Sneak peek: Parenting a strong-willed child is no easy task. Tips from a seasoned mom and parenting consultant on how to adjust your mindset to meet your strong-willed child’s needs.
If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know the topic of temperament is especially near to my heart and I write about it often. Over my years as a parent, one key truth has emerged that has influenced this interest: each child is a different assignment.
We spend so much time as parents reading information and tips about parenting. In research
, scholars study which types of parenting approaches tend to help children develop well. But when it comes down to it, these studies are largely conducted to find what works for the “average” child. That is super helpful in many ways. But in day-to-day life with our kids, each child is not “average.” They are each their own unique, quirky individual. Parenting strategies that worked like a charm with one child may fail miserably with another. Each child is their own assignment for parents.
This is why I’m thrilled to feature author Ginny Luther as a guest writer today. She is an Educational and Family Behavioral Consultant, a Loving Guidance Associate and a Conscious Discipline® Master Instructor. Equally important, she is a mother. She learned many lessons while raising her son, Bart. Ginny describes Bart as a strong-willed child with a “bold, vehement personality.” With the help of her guidance, he grew up to become a decorated, leading officer in the U.S. Military, but tragically was killed in the line of duty. She’s recently written a book chronicling her experiences with Bart in order to share her parenting advice with other parents. Her book, Blue Star Grit: A Mother’s Journey of Triumph and Tragedy Raising a Defiant Child into an Exceptional Leader is available now.
She’s sharing her lessons on raising a strong-willed child with us today. I think one of the key messages her story tells us is every child, whether they are strong-willed, introverted, easy-going, or high-needs, all have gifts they bring to the world. Our job as parents is to help them find their gifts and uncover ways to use them in meaningful ways.
Interview with Ginny Luther
Here’s Ginny’s response to some of our most pressing questions about raising a strong-willed child:
What were some of the biggest obstacles you faced when raising your strong-willed child?
I was a single parent so the daily transitions of morning and evening routines were a constant struggle. Bart’s defiance showed up daily for these transitions and the violent tantrums would last up to 45 minutes at a time. Getting them to bed, up in the morning, and out the door was a daily fiasco. I was exhausted all the time and fought internally about why I chose to be a mother.
The biggest struggle was with myself because everything was a power struggle. I hated being in competition with my son over everything! The more I tried to control him the more exacerbated his behavior would become. The negative interactions with him were far more frequent than the positive connections. The worst struggle was with myself, thinking I should know better in how to handle myself. When I found myself threatening him with a wooden spoon one day I knew I had reached my limit. I knew I had to change how I was responding to him. But how? The struggle to find a better way took patience, tenacity, and persistence.
“If I was honest with myself and looked back on the days that were the toughest, I realized those were days I was more focused on myself with stress and my agenda for the day. The boys were last on my list. I did not give them the connection they needed to feel safe and loved. The cost of control is always connection.”Ginny Luther
How did you feel about yourself as a mother during that time?
I was ashamed of myself because I thought I should know better since I was a professional
working in a psychiatric center with young children experiencing trauma. I often watched myself act stupid trying to discipline him but all that came out of my mouth was my mother or my father—the very behavior I swore I would never do. I could not find the voice of kindness and compassion that I wanted to be as a mom. I was completely frustrated with myself. At times I wanted to just run away and give up my children to someone who would take the reins so I didn’t have to do it anymore.
How would you advise other parents dealing with strong-willed, challenging children?
I would say first, that your response has an impact on how your child responds back to you. It is vital, that with compassion, you become aware of your responses. If “being right” and controlling what you think your child “should” do, then you will respond in a way that does not end well with your defiant child. Control is a form of resistance and what you resist persists. Power struggles never end well because someone always loses. If, on the other hand, you can take a few deep breaths before responding to your child your calm state will more likely open the doors for compliance.
If I directed him by focusing on the “don’ts” when giving a direction, this often was the trigger that emboldened his defiance (Don’t stand on the couch!”). Rather, focusing on the behavior I wanted with Bart was a very successful strategy because it was a clear direction (Sit down on the couch. You can choose to sit on this corner or that corner. What works best for you?) Giving a clear direction followed by two positive choices helped to open the door to compliance.
Some days he could not make choices, so I had to choose for him. Those days were just hard and
nothing seemed to work. But on those days focusing on myself being the calm I needed to be in his storms was the best choice. And if that is not possible, forgive myself and accept that I am human and only do the best I can at any moment!
The most valuable strategy for me was to keep myself in check with how much time I spent in positive,
playful connection with Bart. If I was honest with myself and looked back on the days that were the toughest, I realized those were days I was more focused on myself with stress and my agenda for the day. The boys were last on my list. I did not give them the connection they needed to feel safe and loved. The cost of control is always connection.
Helping Your Strong-Willed Child Find their Gifts
Talk about your journey helping Bart cultivate his leadership skills.
The first thing I had to do was to adopt the principle of “let go and let grow”. My agenda for his life was not his and I began to accept his journey. Nourishing the very characteristics that I wanted to control—Bart’s tenacity, persistence, and need for challenge were necessary in order for him to choose success over failure. I had to let go of trying to stop his obsession with guns and learn to accept and foster a safe way to play with them. I took a risk by allowing him to go to Portugal at age 15 by himself for 2 weeks to visit a friend.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in fostering his leadership was for me to let go of saving him from
disappointing outcomes. In order for him to build resiliency, he had to fail without me saving or punishing him. Judging him in his moments of failure was only fodder for him to go down a self-destructive path. It required me to accept that his struggle was a big part of his growth and that with my emotional support—not rescue—he could achieve what he wanted and handle any struggle that comes his way.
Share some parenting methods that lead to more connection and less anger.
First, I had to shift from giving my power away by believing that I could make Bart change his behavior to believing that the only person I can make change is myself. When I would blame him for why I was a “bad” mother it only increased the power struggles and disconnection. Bart needed and loved challenge, as most defiant children do, so I had to feed that need by offering lots of positive choices. It became automatic to tag on 2 positive choices when I was giving a command (It’s time for dinner. Are you going to choose the red cup or the blue cup to drink your water?)
Second, I had to accept that all feelings are a guidance system for understanding what choices one wants to make in life. Accepting a calm feeling state with a bit of happiness was easy. Anger, fear, anxiety, frustration, sadness, disappointment and being too happy were not feelings that were easy for me to accept when I started this transformational journey.
It meant that I had to become the state I wanted for Bart to be able to help him calm down and make sense of his world. I learned to pause, reboot (take some long deep breaths)—reflect (on thoughts that would help to calm my state)—and redirect (focus on helping him with his upset state and what choices he had). When I accomplished this I was able to be kind and firm–provide empathy without giving up the limits.
Related reading: Want to be a More Patient Parent? Start Here…
What was perhaps the hardest thing to do was to take time daily to connect with purpose and in a playful way. This meant returning home from work I put everything down, put aside my to-do list for the evening routine and just play or “be” with my boys for at least 5 minutes. This is harder to do than most think because parents are so busy; often having more to do than there is time. But I found the more I took the time to connect, the more their willingness to comply was there. The time I spent connecting reduced the number of power struggles giving me much more time to get my agenda done. Five minutes a day with 100% of my presence in their world made a huge difference.