Monday, May 30, 2011

Parenting A Strong-Willed Child Is A Lonely Place - Part 1

I've been mulling this post over in my head for more than a week now and it's begging me to write it down. I'm sure it is impossible to tell this story and not offend, I won't even try. I'm going to tell the truth of my life and pray that it encourages someone. If you don't understand, count your blessings.

The title of this post was my facebook status one day last week. "Parenting a strong-willed child is a lonely place." I was surprised at some of the responses, not only on fb but over email, text and in person. Many wonderful friends reached out to me with words of encouragement. There was a lot of "me too!" and "I hear you!" and "You read my mind!" from friends I knew to be in the same place and some that surprised me with their understanding.

Others had no idea what I was talking about. How could someone with such a strong support network be lonely? How could someone with such a bright, funny, loving six-year old not appreciate what she has?

How about you? Do you understand the loneliness of parenting a strong-willed child?

Most days it feels like my son is always in trouble. There is rarely (never?) a day that goes by where he doesn't sit in time-out multiple times and lose multiple privileges. Many days we clash and struggle and argue and fight all day long.

Many times when we leave an event, activity or play date it is because he is being disciplined.

I spend great parts of every day locked in confrontation with my son.

I usually feel like no one understands what I'm going through, because all the other kids are playing nicely and calmly and not getting in trouble.

Often I am given advice on what do do with my son. The advice-givers are well meaning. They care about me and my kid but the content of their advice tells me that they believe I do not discipline him.

I discipline my son all day, every day. For the same things. Over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over...

My son is six. He is delightful. I love him with all my heart. He is the biggest challenge I have ever faced.

The personality of every strong-willed child is different. This is my story. (I just heard the dum-dum sound of Law and Order as I typed that last sentence.)

My son is single-minded in his focus. He tunes his attention to one thing and nothing can turn him away until he has reached his goal. This quality may serve him well as an adult but as an immature six year old boy it is maddening.

When he is focused on "getting" everyone with his squirt gun he doesn't hear the shouts of STOP from the adults that don't want to get wet and are now frustrated that he "refuses" to cut it out. When he is focused on getting to the top of the slide he doesn't see the two year old in his way that falls to the ground as he reaches his goal.

This is especially frustrating when I'm having a conversation with him (or scolding him). Mid-way through my eloquent speech (tirade?) I can see in his eyes that he's on another planet. I begin to say things like, "Look in my eyes." And, "What did I just say?" When I pause for him to answer he asks a question about something I said three minutes ago (or something he can see in another part of the room). He latches on to one thought and runs with it, shutting everything else out.

I have spent years not understanding this. It is difficult to explain, but when I'm paying attention I can see it happening but when I'm not (most of the time) it looks like defiance. I said to stop. He didn't stop, therefore he is disobeying me and there must be consequences. I know that the best way to give him instructions is to walk over to him, put my hand on his shoulder, make very sure I have his attention and then proceed. When I do this, it helps. When I shout from the my comfortable chair in the shade on the deck it never works, he ends up in trouble and I end up mad.

This leads right into my next observation. My strong-willed son doesn't do well when he thinks he doesn't have a choice. This clashes with my straight forward We-Need-To-Get-This-Done-Now personality. I say, "Stop!!" When I should say, "Did you know that most grownups don't like to get squirt with water guns?" I say, "It's bedtime, go get your pajamas on." When I should say, "It's 7:00, what would you like to do first to get ready for bed?"

My son is rarely deterred by pain, punishment, the loss of special things, shouting, disappointment or any other form of discipline I have been able to dream up. Spankings make him angry. He has the amazing ability to decide that he doesn't care about something he used to love. He can laugh in my face when I yell, or yell right back. Falling nine feet out of a tree didn't deter him from climbing trees (or doing other dangerous things). He isn't embarrassed by straight faces on his behavior chart at school and doesn't really care when he doesn't get a smile. The only thing that motivates him is when he decides that something is important.

He is amazingly resilient. While he may freak out and cry when I say we have to leave an event because he's not behaving, as soon as we get to the car he's got a smile on his face and is looking ahead to the next activity. He has a great imagination and can occupy himself with very little, so even taking away everything and sitting him in the corner isn't all that bad of a deal. He loves to read and doesn't care if he gets zero screen time in a day (or all week).  

It is exhausting to keep one step ahead of my child.

I absolutely see how his personality traits and characteristics are wonderful. He is going to make a fantastic adult. The other day I said to a friend, "That compliant child is going to work for my strong-willed son one day!"

But right now? Right now our life is a fight.

And it is a lonely place to live in a fight.

This post is really long already and I haven't even gotten to the What I'm Learning Through All Of This part. Rest assured, I am learning. God is teaching me so much through all of this. Here is Part 2 - What I'm learning. And here is Part 3 - What I am doing.

So, where do you stand in relationship to strong-willed children? Do you have one? Do you know loneliness, even in a crowd of supportive friends? Do you fight with your child every single day? Do you see the up side of your kid's crazy personality? Do you know that you're not alone?


  1. Amy,

    I feel your pain! Your post sounds like how my life was on a constant basis when Matthew was young. It can be very lonely as you go through it. It gets better I promise. Hang in there and know you have a lot of people around you praying and supporting you!


  2. I love you SO much, Amy. Thanks for writing this- it's great to read your thoughts and know better what you go through and how to pray for you. I love Matt and C & H so much, too, and I am so blessed by all of you.

    I think you're an amazing person and mom. I was just talking this week with Mary G. about how I loved and respected you so much of course before I moved in, but that spending a summer living with you guys just left me respecting you even MORE and in awe how intentional you are as a parent.

    Praying for you. And I know you have tons of support, but hope you know I'm here if you need to vent ever. I won't judge :-)

    (And I agree that Christopher is delightful, btw. Just want to make sure you know that we empathize and respect you and hear how hard this is, and also truly LOVE and enjoy your children :-)).

  3. I have a strong willed child. Life is never dull.

  4. Oh Amy! I still think you are reading my mind. And it is lonely. Even though you have a good support system you are the one day-in/day-out becoming more and more worn down from the constant confrontation, correction, and perceived disobedience. No matter how much someone says they understand you are still the one having to say the thing AGAIN, or correct AGAIN. It's so tiring. Even more so when you are sure you've made good decisions in your parenting and NOTHING you do makes it any different. You know I've been struggling with these things too and wondering what in the world I'm doing wrong. I do think my strong-willed child will be a great adult but he isn't one yet and it actually ends up coming out like a very odd sort of fit that you would expect from a 9 month old but coming out of a bigger body. It's not pretty. I love that you keep it real and bare it all. I think he has the best mom in the world for him - you keep working at it - you don't let him "win" necessarily but you don't try to break him, either. In the day-to-day we get exhausted in this struggle but the long run is what matters and you are setting him up to be well-adjusted. I'm somewhere in-between now and trying to find a balance between the "you should just obey me because I said so" thing and parenting mine in the way that makes them the most well-adjusted while not making them fit "the" mold. So hard. But you're a pray-er and you've got a lot of them on your team, too. Loved this read. Love your transparency. Love YOU! I think you are amazing.

    Jessica S.

  5. @Amy, Awesome piece. See my email. @Jessica, I also have a child like this (7 yr old son). I recommended to Amy a book called "The Explosive Child." @Amy again, feel free to forward my email to Jessica if you think it would be of help to her. Hang in there, sisters!

    - Tatiana

  6. Bless your heart. I've been there. Oh, how I've been there. Now my daughter is dealing with the same thing with my oldest grandson. But we have to explain to him that just because he's done something that HE wanted to do, doesn't make it right.
    The squirt gun incident..I could have told that story about my son and grandson. And we've left numerous events due to "strong willed" behavior..and like your son, the child had a smile on his face as soon as he got in the he's completely forgotten about what just took place. And he'd get so upset if we didn't stop somewhere for a treat on the way home. Like he didn't understand why he couldn't have one. He wasn't mis-behaving at that moment.

    Oh..this story could have been mine and now my daughters.

    Prayer and unconditional love. It's what got me through it and is what helps my daughter get through it. She has to remind herself daily that he isn't a bad child. He's a strong willed child. A determined child.
    He has a chore, getting ready for bed and getting ready for school itemized list. He will check off each thing when he gets it done. That works very well with him. Keeping things structured for him or letting him know what is going to happen next, seems to keep him in line. He's has wonderful teachers who understand him, and that has helped so much.

    We keep my grandson (like we did with my son) busy. He loves Legos, Kinects, anything that he can build. We give him sticks and a thin rope. He'll build a small fort...something to keep his mind focused. But if he has to stop and eat, his mind will be focused on that project the entire time. We have to say his name 2 or 3 times to get his attention. But the odd thing is, we think he isn't listening to what we say about our day, but later on he may ask us about it or repeat it to someone else. So because it seems like he's not listening, he really is. While he's tuning us out, there's this little recorder running in the back of his brain catching everything that we say. "Remember the other day when you were talking to daddy, you said...."

    One day, it was like overnight, my son changed. He was about 10 yrs old. He really got in to, soccer, football. He changed his focus to bigger projects..determined to do or create something and he'd do it until it was exactly like he wanted it to be. We would keep a list of things he needed to do during his day. He knew he'd get stuck on a project and forget.
    He is now 31 years old, still strong willed, still determined, but an excellent son, father and employee. He writes down lists of things that he has to do. He'll set his alarm on his cell phone as a reminder that he has to stop what he's doing and do something else or to be somewhere else.
    There is light at the end of this tunnel. It might be small and dim right now, but it's there.
    I understand and I'll be praying.

  7. I just realized your son's name is is mine. :-)

  8. I understand, Amy... I do the same thing day in and day out with both my kids. Thank you for verbalizing my thoughts and what I thought was wrong with me as a mother. Counseling is helping--I have someone who is a specialist in attachment disorder and she's amazing... You're amazing, too, Amy. I love you, my friend!

  9. Have you met Aedan? Are you describing him personally?!? No just joking. I hear you it is a lonely but also very confusing place and I find myself wanting to pull my hair out with anxiety over am I handling this okay. I HEAR YOU!! :) (and miss you)

  10. I am so glad I found your blog. I have a very strong-willed 5 1/2 year old girl. She acts the same way with punishment from me. It kills her if her dad gets on her, but she looks right through me. Everyday is a struggle and a constant battle. We fight and argue all the time as well. Nothing seems to work for me either. If anyone has advice I could use some too. My blog is is anyone would like to give advice or check it out. Still working on setting it up now.


  11. All I can say is me too. My 5 year old sounds almost exactly like your 6 year old. He can be the sweetest child on Earth. He's silly, does the goofiest things to make us laugh, and smiles all the time. Until he doesn't get his way and then its World War 3. He is constantly getting himself in trouble or trying to talk his 3 year old brother into being bad. If you ask him to please be quiet and go play in the other room because his baby sister is sleeping he will run from the room screaming at the top of his lungs. Other people think we exaggerate about his behavior. I keep telling them I only wish we were exaggerating.

  12. yep. that's like my oldest girl. She's 15 now, and even though the relationship is no walk in the park, because she is still very strong-willed, things are not as difficult now as they used to be in between her 7th-13th ish years. Most people think it's because I don't discipline her and never did. That is not true.

    She doesn't respond to punishment. At all. You can take away everything, and she'll still answer with, what are you going to take away next? Not defiantly, but only speaking the truth. If she wants something, she'll find a way, and it can get very exhausting to try to be one step ahead of her. Because the truth is, she is so much smarter than me. It was a horrible struggle, and still is, whenever I try to let her see I'm "the mom" and things have to be my way just because im the mom. But she responds well when i explain things to her, and ok when we make agreements. That's now, not back then.

    I know it's hard. I'm hoping you find a way to make it less stressful for you.

  13. Amy, I am reading the book Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen. It is an easy read, less than 300 pages and I am taking away some great tips on exactly what you are talking about. Kent, now 19, was and is a strong willed child. Even when he knew he was wrong it was all about winning the argument or winning the "situation". If I said white he HAD to say black. He also makes me laugh constantly and is so much fun to be around. This book has taught me how to change the situation into something silly that breaks the tension and it really works. _ love ya, Jan

  14. Dude, I totally didn't get it until Caly turned 2. Now? Now I'm in the thick of it. Sucks feeling like you can't handle going somewhere due to one kid. Sucks feeling like I'm ruining her every time I lose my temper. It's frustrating having no idea howto impact her behavior.

    Yeah. I get it now.

  15. Hey Amy,
    Just read your post and I have lived life with a strong-willed child. It made me so upset when so many school and church days ended with a teacher telling me the problems my son gave to the him/her or the classroom that day. It was sad, lonely and exhausting. I can say, however, that he also is smart, can be very kind and grew up to be a very special adult who loves him family and his parents (thank God)! So, hang in there from someone who knows and it gets better down the road!!!!

    Debbie D:)

  16. Honestly, in describing your son, you described my childhood self. Thankfully, God is good, and despite my incredible disobedience against my parents, he has blessed me richly and they have forgiven me time and time again.

  17. I was teared-up by the time I got to the second paragraph. It is so, so hard. I'm not really ready to write about Will yet. But we go through these phases. Since he was 2 1/2 we'll have about 2 frighteningly hard months with him, then we'll work our way out of it for maybe 3 or 4 months of respite where we feel we understand him. Then he changes.

    We're about a month into a good period right now. Yesterday when I dropped him off at school he said, "I have had a LOT of good days. I'm going to be a GOOD grown-up." Then he added, "I'm thinking about cake with frosting right now." He'd lost dessert the day before and we do indeed have strawberry cake in the fridge. Hey, whatever works!

  18. Oh, I'm currently reading "The Defiant Child". I'm more of a fiction person so these parenting books are hard for me to get through but it came recommended.

  19. I don't have a strong-willed child, so I can't say I understand fully, but I do understand the frustration of times of constant discipline. We go through phases around here - phases of wonderful behavior and phases of difficult behavior. Those difficult phases are exhausting and, as you said, quite lonely.

  20. I just started reading through the series and I get it. I sooooo get it. My daughter is three. I knew when she was an toddler that she was a strong willed child. To top it all off she has red hair so that gets blamed on the hair a lot. I have learned that on days where I don't think I have any patience left, I get tapped for a little bit more. We have days where we battle and days where we are fine. I have learned how to phrase requests as well to give her choices. I too get comments about how she is spoiled because she doesn't get spanked. I have learned to take it all in strides. For every "no" I get, I get just as many "I love you Mom"s and I know that I am truly blessed.

  21. I also have a strong-willed six year old, who is a girl. I know what you mean. Glad to hear there are others going through this craziness!

  22. You're right; it is lonely! People whose own children are less strong-willed don't "get" what you mean. These children are willing to accept whatever consequences there are, just to do what they want.

    I wrote a review of a couple of books on Amazon about parenting a strong-willed child, and I have been amazed by how many emails I've received in response!

  23. Great post!!!

    I'm right there with you, but mine's two right now.

    Something that's been working for me lately (although not if you ask the baby) is holding my toddler when he misbehaves or throws a fit. Sometimes I just hold him on my lap, other times I hold him to his bed if he is being violent. I tell him what he did wrong, and that I'll let him go when he calms down. Being restricted from making choices really upsets him, but it has helped us a lot.

    God bless!

  24. Great story, I have been there. I love my nephew and due to circumstance my wonderful husband and I wound up adopting him @ age 7. He is 9 now. We knew he was stubborn, and he was raised with no guidelines whatsoever, so we knew there would be learning curve being with us. It wasn't immediate that we were told of school issues, it just so happened that his 2nd grade teacher at the time was quietly battling cancer and (God bless her,she passed just after summer started). So we had no idea of how big the problems were until he started 3rd grade with a new young active teacher, and it was apparent that focus, short temper, attention, and listening were a serious problem. Long story short, we took him to a counselor thinking it was the stress of the new environment and circumstance that led him to live with us permanently causing the strong violent tendencies or loud yelling back at times. We really did not want to think it was anything else. We had hoped that regular sessions would open him up and healing would begin and all would settle itself out. The counselor as he spoke to him, also tested for special learning, autism, ADHD, and other types of behavioral traits. He was diagnosed with ADHD, and I did not want him on meds, but they changed his life, the quarelling and disobedience stopped immediately. His focus at school changed and we has not reprimanded or "reminded" to listed on a constant basis. He is so happy and learning this year is like night and day. I am not saying you have any issue such as this on your hands, but you may want to keep an open mind that maybe it is more than what I was sometimes told, "He is just being a boy."

    We are both happy that he can actually sit and read and do his work without having a fit and needing my constant help and prodding to focus.

    I wish you the best!

    Fellow blogspherefriend,

  25. I think our sons are long distance twins. HAHA. Thank-you so much for your post. It helps me to know I am not alone and that my frustration is not just me. I lose my temper and then feel guilty for it and am constantly trying to find things to try with my son so I don't lose my temper. I truly pray that one day my son will grow up to be a successful, well mannered man but only time will tell. Thanks again. :)


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