The juggle of working, raising a family, investing in relationships, and finding vital time for us is real. We all know this.
The juggle is harder if you have a spirited child. Living with these harder to handle kids can test your limits on a daily, sometimes even hourly, basis. Until we can learn to see these children for who they are – passionate, forthright, persistent, opinionated with huge integrity – rather than as the children we might like them to be – the power struggle will continue.
It’s these “demanding” children who push our buttons, who make seemingly simple requests to put their socks on, walk out the door or turn off the light, a battlefield. When our buttons are pushed, we often resort to those tried and tested reactive but ineffective techniques of repeating, punishing and shouting, or just giving in and walking away.
There is a better way to create harmony at home…
See your child through a different lens
When life is a constant power struggle, American parenting expert Bonnie Harris suggests that we change the way we see these children. Instead of difficult, obstinate and stubborn, we can focus on their strengths of not shying away from conflict, having integrity and a strong view of what is fair. We can ‘reframe’ our view and turn towards them with compassion, respect and a deep curiosity about how the world feels for them. Rather than trying to change our children, we can put our energy into helping them to understand and make the most of their unique temperament; to help them thrive.
These are great kids; they just can be hard to parent. Studies have shown that strong-willed children are less susceptible to peer pressure in their teens than those children who are constantly aiming to please.
These kids become determined, creative, self-motivated resilient adults with huge integrity – hang in there!
Don’t take it personally
Our kids are not out to get us. This is a hard one to digest but it’s time to step back, breathe and remember “she is not BEING a problem, she is HAVING a problem” and my job is to help her learn.
Remember her developmental stage, her unique temperament and what might be reasonable to expect. Ask yourself: can I expect my persistent, intense child who finds transitions a challenge to find it easy to be flexible and compromise? Can I expect my child who does not shy away from conflict to NOT push back, question or test me? Breathe deeply, manage your expectations and remember it’s not about you.
Have clear consistent boundaries
All children need clear consistent limits and boundaries, but they are vital for your strong-willed child. Be clear around the things that are important and reflect your family values such as screen time, swearing, bedtime and helping around the house.
Discuss your family values and rules during a calm moment and get your child’s input. Communication and collaboration are key skills and all kids, but especially these ones, need to know you are respectfully hearing their side. Clear, consistent, rather than rigid, boundaries are empowering and important in avoiding power struggles. It might sound like this:
“What is the rule about homework before screen time? I know you don’t like this rule and it’s hard to wait. Do you want a snack before you get started?”
“I know you find the rule about lights out before bed a tough one. What story are we going to read tonight?”
“On the plan you all made together, whose turn is it to take out the recycling?”
Show your faith and confidence in their ability to do the right thing.
Keep working on the relationship
Challenging behaviour in all kids can be a sign that the relationship needs work. One important and highly effective way to improve the connection is through prioritising one-on-one time with your child. Try to spend child-led time with each of your kids as often as you are able. This special time sends the message that we are interested, that they have our full attention, that they matter and that they are loved. Follow their lead and remember it’s not the time to chastise their behaviour but rather to turn emotionally towards them and connect.
You may feel that carving out yet more time is a stretch too far but it’s an investment that saves time as connected children are happier and more inclined to cooperate, the first time.
A vital part of connection is trying hard to understand. We don’t accept inappropriate behaviour, but we need to accept ALL feelings, and this starts with non-judgmental listening.
We are conditioned to correct, fix and point out the things our children get wrong. We’re only trying to help. Instead, if we listen to how the world feels to our child and acknowledge all the things they get right, we’ll get more of the behaviour we want to see and more cooperation.
One practical idea to help you reframe, improve your relationship and your child’s self- esteem, is to end each day by acknowledging three things that they did well or three things you are grateful for. These positive affirmations are not only a reminder of all the things that they get right but they help our child feel appreciated, understood and deeply loved.
We all like and need to feel in control and this is especially true for the spirited child. As often as you can, offer choices (that you are happy with).
Let young children choose their clothes. Let kids decide where they do their work. Let them help you choose the weekly menu or what you do on a Sunday. The more you can proactively ask for their ideas and offer choices, the more you are engaging their thinking brain, and this includes taking responsibility for solving problems. It might sound like this:
“We need to work out screen time as it’s not working now. How much time do you think is the right amount and what can we do to help you turn off when its time?”
“Why don’t you all work out who is going to walk Alfie this weekend and when. How will we remember?”
“That didn’t go so well this morning. We were all a bit stressed, and we were late. How can we make this work for everyone?”
Always connect first
As Dr Dan Siegel, author and clinical professor of psychiatry, says “connect and redirect” to move a child from reactivity to receptivity.
To connect first, we need to be in the right place. When we feel triggered and just can’t help ourselves from resorting back to our old ways, breathe… Count to three, or even five, and then connect:
“For you to swear at me like that shows me just how angry you are at having to do your homework. I bet you wish you didn’t get any at all and it’s the last thing you want to do when you get home after a tiring day. I get that.”
When our kids are emotional, they’re in a place where it’s hard to be logical, rational or see the big picture until they ‘feel felt’ – until we connect with their emotional brain. Our job is to help them get back to a calm place where they feel safe with empathy, nurturing and understanding.
We still require boundaries be upheld but the teaching, which engages the logical rational brain, comes later when we are all calm. When our kids feel heard they are more likely to learn to calm and soothe themselves and move to problem-solving. They are much more able to come up with a solution that works for all involved.
Being the parent of a strong-willed, spirited child can feel overwhelming and working with this child takes huge strength. It’s a challenge, though, that reaps untold rewards.
If we reframe our attitudes and calmly acknowledge and teach our kids to recognise that they are strong, persistent, with huge integrity and an ability to take on whatever tricky challenge lies in their path, we will raise wonderful adults.
Heather Rutherford is a parenting coach, and a partner coach with Careering into Motherhood.
December 9, 2022