Managing Your Strong Willed Preschoolers (3 to 5 Year Olds)
Raising a child who loves to assert their independence can be fun if you allow them some control, validate their feelings and find creative ways to problem-solve together.
By Saakshi Kapoor Kumar • 13 min read
Stubborn people get themselves in a lot of trouble, but they also get things done
– Attributed to Oscar-winning actress, Anna Paquin
Do you often wonder how your tiny preschooler has a will so strong that nothing can convince him to do what you say? He seems bent on living life on his own terms! When you have a strong-willed child, you may feel overwhelmed by their constant defiance and disobedience. The thought of making your toddler say “Yes” to something may feel unnerving. Should you be worried? Well, the answer is no. We know you’re tired of listening to that word from your preschooler. However, the light at the end of the tunnel is that raising your spirited child can be a beautiful experience.
Scenario 1: Even after many reminders, your preschooler simply won’t put his toys away. You asked him gently and firmly, you negotiated with him, and even scolded him, but nothing worked. You finally clear up the toys. And a few minutes later, your child takes out the toys, starts playing and his toys are now all over the room!
Scenario 2: You take your child to a grocery store and she wants a cupcake. You tell her to wait a few days. She screams “NO!” and begins to have a tantrum. Embarrassed by your child’s behavior, you eventually buy her the cupcake.
While such moments involve never-ending power struggles between you and your child, the truth is that most preschoolers don’t understand the power dynamics between you and them. At that age, your child is usually trying to figure out how much control he has over his life, how he can assert his independence. He’s still discovering the world around him, and doesn’t know right from wrong. The best thing to do would be to set reasonable limits within which his need to control his life can be acknowledged and fulfilled. Before we get into the how-to, let’s first clarify one thing.
What does being “strong-willed” mean?
Most people label a strong-willed child, “stubborn”, “difficult” or, unfortunately, even “bad”. So, if your child defies you and doesn’t want to do the things you ask, is he stubborn or strong-willed?
Avoiding both labels is best because children’s personalities are evolving. Children who display stubborn behavior say no to things because they want their own way and will not budge from it. A child with a strong will reasons with you, knows what he wants and will stick to his opinion.
Here are some things you should know about spirited children:
- They’re not deliberately trying to make life difficult for you. It’s just that they work better when you give them the option to make their own choices.
- Their concept of right and wrong is often governed by their own logic, which means they’ll do what they think is right no matter what you told them. They’re usually opinionated, and don’t shy away from expressing their views.
- They’re likely to be very emotional.
- They like to learn themselves rather than being taught. If you give them ample opportunities to exercise choice, they will most likely self-discipline.
If you’re raising a child who values her independence as much as she values you, that’s not such a bad thing! Look at your child’s positive qualities and you’ll be able to treat her “stubbornness” more patiently. You will begin to see your preschooler thrive in an environment where she has more room for choices and exercising control, within limits of course.
Here are some simple, yet effective ways to manage your spirited child
1. Work through the challenging moments.
With children who are strong-willed, parents will often find simple situations turning into conflicts. You may be tempted to yell and just get it done. Rest assured, this methodology is not sustainable and will not work in the long run.
The P.E.A.C.E (Pause, Empathize, Await, Communicate, Engage) method can be highly beneficial to turn a conflict situation into a moment of reflection, and can be used to help your child learn appropriate behaviour.
For example, let’s take the first scenario in which your toddler refuses to put his toys away.
Step 1: PAUSE
Every time you feel the situation at hand is out of control, pause, take a step back and breathe. If you are emotionally triggered, you are more likely to react unpleasantly. Calm yourself down before you even attempt to calm him. This will help you take charge of your emotions and bring you to a state where your anger doesn’t get the best of you.
Step 2: EMPATHIZE
When you start to view your child’s defiance as a part of his innate being, you’ll be able to connect with him. Here’s how to deal with your strong-willed child more effectively.
★ Change The Narrative
You may be thinking:
- He’s such a stubborn child, what am I going to do with him?
- He’s so spoilt!
- Why can’t he just listen?
Now, could you possibly change the narrative and think from his perspective? His thoughts may be:
- I still want to play, why can’t I decide when I’m done!
- So what if the toys are all over, I can play with them whenever I want!
- How can I get Mumma to play with me and my toys?
When you think from your child’s point of view, you begin to appreciate the innocence behind it all, you begin to understand why he acts the way he does.
Step 3: AWAIT
Let him respond. You need to hear him out. Simply telling your child to stop playing is not enough. Reason with him once he’s calm and more receptive. Telling him he’s wrong, at a time when he’s already triggered, may lead to more frustrations and arguments, which can be avoided with sheer patience.
Step 4: COMMUNICATE
Explain to him the consequences of having scattered toys all over the floor. Rather than saying “Clear up your toys”, why not say, “Let’s wind up playing so that no one steps on your toys”.
Step 5: ENGAGE
Make it fun; use your creativity to make simple tasks a lot more meaningful. You can be playful and say, “I am the hungry basket. I am hungry. Feed me your blocks!” Or turn a boring task into a game, “I bet you can’t make all your dolls sit in the dollhouse!” Come up with a song, a special high five or a little dance to help your preschooler feel that doing what’s told can be fun too!
2. Play to their strengths.
Award-winning author, feminist and children’s rights advocate, LR Knost, once said, “Instant obedience and mindless compliance are poor goals, indeed, when raising children. A thoughtfully questioning, passionately curious and humorously resourceful child who wants to know why, who delights in inventing ‘compromises’, and who endlessly pushes the boundaries tends to grow into a thoughtful, passionate, resourceful adult who will change the world rather than being changed by the world.”
Your strong-willed preschooler is brimming with inspiring qualities. So, recognizing her strengths can go a long way in making parenting more peaceful. Here are some positive character traits you may discover in your strong-willed child:
- She’s a natural leader and just like leaders, she’ll do only what she believes in. She will not easily succumb to peer pressure.
- She loves her independence, and exercises it by being a curious explorer, experimenting with her surroundings and learning something new.
- She likes to make her own choices and decisions.
- By channeling her inner strength, she may exhibit outstanding grit and excel at whatever she does.
- She will always stand up for herself, making her more prone to standing up for what she believes in, in the future. She may inspire many as she grows.
- She’s a hands-on experiential learner, and learns by doing. This also means she’ll learn values and skills by example and emulate you.
Let’s look at the second scenario where your toddler is having a meltdown at the grocery store.
In most cases, your strong-willed preschooler doesn’t want to be a spectator in any chore or task. She most likely wants to participate and make decisions. Hone her skills by involving her completely. Here are a few ways to do this:
- INVOLVE HER: Prepare a list with her beforehand, and ask her which section she would like to be “in charge” of. She gets to pick any one or two categories of products like breakfast groceries or towels!
- GRANT CONTROL THROUGH RESPONSIBILITIES: Once you’re at the store, remind her what she’s in charge of. When you get to that section, let her pick out the things you had discussed. Take a step back and help her only when she asks for it.
- PRAISE AND APPRECIATE: When she’s done helping, make sure to acknowledge her help and how she made shopping so much easier. Tell her that next time you go shopping, she can help with more items.
3. Empower them.
Who doesn’t love it when their child is well-behaved? At moments like these, parenting seems like a seamless process. However, even the most well-behaved child is bound to exhibit disobedience at some point. On the other hand, there are children who reason, question and use their strong will more often. Such a child is actually a blessing in disguise.
You may want your child to adjust to their surroundings. After all, the world doesn’t function according to your child’s will. However, the fact is that independent thinkers, if given autonomy to make their choices within reasonable limits, will not just be cooperative citizens, but also positive change makers who can make a difference.
While parenting a strong-willed child may seem difficult, here are some ways you can empower your child and, in return, develop a strong relationship with them:
- Look at their strong will as a leadership quality, and accept your child as they are.
- Discuss rather than impose rules. Explain the consequences of breaking said rules very clearly. Always provide them a structure to operate within.
- Be flexible in your approach, and never let your child feel like their opinion or freedom doesn’t matter to you.
- Give your child ample opportunities to exercise their choice. For instance, if your goal is to feed them a fruit, let them pick the fruit.
- If your child makes a reasonable demand, it’s alright to let them have their way once in a while.
- You don’t have to win a power struggle all the time. Don’t get frazzled over the tiniest issues. If she wants to clear up the toys after 15 minutes, it’s okay.
- Don’t push a child who instinctively likes making their own decisions. Be around to simply facilitate their exploration.
- Engage your child through unconventional and creative activities. For example, to make your picky eater eat something healthy, allow her to set up her plate in the way she wants.
- When in a tussle, calm yourself down first and then sit with your child and say, “I can understand that you’re feeling a little annoyed at being asked to do something you don’t want to. Try it this time, maybe you will enjoy it and then next time, we can do it the way you want.”
- Acknowledge their goodness. Celebrate with them when they make a choice and enjoy it!
While you may feel overwhelmed by the strong will of your preschooler, it will help if you recognize it as your child’s need to explore his freedom and independence. Rewind to your childhood and recall the moments when you felt like nothing was going your way. That’s probably what your child is feeling too! Rather than getting frustrated and caught up in a power battle every now and then, find a common ground for both your expectations and your child’s need to assert their choice.
In a nutshell:
- Your child is not stubborn or a handful; they’re little freethinkers who have a point of view, which we need to respect.
- If your child and you are finding yourselves in constant battles, it's time to rethink your way of managing the situation. Breathe, calm down, and then think about how to respond positively.
- Your child can get their way at times, this is okay. Don’t let the power struggle get to you. They’re not at an age to understand this. Pick your battles and avoid unnecessary arguments.
- Accept and celebrate your child for who they are, irrespective of how many times they challenge the norms.
- If you feel that the defiance is getting out of hand, seek professional help.
What you can do right away:
- Identify triggering situations or moments when your child strongly defies you. Talk to them and ask them why the situation makes them say “NO!”
- Identify your own personal triggers and work through them. Why is that you are so adamant on particular things?
- Use stories, songs and play very often in the daily routine to avoid conflicts.
- Have heart-to-heart conversations about feelings, after you work through the regular tussles. You’ll probably discover that your child dislikes arguments as much as you do.
- Sometimes, defiance can be a call for attention. Make sure you check in with your child.
- Appreciate them for their obedience rather than calling them out on their disobedience. Positive words always work better than negative ones.
About the author:
Written by Saakshi Kapoor Kumar on 27 November, 2020
Ms. Kumar holds a Masters degree in Psychology from Ambedkar University, New Delhi and is working as a Senior Associate-Special Projects (Content Solutions Zone) at ParentCircle.
About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 27 November 2020
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and Parenting Coach at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).
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