10 Strategies to Disciplining a Strong-Willed Child

The favorite word of a strong-willed child is: “NO.” That child will say it with a red face and stomping feet. That child will scream it on top of his lungs in a crowded shopping mall. That child is determined and stubborn. Parents recognize that strong-willed child from a mile away. That strong-willed child often throws family life out of balance. That child has the potential to ruin the beautiful vision of parenthood that parents once had.

Now, I’m here to tell you a secret, it gets BETTER. Not right now, not even this week. But, with the right methods, your child will start saying “Yes” instead of “No”. Your child will start cooperating with you on the rules that you’ve set in your house.

1) Teach Empathy to Your Child By Modeling It

Empathy is the foundation of cooperation. Cooperation is the key to manage a strong-willed child. Modeling is the sure fire way to teach a preschooler empathy.

Modeling empathy entails:

  • validating the child’s emotions
  • saying sorry when you are wrong and mean it
  • identifying your own emotions to your child
  • showing the child compassion by anticipating the child’s needs
  • showing the child the process of peaceful conflict resolution

A strong willed child will often create battles when rules are imposed.

It is not outright defiance.

It’s actually the child’s way of questioning the rules. As a young child, the child sometimes does not have enough language to describe the situations.

What we can do as parents:

  • explain why the rule is there in the first place
  • show the child a consequence of not following the rule
  • use positive words to reinforce cooperation

As parents, when we take the high road and simply showing the child that we understand, the child will often feel validated and soften his or her stands willingly.

2) Build Connections By Showing Your Child Respect

Respectful parenting is the fundamental element of parenting a strong-willed child. Showing that child respect when your patience is low is extremely difficult. However, it’s almost paramount that respect is shown.

A strong-willed child will only respect you as a parent if respect is shown to the child first.

A strong-willed child is fiercely independent, thinks about situations in detail and follows an inner compass. These are amazing traits in a successful adult.

As parents, let’s give the child respect in peaceful time so that when conflicts arise, we have that respectful foundation to work with.

In peaceful times, parents can:

  • follow the child in the child’s play activities.
  • ask the child to choose between two choices.
  • ask the child to show what the child means.
  • spend one on one quality time with the child in 5 minute intervals throughout the day.

When you give your child respect during the child’s day, the child will start to feel heard, respected and loved.

When you need to say “no” again in situations, the child will less likely to feel it as an insult to his or her “self”.

The child will have a better ability to detach himself or herself from the feelings of “hurt” and focus more on the situation.

3) Hold Your Child Accountable By Calling Your Child Out On It

When the child is a preschooler, giving the child responsibility is a great way to teach the child about respect and following rules. A few examples can be:

  • During play time, give a “time limit” warning, then ask your child to uphold it.
  • Perform simple household chores together. (wiping the table, polishing the window, making a milk shake, putting on a jacket)
  • When your child is obviously being manipulative, call your child on it. Then, use humor to show your child that you won’t tolerate it.
  • During moments of positive discipline, follow through on all the consequences.

4) Give Your Child Choices

A strong-willed child wants to choose all the time. That means if you serve pancakes, that child wants waffles. This strong-willed child needs to be given two choices at all times.

Do you want pancakes or waffles?

When your child selects a choice, make your child stick to it. If your child ends up not wanting the chosen waffles, then you save the waffles for snack time later.

This will teach the child that choices are important.

When the child can voice opinions, letting the child come up with choices can be a great way to build connection.

5) Let Your Child Lead During Play Time

Play time is a great way to strengthen your connection. It’s also a great way to give over some control to your child so that your child feels respected. My child bosses me around during playtime: Sit mom, sit here. Eat mom, eat this.

As a toddler, he feels helpless most of the time. During play time, he can work some of that frustrations out on mom.

By following his playtime instructions step by step, I’m demonstrating to him that “he’s important”, “I will listen” and “this is how to follow directions.”

By the end of the game, the strong-willed child transforms from an angry child who’s frustrated with feeling helpless to a well-adjusted child who feels useful and important.

6) Use Repetition To Reinforce Descipline

Using repetition to imprint the rules into the child’s mind, then, helping the child to follow them through practice is no easy task.

When done right, your child will self correct his actions instead of you having to tell him all the time.

This is an example of doing more work earlier so that your child will be more compliant later. I have a blog post talking about this method in detail: Positive Discipline in Action

7) Don’t Expect Your Child to Behave. Give Credit to Your Child For Trying.

A lot of times parents have expectations. Those expectations lead to disappointment. The disappointment then eats at the parents’ patience.

As a parent, I learned long ago that expectations are not productive when parenting a young child. Many environmental factors can influence a child. Therefore, I don’t expect my child to behave.

When we go somewhere, I always have a backup plan:

  • a stroller to put my child in if he starts a tantrum
  • a backup snack or toy to appease him if he acts up
  • a carry and dash method of ending the excursion

When we have an outing, I always adjust my mindset:

If all things go wrong, at least we got out of the house. We can always go again when my son’s having a good day.


This mindset has allowed me to not project my disappointment onto my child when my child is having an irrational tantrum.

Instead, I’m able to say to my child: “Let’s try again next time. Today is not a good day. Let’s go home and we can have a snack in the car.”

My son almost always warms up to this even in the mist of a tantrum. He is very well aware that I’m adjusting my day to meet his needs. He feels listened to and appreciated.

8) Rephrase ‘No’ into ‘Yes’

Putting a positive spin on everything might seem overboard.

But, as a toddler and preschooler who’s learning about failures, every failure can seem like the end of the world.

With a strong-willed child, the word “No” often garners a huge emotional reaction. I learned to spin every “no” into “yes” by presenting another alternative solution. For instance:

  • “No, you can’t have cookie right now.” ——-> “How about a slice of apple?”
  • “No, you can’t jump on the chair.” ——-> “Feet on the ground please.”

9) Let Your Child Tantrum It Out If Your Child Must

There are times when everyone need to release their emotions. It’s important to have your strong-willed child release those emotions rather than bottling them all inside. I frequently let my son tantrum it out in the safety of our home. Below are some activities that we do for emotional release:

  • a calm bath
  • jumping on the bed
  • pillow fight
  • exercise ball chase
  • mommy and me yoga
  • dance party to latin music
  • scream into a pillow
  • pull and push games
  • rolling around on the floor

If my son did not have a tantrum for a week, I just know that a “big one” will be coming up. Before that, I always initiate a few games so that the strength of the “big one” will be smaller when it occurs. This has worked wonders for us during the terrible twos.

10) Celebrate With Your Child For Following Rules

We are often celebrating with our children for their academic accomplishments.

Why not celebrate with them when they follow rules?

I will often praise my son for listening to me and following my rules.

I know each and every time, it takes a lot of effort on his side.

When I feel that I praise him too much, I will just give him a “hi-five”. After a while, he really relishes these moments of celebration. Sometimes, I catch him giving himself a praise after he thinks he’s done a good job at following a rule. That to me is totally priceless. I love self-correction, self-praise and self-examination. It is the holy grail of parenting when your child can internalize what you are teaching.

Armed with these strategies, I hope you will have more quality time with your strong-willed child and really appreciate them for the wonderful beings that they are.

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