Your child – charmer, sensitive or just plain strong-willed?

Hannah Dickson spends an hour with Diane Levy

Question: What’s worse than realising you are 10 minutes into a complicated argument with your child? Answer: Knowing you have descended to their level, that they are far better at arguing than you, have twice your stamina and that this all means you are never going to win.

Many parents say they could tell within a few weeks of their baby’s birth that they were dealing with a strong-willed child. They definitely knew by the time the toddler years arrived. It might take slightly longer to work out exactly what kind of strong-willed child you have, says Diane Levy.

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The ‘strong-willed charmer’

This means they are a combination of fun and control, and you may well have a future Prime Minister on your hands. Children with this personality type are often natural leaders because while they do like to take control, they have the charm to take others along with them.

The ‘strong-willed sensitive’ child

They’re a little trickier to parent. On one hand they feel brave and in control, but they are also sensitive and need lots of support. And they can swing from one to the other in seconds!

The ‘strong-willed, strong-willed’ child

Then finally, we have ‘strong-willed strong-willed’ (for want of a better term) and that’s what we are talking about today. These children certainly brings challenges, but as with any personality type, they have their delights as well.

Here’s how to tell if there’s one at your place

They like to be in control

This is their preferred state – to such an extent that if they lose the plot for any reason, they hate the activity.

They are happiest doing what they consider real tasks

They are very goal-focused, so if they are on a mission, they are very hard to deflect. But if it’s a positive mission, this can be a great asset because they will get things done. While being told to ‘go and play’ will frustrate them, they make terrific apprentices, says Diane. “If you say, ‘Come and work with me, I need some help’, they will often rise to the occasion beautifully. Of course they may take over and tell you you’re doing it all wrong,” she laughs.

“My favourite example of this is from when my son was three. I did the ‘good parent thing’ and put an arm round him and said, ‘Robbie, you are playing so nicely’. He drew himself up to his full height of just a few feet and said, ‘I am not playing, I am working!’” Strong-willed children see through empty praise – they want admiration for their work.

They create loyalty crises

They know exactly what they want but you may not be able to – or wish to – deliver it. So they divide according to whether you are on their side or against it. Strong-willed children get bitterly hurt when you are not on their side and may let you know with a resounding, “I hate you!”.

They can argue all day

They know they are right so they will argue to the bitter end – don’t bother arguing back! On the flipside, strong-willed children are crystal clear, very purposeful and get things done. They are fiercely loyal to those they consider worthy of their loyalty and who have shown loyalty to them. It certainly helps to understand strong-willed children better and to have some strategies to help manage them.

Try these strategies

Avoid saying ‘no’

This little word is a red flag to a strong-willed child, says Diane. If you can, say ‘yes, later’ or ‘yes, when’. But you can’t be wishy washy, you need to stand by what you say. For example, “Yes, you can go next door to play, when you have finished your homework”. Avoid ‘yes, if’ because that is starting to bargain, and that can lead to lots of arguing.

Give them choices

When it’s appropriate, let them organise you. If you’re spending some one-on-one time with a child and you don’t mind where you go for lunch, let them decide what’s for lunch and where you will go. They are good at organising.

Give them responsibility

Lists of tasks are a great tool. Strong-willed children need to achieve things, and ticking things off a list gives them that satisfaction. You still need to teach them things and model how they are done, but they love to hear you say, “I need your help”.

Do not argue – they are better at this than you

Most arguments happen because you tell them something is going to happen, and why, and they don’t like or agree with your reason. Stick to one reason. If they don’t like your first one, they are unlikely to be more impressed by any others you come up with.

Douse the flames

You can avoid an argument by saying, “You see it this way (this is important because it lets them know mum or dad has listened to them), I see it this way.” It won’t necessarily solve everything, but it is respectful of their brain and it is modelling respect for their opinion. At that point, let it go – your way will have to prevail.

If you find yourself getting hooked in further, tell them you will think about it. “It’s hard to think while you are under fire and all those arrows are raining down upon you,” says Diane. “But you need to come back with a decision one way or the other. Wavering fuels their little boilers! ‘Later’ or ‘we’ll see’ irritates them. They require a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. ‘Maybe’ is seen as an invitation to argue.”

Distinguish between a plan and a promise

If this story is ringing true with you, you’re probably very familiar with the phrase, “But you promised!” You may have planned a trip to the park in the afternoon, then cancelled it when the rain came pouring down. It helps to break it down. “Yes, I said we would go to the park when it was fine, but it is pouring with rain, so we need to change the plan. Here are our choices.”

When we give our strong-willed children responsibility and choices, they will prove remarkably competent and helpful. If we need to say ‘no’, we should say it once, give a brief reason and not put energy into arguing. This is a good thing, because we will need all our energy for biting our tongues – so we do not get into debating with the masters.

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