Who’s the Boss? How to Parent Strong-Willed Kids

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Who’s the Boss? How to Parent Strong-Willed Kids

  • Do you have to raise your voice, lecture or repeat yourself to get your kids to listen?
  • Do your children ignore everyday requests when they just don’t feel like it?
  • Have you tried to avoid spanking and yelling but nothing else seems to work?
  • Are you exhausted and upset because your kids seem disrespectful, entitled or ungrateful for all of the things you do for them?
  • Are you feeling frustrated and defeated despite your best efforts to be a great parent?

Kids Are Out of Control

Research shows that an increasing number of kids have too much power in their families. Some won’t go to bed early enough to get sufficient sleep. Others have a hard time making or keeping friends because they don’t share very well or want to be center stage. Many throw temper tantrums when they don’t get the treat they want at the grocery store. These are all signs that you may want to try a new approach. Letting children get away with too much—or overindulging them by giving them everything they want—can be as damaging to their feelings of self-worth as being too strict.

Whats the Problem?

Children who have too much power over their parents are at risk for a lot of different problems. They become anxious about the impulses they can’t control and, as a result, feel badly about themselves and guilty about the pain they’re causing. Kids who act and are treated like they are the boss of the family not only drive their parents crazy but often get in trouble in school, have difficulty with peers, and are deprived of fundamental lessons needed to survive in a world that will not always revolve around them.

Here’s a short list of some of the many reasons that kids misbehave:

  • Testing to see what they can get away with
  • Not wanting to face frustration
  • Wanting parents’ attention
  • Showing their parents that they are upset
  • Retaliating for feeling like they’ve been mistreated
  • Expressing anger or upset about anything going on in their lives
  • Distracting their parents from their marital conflict
  • Sacrificing themselves by drawing attention to their behavior and away from a parent’s own struggles with stress, anxiety, depression, conflict, etc.

Balance Love with Firmness

Family researchers have known for years that healthy families create environments that balance large doses of love and warmth with sufficient firmness and structure. Kids thrive in these settings. Without love and warmth they tend to feel abandoned and resentful, and without firmness and structure they will often test until or unless limits are set.

This core concept has not changed and is not likely to do so. The goal is simple—namely to help children feel good about themselves and have love and respect for others.

For kids to be happy and successful, they need to learn to respect others, honor rules and limits, and learn self-control. We also need to dish out daily doses of love and warmth, say yes to their efforts, support their unique passions, and ask them to make age-appropriate contributions to the family.

Roadblocks to Setting Effective Limits

There are a number of roadblocks to parents setting effective limits. One is not adapting to a child’s age. For example, an important ingredient of early parenting is to bond with an infant—to provide what is called “secure attachment.”

Ideally infants should have all of their needs attended to and met, but as children grow older it’s best if they’re weaned from being the center of the universe. They need to be able to tolerate frustration. There’s also a big difference between parental behaviors that are nurturing versus indulgent— doing things for kids that they can do for themselves.

Another roadblock to setting limits for some parents is when they feel sorry for their child. One mom realized in therapy that she had relaxed the rules too much with her eight-year-old son, Matthew, because of recent family traumas. His parents’ divorce was immediately followed by the loss of their home in a wildfire. Matthew had lots of feelings about losing his family and all of his possessions, but was also acting out as a way of testing boundaries. A dramatic reduction in his anxiety occurred only after the parents learned to set better limits.

Being a Parent Isn’t Like Being a Friend

Some parents are afraid of making waves or being in conflict with their children. For others, it’s too important to be their child’s best friend. This is especially true when parents lack adequate social support from extended family or friends.

Since a crucial part of parenting is being able to put your foot down now and then, you can’t be dependent on your children’s love and approval. What this does is that it puts all of your emotional eggs in one basket. If your child isn’t upset with you sometimes, you probably aren’t setting enough limits.

Parents can learn to endow their children with the social and emotional tools they need to survive life’s inevitable stresses and frustrations. There are ways to turn things around, using a child’s willfulness as an asset instead of a liability.

As we take on parental authority in a firm and loving manner, or take it back after having lost it, our kids can go back to being kids again—relieved to let parents do their job of parenting.

There are  proven and effective methods to turn things around and set limits in caring, constructive ways. We share a variety of  helpful resources on this topic, including a simple and practical hands-on approach to turning things around, in the free webinar The 4 Essentials to Parenting Strong-willed Kids. You can register to watch it here.

Don MacMannis, Ph.D. and Debra Manchester MacMannis, M.S.W. are a team both at home and at the office. Married for more than thirty years and parents of two sons, they are psychotherapists who have simultaneously served as directors of the Family Therapy Institute of Santa Barbara. In addition to nationwide lectures on families, they have provided postgraduate training to hundreds of therapists.

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