s choice for fifteen to twenty minutes per day. Special time does not include questions, prying, or commands; it is a time to simply engage in play (AACC, 2006). This is an occasion to just relax, let the child lead, and show genuine interest in that child’s individuality (AACC, 2006). Another important aspect in guiding one’s child is listening. Young children are not capable of expressing their emotions with words, so they use behavior. By listening carefully, parents are provided a chance to assist children in learning words to express how they feel (Flaskerud, 2011). In addition to special time, Clinton and Sibcy promoted “floor time” (AACC, 2006). This can be taken literally when a child is small; it involves getting down on the floor and interacting with them. As they get older, floor time equates to quality moments when the parent shows a child interest, engagement, and interaction (AACC, 2006). Creating consistent habits such as breakfast together or car-pooling can develop chances for open dialogue between parent and child (AACC, 2006).
In addition to open communication, children need the ability to have safe communication with their parents (Cloud & Townsend, 1998). Children of all ages withhold conversation from their parents out of “fear of loss of love and fear of reprisal” (Cloud & Townsend, 1998). Rather than strengthening those fears, parents need to put their children at ease. This can be done by believing, and letting kids know, that “all feelings are acceptable, and expressing feelings is a good thing” (Cloud & Townsend, 1998). Children need empathy, connection, and acceptance; they also need structure and self-discipline, all of which should be found within and promoted by the parent (Cloud & Townsend, 1998). A parent must show gentleness and love combined with strength, and even if conflict arises, warmth should be displayed afterward to reassure the child (Cloud & Townsend, 1998).
In spite of implementing these strategies, there will always be children who determine that their way is the only way, questioning their parents’ authority and testing the behavioral boundaries. The parents of strong-willed children will often find themselves thinking the unthinkable: they may love their strong-willed kids, but they honestly do not like them (AACC, 2006). Kids do not understand the difference and may believe that Mom and Dad do not love them anymore. An unfavorable outlook of the child can develop, causing a breakdown in communication (AACC, 2006). This negativity is known as “CNN Syndrome;” no matter what good is within the youngster, the parent does not see it or reinforce it (AACC, 2006). Parents seeking professional counseling at this point may wish for the therapist to “fix” their strong-minded child; however, they must come to a place acceptance of this child instead. As Clinton and Sibcy (2006) explained, “These parents need to decide at some point whether they are going to accept their child’s uniqueness, however challenging it may be, and commit to building the relationship.” This does not mean complying with unacceptable behavior; it means putting forth the extra effort it will take to lead that child into adulthood.
Because the behavior of a strong-willed child can be frustrating, parents must make the distinction between discipline and punishment. Clinton and Sibcy explained, “As parents, we are not punishing wrong behavior when we discipline; we’re shaping character” (2006). While discipline corrects and teaches a child, punishment can degrade and cause emotional harm. Punishment comes as a reaction to the behavior and from a place of anger within the parent. Quite simply, punishment is never appropriate. In addition, using corporal punishment out of that place of anger can cause emotional and physical damage to a child. Spanking a child is a topic of debate, yet even experts who promote the appropriate use of spanking condemn doing so when emotions are high (Clinton & Sibcy, 2006). Punishment destructs; discipline constructs.
How, then, does one appropriately discipline the strong-willed child? The specific techniques vary depending on the age of the child. Even a strong-willed baby cannot understand a swat on the behind for doing what babies do, like crying in the middle of the night or wiggling during a diaper change (Dobson, 2004). Infants should not receive direct discipline; however, it is healthy for parent and child to establish a “balance between giving your baby the attention she needs and establishing her as a tiny dictator” (Dobson, 2004). In other words, as long as the child is safe, it is not necessary to pick her up every time she cries; otherwise, the parent is reinforcing that behavior (Dobson, 2004).
As the child grows, disciplinary measures will change. With toddlers, distraction and persistence are effective (Dobson, 2004). Once a child is old enough to understand consequences of behavior, discipline should involve an explanation of those consequences – and the fortitude to enforce them. This may mean lecturing, corporal discipline, time-out, or a loss of privileges (Clinton & Sibcy, 2006). Discipline will definitely involve experimentation, as every child is different. The following are healthy, effective steps in disciplining children: creation of an environment for moral growth, establishment of clear rules and limits, teaching a child the reasons behind the rules, discernment between intentional defiance and childish irresponsibility, avoidance of making impossible demands upon the child, teaching virtues that strengthen and guide behavior, and above all, allowing love to guide the parent while correcting the child (Clinton & Sibcy, 2006). Parents, especially those of the strong-willed child, must have the “courage to be hated” (Cloud & Townsend, 1998). Even if children do not like the rules or the outcome of breaking those rules, parents “need to be able to contain the protest, stay connected, not strike back, and remain the parent” (Cloud & Townsend, 1998). The expression “kids have enough friends; they need parents” rings true. In my personal experience, if a parent shows loving, consistent, firm discipline while the child is growing up, then the child will transition into becoming a friend upon adulthood.
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