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Parenting the Strong Willed Child

 If a parent has more than one child, it is inevitable that at least one will display an iron clad will. This child will react poorly to new people and situations, be impossible to place on a regular feeding and sleeping schedule, routinely balk at rules and procedures. Our job then, according to Dobson (2004) is “not simply to shape the will, but to do so without breaking the spirit.” Strong willed children are set up for a plethora of interpersonal conflicts, by default. It is the job of the parents to teach the child to submit to proper authorities and to work well with others.

Definition of the Human Service Problem

The number of children who fall into the category Dobson (2004) describes as “difficult” or “strong willed” has been rising steadily over the last several decades. In fact, Dobson articulates that “there are nearly three times as many strong willed kids as those who are compliant” (Dobson, 2004, p 49). It is very rare to find a family with multiple children that does not have at least one child who wants to run the show. This is problematic for several reasons. First, strong willed children suffer academically and socially in school, with many receiving poor grades and struggling to develop relationships with same age peers. Additionally, compliant children appear to have higher self esteem than their strong willed counterparts. Strong willed children that are not taught to submit to authority in childhood with their parents will also struggle to submit to other forms of authority (teachers, employers, law enforcement, etc.).

Dobson (2004) further describes the strong willed child in The new strong willed child. Strong willed children tend to react negatively to new people and situations. They can be characterized by intense mood swings, frequent periods of crying, temper tantrums, etc. It is also very difficult to place these children on regular feeding and sleeping schedules. Simply put, these children do not play by the rules out of sense of duty to be obedient. They will test any boundaries that are imposed upon them on a consistent basis.

Roots and Causes of Stronger Willed Children

So, why the abundance of overly strong willed youth? MacNamara (2016) delves into this topic in her work, Rest play grow: Making sense of preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one). She describes the rise in what is referred to as the “alpha complex.” In this case, the parent-child relationship becomes inverted, with the child taking on a more dominant role in the relationship. When a parent figure lacks authority, the child loses his or her faith in the ability of the adult to keep him/her safe. Then, the child seeks to gain control over the parent. If the child grows insecure in the parent-child relationship, there will be a marked play to gain control and change circumstances.  

MacNamara (2016) also describes parental history as a culprit for the alpha complex as well. If a parent lived with an overly authoritarian parent as a child, he or she may be inclined to be overly permissive in order to keep the child from suffering the same wounds that the parent did. The child can sense that their parent has unmet needs and will then move to attempt to take charge in the situation. MacNamara delves further, stating, “In another scenario, if a parent had little support for their tears and sadness growing up, they may struggle to help their child face limits and restrictions because it creates upset they are uncomfortable with” (MacNamara, 2016, p 111). In these situations, parents must be particularly reflection and in tune with what works and does not work for their child.  

Dobson (2014) has an interesting discussion of temperament in his work, Dare to Discipline. He states that temperament of a child is at least partially inherited. Therefore, if a mother or father was especially strong willed as a child, he or she is more likely to produce at least one especially strong willed offspring.  With that knowledge, he argues that parents must explicitly teach behaviors they desire to see. If a parent desires that a child demonstrate respect for authority, he or she must model the life principle of respect frequently in order for the child to have something to emulate.

In his work Seven solutions for burned out parents, Dobson (2007) promotes a lack of quality family time as a definitive link to undesirable behavior in children and teens. He argues, “When parents are involved intimately with their kids during the teen years and when their relationship leads to an active family life, rebellious and destructive behavior is less likely to occur” (Dobson, 2007, p 79). MacNamara (2016) seconds this belief in her work, affirming that culturally, there is an incredible emphasis on success in extracurriculars from a very early age. This places children outside of the family environment, where modeling of virtues such as patience, compassion, kindness, faith, etc. should be being modeled. MacNamara directs, “When children are pushed to be independent too soon, they will take the lead out of necessity” (MacNamara, 2016, p 110). In other words, parents push their children to develop independence, then wonder why it grows increasingly difficult to exercise authority over them. She argues that adults need to create an environment where they are the answer to life’s questions for the child.

History of the Problem

There has been a plethora of misleading information on parenting strong willed children, which has undoubtedly increased the prevalence of children that “rule the roost.” For example, in 1974, a best selling author of the time, John Holt, advocated for the complete release of parental authority. He argued that children should be able to experience anything (including drug use, alcohol, premarital sex, etc), and that parents should just trust them to learn to handle it (Dobson, 2004, p 42). Even current research tends to promote “positive parenting.” This style of parenting has parents making all requests and redirection with positive statements. For example, if Sally was running through the house, her mother would be coached to say, “Use your walking feet, Sally.” There are plenty of times a child simply needs to hear “no” or “stop.”  However, parents are instructed not to use negative language. Faber and King (2017) illuminate the topic of directive language with children further, affirming that children are not wired to automatically obey adults they have no relationship with. This lends itself to the conclusion that the problem is not so much with particular wording, but in a lack of appropriate relationship with children. If a child is secure in the adult leading him/her, hearing the word “no” would be unlikely to bring on a power struggle.

MacNamara (2016) delves into the rise of the alpha child in her text. She argues that one challenge that parents have faced and continue to face is the pressure to have children become proficient in a number of areas including technology and competitive sports. It is articulated that “when children are pushed to be independent too soon, they will take the lead out of necessity” (MacNamara, 2016, p 110). The increasing pressure to have children hit milestones early is contributing to the inversion of the parent-child relationship. Simply put, children are growing up too fast.

Future Recommendations

            Dobson (2004) offers many suggestions to help shape the will of a strong willed child. The will must be shaped in order for a child to develop a healthy respect for authority. In order for this to happen, the process of shaping the will must be started in the preschool years. Additionally, it is exceptionally important to clearly define boundaries before one tries to enforce them. Next, parents must distinguish between childish irresponsibility and willful defiance. A child misplacing his or her shoes is irresponsible. A child who screams in the face of his or her parent is being defiant. In that case, the transgression should be dealt with appropriately in the manner in which you are comfortable. Dobson (2004) is a supporter of corporal punishment, affirming that a mild spanking is an appropriate discipline tool for children between the ages of two and ten years of age. Dobson articulates, “ Firm discipline, when administered with love, helps provide that protection” (Dobson, 2004, p 144). This circles back to the importance of enhancing the parent-child relationship. A child that is secure in his or her parent’s love is unlikely to feel abused or scarred from discipline measures.

            MacNamara (2016) investigates the importance of conveying a strong alpha presence to children. She explains, “This means you assume responsibility for making headway in righting the relationship, for keeping the child out of harm’s way, and for not putting them in situations that are too difficult to manage them in” (MacNamara, 2016, p 116). If the relationship between the child and parent is inverted, the child cannot trust in the caretaking offered. Dobson (2014) agrees, affirming that children ultimately desire to be led (they enjoy the structure), but insist that the adults in their life earn the right to lead them. Language should be clear and concise, leaving little room for argument. An example of this could occur in the supermarket. The young child is touching everything on the shelf. Rather than saying, “Wouldn’t you like to keep your hands to yourself and make Mom happy?,” simply state, “Hands to self.” The directive is short, clear, and it is not phrased as a question.

            Faber and King (2017) dive further into the topic of communication with the strong willed child in their text, How to talk so little kids will listen: A survival guide to life with children ages 2-7. A mistake that parents make all too often is attaching the word “please” at the end of all requests. This insinuates to the child that the directive is a choice, when in all reality, “no” is not an acceptable answer. Some tools given to help deal with the defiance that strong willed children often exhibit include being playful in one’s parenting approach (such as making an inanimate object talk…the shoes could whine for the child to put them on, etc), turning mundane tasks into competitive games, offering choices when possible (the key here is to make sure the parent can live with both options), and using language to describe what is noticed. For example, rather than stating, “Don’t leave your jacket on the floor!,” a parent might simply state, “I see a jacket on the floor.” The description is void of negative energy, just a clear description of what is seen that cannot be argued with.

            It is also especially critical to remain calm and in control while parenting strong willed children. Faber and King (2017) state to “take action without insult.” If the child is throwing rocks at the park near where other children are playing after expectations are clearly explained, calmly tell him or her that is time to go because their behavior is unsafe. If two children are dueling over a toy, simply state that the toy has to be put up until the children can get along and play safely together.



            One of the most important points to be drawn from research is that a strong willed temperament can be a powerful and good attribute for a child to possess. It is not necessarily a negative quality. Strong willed children are likely to demonstrate the same iron clad will in chasing their dreams later in life. They are less likely to be influenced by peer pressure. Dobson cautions, however, “the realization of that potential appears to depend on the provision of a structured early home environment led by loving, fair minded mothers and fathers who are clearly tougher and wiser than their children. They are reasonably effective in shaping the will without breaking the spirit are going to appreciate the person their child eventually becomes” (Dobson, 2004, p 248). These children will grow to be leaders and trend setters in their respective fields and occupations. 

            Another key point that all authors agree on is the importance of shaping the will early on in life. Children must begin learning respect for authority during the preschool years. If parents wait until their children are teens, it is far too late to teach how to properly submit to authority. Dobson (2004) notes that a youngster that is allowed to be continuously defiant will grow into a rebellious teen that challenges his or her parents, teachers, and other authority figures (employers, administrators, law enforcement, etc.). Dobson advises parents to be “confidently firm” in their demeanor with their children. Excessive harshness is not the answer to the challenge of shaping the will of a naturally strong willed child, but neither is excessive permissiveness. There must be a balance. Parents must intuitively know which battles are worth picking, and when to let certain things slide a little.

            Additionally, all texts focus on the importance of the right type of relationship with your child. MacNamara notes, “A right relationship with a parent gives the child someone to turn to who can take the sting out of shame (when feeling something is wrong with who they are), reduce separation (when being rejected, unwelcome, or uninvited), and lower alarm (when feeling unsafe physically and emotionally). Love is the ultimate shield for a child’s vulnerable heart- it is a beautiful design” (MacNamara, 2016, p 141). Ultimately, children long to feel safe, secure, and loved. When parents are unable to provide circumstances in which these feelings naturally occur, the relationship becomes inverted. The child loses faith in the adult’s ability to keep them safe and secure. So, they seek a more dominant position within the relationship in order to alter conditions to where they are comfortable. It is imperative that we are our child’s “safe place.” A child’s relationship with his/her parents sets the tone for his/her relationship with God. If we model being a “safe place,” a child is more likely to turn to their heavenly father for safekeeping as well.

            In conclusion, the increase in the number of strong willed children has made it imperative for parents and educators to examine their own practices and be reflective on how the will of these children can be shaped into a healthy balance between independence and a willingness to submit to necessary forms of authority. This will help these children become the people God desires them to grow into.


Dobson, J. (2007). Seven solutions for burned-out parents. Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers.

Dobson, J. (2014). The new dare to discipline. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

Dobson, J. (2004). The new strong-willed child. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

Faber, J. and King, J. (2017). How to talk so little kids will listen: A survival guide to life with children ages 2-7. New York, NY: Scribner.

MacNamara, D. (2016). Rest play grow: Making sense of preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one). Vancouver, Canada: Aona Books.

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