Parenting strong-willed children can be difficult when they’re young, but if properly directed and parented, they can become awesome world changers. Although mothering a headstrong little one seems like a huge task (that doesn’t seem to get easier as they get smarter), it’s doable mama. Just remember—they respond warmly when they’re heard and understood.
Here are 35 phrases to help your strong-willed child to learn to get along with others (and even you, mama):
1. “I can see you didn’t hear me the first time. How about when I say it to you, you whisper it back to me?”
Having your child repeat back what he hears solidifies your message. Varying the volume adds an element of fun to the request.
2. “I hear you. Can you come up with a solution?”
Asking your strong-willed child to come up with a solution places the responsibility back on them. Next time they’re complaining, ask them to brainstorm solutions. Remind them there are no wrong answers, and the sillier they are, the better.
3. “This is a tough one, huh? We’re going to figure this out together.”
Hitting and throwing
4. “When you throw your toys, I think you don’t like playing with them. Is that what’s going on?”
This speaker/listener technique is designed to help communicate feelings in a non-confrontational manner. Not only does this keep the lines of communication open, you are modeling how to phrase a situation from your perspective, which in turn gives your child a chance to rephrase events in their perspective.
5. “It’s okay to be angry, but I won’t let you hit. We need to keep everyone safe.”
This gets the message firmly across that the emotion is okay, but the action is not. Separating the two will help your strong-willed child learn what they can and can’t do.
6. “Let’s go to our calm down space together.”
This flips the script of “time out” to “time in,” allowing for reconnection instead of isolation.
7. “I’m starting to get frustrated, and I’m going to be right here calming down.”
Teach children how to label and govern their emotions by modeling this in real time.
8. “What do you need to do to be ready to leave?”
Allow children to think through processes for the transitions in their lives. This helps avoid a power struggle and it gives them a chance to signal to their minds that they are making a transition to a new activity. This is also an excellent routine to role-play when you are not actually going anywhere.
9. “If green is calm, yellow is frustrated, and red is angry, I’m in the yellow zone headed toward red. What color are you? What can we do to get back to green?”
Give strong-willed children a visual to express how they are feeling. It may surprise you what they say, and what kind of solutions they come up with to change their direction.
Love and affection
10. “I’m here for you. I love you. You’re safe.” (Then, sit in stillness with your child and allow the emotion to rise up and pass.)
When children are in the throes of anger or panic, often their bodies are experiencing a stress response whereby they literally feel unsafe. Letting them know they are safe supports them until the discomfort passes. This is a vital skill of resilience.
11. “That isn’t a toy, so we will leave it on the shelf. It’s delicate and it could break if we touch or play with it.”
Kids value reasoning just as much as adults do. Explaining why helps kids learn to make better choices in the future.
12. “We’ll have carrots now and a cookie after dinner so your tummy has room.”
Strong-willed kids tend to ignore “no” when they hear it repeatedly. It becomes like background noise. They also start to say “no” to parents, siblings and friends when they hear it all the time. But, if you’re specific about your requests, they begin to understand why they can’t do certain tasks.
13. “My glasses look interesting to you, don’t they? But my glasses are not a toy. They’re for daddy only” or “Seems fun to throw the ball in here, huh? I get it. We can only roll balls in the house so we don’t break anything.”
If we are harsh or reprimanding, over time kids get repeated messages that they’ve done something bad, or even that they themselves are bad. Instead, we can give them the message that we understand them, believe they have good intentions and are trying to figure out the world.
Replacing “No” with an action word
14. “Stop!” or “Freeze!”
For many parents, the word “no!” is a reflex. You heard it growing up, or absorbed it as the standard way to get kids to know right from wrong. It takes conscious practice to change. When you feel a “no” coming on, replace it with information. You may still need to hold a limit repeatedly, remove the glasses yourself, or take the ball and put it up high. But the underlying message is, “I understand you and I’m here to support and guide.”
Heather Turgeon, MFT is a psychotherapist.
Building their confidence
15. “You are capable.”
As a parent, our words become the internal language in the minds of our children. We know that our strong-willed kids are capable of so much, so let your words match this belief. Our tone and language should communicate confidence.
16. “That was brave.”
Sometimes we need to notice things aloud. That means to let them know when we see them being brave. When we notice our kids being brave, they start to notice too.
17. “You’ve got this.”
You know that they have the skills and means necessary and your vote of confidence will give them that extra boost they need to succeed.
18. “I believe in you.”
As the mama, you have faith in your strong-willed child’s ability. When you openly communicate that faith in them it will inspire it within themselves.
19. “You can do hard things.”
When the going gets tough the obstacles can seem insurmountable. So this direct phrase will tell them exactly what they need to hear—acknowledgment that this is hard work and that they are capable.
20. “How’d you do that?”
Ask questions. When you see them do something hard, say, “How did you manage that? How can you do it again?”
21. “Give it your best.”
We will never win it all, do it all, or be it all. But we can give it our best. Let’s teach our kids this lesson.
22. “I know it’s hard, but I have seen you do it before.”
It can seem overwhelming, but let’s give them evidence of when they have been successful before. This will instill the confidence that they can do it again.
23. “You are enough.”
It doesn’t matter what the outcome—they need to know they are enough just the way they are.
24. “You make me proud.”
Straight and to the point—you can never tell your child this enough.
25. “I wonder what would happen if…”
Try to evoke curiosity and a new way of thinking by wondering about the possibilities.
26. “Do you know what grit means?”
Kids love learning new words. Teach them about grit, resilience and perseverance to help them reach towards these goals.
27. “Want to hear a story?”
Share stories with your kids. Tell them about times when you overcame obstacles, met your goals, and reached for the stars.
28. “Do you want to try something crazy?”
Challenge your strong-willed children with things they think are beyond reach (even if it sounds a little crazy). They might surprise you and themselves.
29. “Sometimes new things can seem scary, but they can be exciting.”
Young children tend to cling toward people and environments that are familiar. But if we emphasize how exciting and joyful that new experiences can be, we can encourage the confidence to venture out of the comfort zone.
30. “Sometimes we make mistakes, and that is how we learn.”
It’s important that strong-willed kids know that making mistakes isn’t a bad thing, in fact, it’s now they become smarter, more intelligent adults.
31. “How did you challenge yourself today?”
Start the conversation about growing, changing and taking risks. With each challenge and accomplishment, the sense of self-esteem will grow.
32. “Repeat after me, ‘I can do it.'”
Positive affirmations are powerful—they can rewire the brain. When we teach our strong-willed children to use positive affirmations from an early age they will reap the benefits as they grow.
Denaye Barahona has a Ph.D. in Child Development and is the voice behind Simple Families.
Giving them praise
33. “I love the animals on your t-shirt, which one is your favorite? Why is that?”
Praising children, especially girls, for their looks can decrease their self-esteem. If you want to comment on appearance, focus the praise on what the child can change, for instance, their clothes, and use them to start up a conversation that shows the child you’re really interested in what they think and feel.
34. “Wow, I love the color you have chosen for the flowers, why did you choose to paint them in that color?”
You may have been shown a hundred pieces of artwork this year, but to your kid, each one is special and new. While it feels easier to say, “That’s a great drawing,” without really looking properly, the looking properly is what children really want. Picking out parts of the picture and asking the child about their choices shows that you’re really looking at, and appreciating, their work. Which, in kid speak translates into you looking at and appreciating them.
35. “You worked really hard on that math problem. I knew that you could solve it if you really focused!”
Praising kids for fixed attributes—such as intelligence, or aptitude at certain subjects—can really backfire. If children think they are naturally good at something, not only will they tend to not try so hard next time, but they can get quickly disillusioned if they struggle, questioning if they are clever after all.
Sarah Ockwell-Smith is the author of Gentle Discipline: Using Emotional Connection–Not Punishment–to Raise Confident, Capable Kids.
You might also like:
- 11 superpowers of a strong-willed child
- The strong-willed child: 11 ways to turn power struggles into cooperation
- How my strong-willed child is changing me—for the better