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Strong-willed Children Require Extra Skills, Patience

“You can’t make me!”

“I don’t want to clean up!”

“This homework is stupid and the teacher said I didn’t have to do it.”

Is this what we signed for when we became parents? Probably not, but most children will have moments of defiance. Reasons for negative behavior can vary from a child being tired or hungry to more ongoing challenges such as learning problems or coping skills deficits. We can and should discuss how to manage defiant behavior but just as important is trying to understand what might be causing the behavior. Is the child being bullied? Is there more stress in the home or recent changes? Is the child struggling with school? Does the child have underdeveloped social skills? This list can go on and on.

For a subset of children, the behavior challenges go beyond a bad day or week. These children are often referred to as “strong-willed” or “spirited” children. Oppositional Defiant Disorder is the clinical term for children who demonstrate a pattern of negative, antagonistic and defiant behavior that lasts at least six months. According to the diagnostic criteria most clinicians use, symptoms include losing one’s temper, arguing with adults, actively defying adult requests, deliberately annoying people, blaming others for mistakes, easily annoyed, often angry and maybe spiteful or vindictive. For the diagnosis, the behavior is causing impairment in social, academic or occupational setting.

We need to be less concerned with a diagnostic label for these children and more concerned with how we parent and teach them. Also, blaming the problem on bad parenting doesn’t help the situation either. Each week, I hear firsthand from parents how difficult their children are. Parents often feel isolated or blame themselves for their child’s action. Most parents I meet are doing the best they can. Strong-willed kids often require additional parenting skills and a ton of patience.

Because a strong-willed child’s behavior often elicits a lot of negative responses, a good way to start addressing the problem is with a regularly scheduled special time as described in my most recent blog post. This can help strengthen a positive bond and counteract some of the ongoing negative interactions.

When the behavior continues to cause distress for the child and family, many avenues exist to getting help. Some of the parenting books I often recommend include,”1, 2, 3 Magic” by Dr. Thomas Phelan, “Parenting the Strong-Willed Child” by Drs. Rex Forehand and Nicholas Long and “The Explosive Child” by Dr. Ross Greene.

A psychologist or social worker specializing in children can help develop an appropriate approach to improving behavior. As children vary, so might the strategies. One of the most important things a parent of a child with behavior challenges should know is they are not alone and help is out there.