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Headstrong Children - How to Manage Them
Episode 7220th October 2022 • How Not to Screw Up Your Kids • Dr Maryhan
00:00:00 00:34:38

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When we have a child who seems hellbent on arguing with everything we ask of them, making up their own rules, and struggling to manage their emotions – it can leave its mark on all of us.   

We often feel like we’re parenting in a war zone and then feel guilty and sad with how we’ve handled things. There isn’t a magic wand approach which will change everything, yet my seven strategies could just save your sanity and relationship with your child, without breaking their spirit. 


Here are the highlights: 

(00:41) There’s no quick fix 

(05:45) Reframing the situation 

(10:51) Give your children control within set parameters 

(17:36) Experiential learning 

(22:54) You cannot over-communicate with a headstrong child 

Find out more and connect with Dr.Maryhan at  

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To access the free resources mentioned in this episode visit  

To purchase your ticket for my next online talk visit  'Tantrums & Meltdowns' on Thursday 23rd February 2023

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Hello, and welcome to the How Not Screw Your Kids' Podcast. So pour yourself a cuper. Find a comfy seat and enjoy the conversation. This is episode 72 and today's episode, Headstrong Children, How to Parent Them. I'll talk about constructive ways we can parent a strong willed, stubborn, defiant. Contrary, headstrong child, whichever way we want to call it, but parent them in a compassionate way and in a way which doesn't break their spirit.

Now I'm asked about this time and time again, and in fact I got asked about it this summer at Camp Festival cuz it can often feel like. You're parenting in a war zone with your own child. And what I do find is that parents can often feel so guilty and sad about the way that they find themselves parenting when they have a headstrong child.

And I'll be honest, it isn't easy and there are no quick fix or changes because this is an inherent part of their personality, their character. But know this, headstrong children know their own. And as such, they can be pretty resilient teens who maintain boundaries with peers and are much less susceptible to peer pressure.

So these are wonderful characteristics for navigating those difficult teen years and well into adulthood if we can just find a peaceful way to parent them. When they're younger. Now, let's be clear what I mean by a headstrong child, because all children will test boundaries. They'll all try and push buttons.

Headstrong, children typically tend to display these common characteristics. They refuse to comply. They argue stubbornly. They make up their own rules. They struggle to manage big emotions, and they actively seek to control situations. Now, it's not lost on me, or possibly you've noticed this too, but headstrong children show a great deal of the same characteristics of an anxious child.

Now, I'm not saying that they are. It just highlights why it's so important. We try to look beyond their rigid dog madness and respond to the emotion and the child behind the stubbornness and the rigidity because behind there, there's this vulnerable child that is just seeking. To kind of establish who they are in a particular situation.

So I think before we kind of get started on, I've got seven strategies, seven tips to go through with you, I think. And of course it's very easy. For us to say this when we're not in the heat of the moment. You know, this notion that we've really got to parent the child behind that behavior, we've gotta look for the emotion behind it and all of these other things.

And what I haven't put on this seven, but you know, you know me well enough for those of you who've been listening to me long enough. And if this is the first time you are catching me, then. Know that this is really so true and so powerful is that when we are balanced ourselves, when we've taken care of ourselves, when we've checked in on how we are parenting, just generally and recharged our battery, then the tips and strategies I'm gonna talk about.

Are reasonable for us to be able to implement in a given day. Now and again, for those of you who know me well enough will know that I will not suggest that you take, you make immediate changes in all seven, but just focus on one thing. What I tend to find happens is that when we have been not taking care of ourselves, when we have found ourselves in situations where.

Sort of overwhelmed or repeating the same things, or it's just been a particularly stressful time that we get sucked into responding to our headstrong, stubborn, rigid, dogmatic, whatever we want to call it, child in a way that. We don't want to. And that's where I often see parents who come to a talk feeling overwhelmed and feeling incredibly guilty.

And in some ways I probably say that there might be a certain element of grief because they're parenting in a way that they didn't ever want to parent because they're finding those situations really challenging. And in some ways, they're also grieving the child that they thought that they were going to have because it just feels like a constant battle and a constant war zone.

So I'm gonna share seven strategies with you. Some of them are very easy in terms of their around mindset, so they're. Easy is the wrong word, but you can do more than one thing at the same time. But I would really urge you to try and focus on only one of these seven, and it may well be that some of these background ones that I ask you to do might be enough for you that might be challenging enough for you to focus in on.

So focus in on that, but know that if you are not doing any of these seven, and you choose one of these seven that you're currently not doing, but you manage to do that two out of 10 times, then you are already going to start seeing a difference, a difference to the way your child responds, a difference to the way that your responding, and when you begin to see those glimmers of positive light of there being some movement.

Then that just fuels you and inspires you to do more. So let's just be mindful and careful with ourselves and kind and really only look at focusing in on one thing at a time. So I've got seven, no particular order except for the first one, which I think makes sense to have first. And the first one is, Reframe the situation.

We often feel that either our headstrong child or maybe our child who is not a headstrong child, but just having a headstrong moment that they might be acting willfully and this can mentally trigger us. Now my personal view, and you may disagree, and there may be other people in the parenting space that will massively disagree with me, but my genuine belief is that children don't act out of willfulness.

They act from a need. And children desire a certain element of autonomy. They desire a certain amount of love and attention, and that this can impact the behavior that they have. So reframing how your child is behaving in that moment, whether you are listening to this and you've got a headstrong child, or whether you are listening to this because you're thinking, actually, how do I tackle situations in.

My child is headstrong, but reframing that so that we can see and seek to respond to the emotion behind the behavior rather than viewing their behavior as being a willful act of belligerence muscle being difficult. Then when we can frame it that way in our mind, then we can be more compassionate in our response.

Now, there may be some control happening in their behavior. But that may be driven by something else. That level of control might be because they're feeling overwhelmed, not because they're deliberately trying to make your life miserable or difficult. Our children's ability to interact and assimilate with information might mean that they just feel slightly overwhelmed in a situation, and so the response that they get, whether that's that headstrong.

You know, inability to listen or quick witted response maybe. As a result of how they're experiencing that situation. So when we, when we frame it in that way, rather than that, I've got a child who's being willful, who is challenging my authority as their parent, how dare they, I would never have spoken to my parents like that.

All the things that we do for them, that's the sort of narrative that we get ourselves caught in sometimes, and that is the same for every single parent. This isn't just parents of children who are particularly headstrong. That's something that we all go through and I think if we can regularly catch ourselves, sometimes we don't catch ourselves in the middle of a complete utter tirade.

And I've been there where I have completely lost the plot with my children and I felt like there's some sort of slightly str, you know, this person, this other Mary hand, watching this crazy mummy saying, My goodness me, do you? what you are saying. Can you see what you are doing? So we do do that, but I think where we're able to check in on ourselves regularly.

And this is where the whole self care thing comes in. But when we're able to check in with ourselves regularly and reframe the situation, say, Well, I'm responding because my child has just triggered me with their behavior. And I know that they're not acting willfully. They are communicating a need to me in some shape or form, but I'm just really struggling to see it right now.

And in those cases, it's about then removing us from that situation, trying to reduce that. Battle that clashing and banging of heads. But if we can do this on a regular basis, Then what we can remind ourselves is that this is part of their character and their personality, and we shouldn't be actively seeking to change that, but instead focusing on how we help them.

So it's reframing that situation. So this isn't a child who's being willful, who is deliberately trying to make things difficult, but this is how they're responding to their experience in this moment. And how might I, as a parent, help scaffold that? Help support them with that rather than create this monumental power play where, let's face it, nobody wins and everybody feels awful and rubbish afterwards.

So that would be the first one. And to be honest with you, if you are finding that difficult, if you are maybe even shouting into your headphones or wherever, however you are listening to me saying, Maryanne, you've got, they, they children can be willful. You don't know my child. Then I would just say, just take a step back from that and that this may well be the only thing that you work.

but it is really trying to see that, and maybe I do only want to see the inherent good in people and the inherent good in children, but I do think that, you know, this isn't, Children do not have this desire. They don't wake up and think, I'm just going to be difficult. Because that pleases me. It's part of their, part of their personality, but it's also a way of them communicating how they're interacting with their world at the time.

So that's the first one. And that kind of, that sets the framework. The second thing that we can do is, there's a certain element with children who are headstrong, where they, they have a strong desire to feel a certain element of control and have an element of free choice. So one of the best ways we can parent them is by giving them choices.

When we. And I say that caveat. So if we know that we've got a headstrong child while rather than go head to head all of the time, let's try and give them choices, help them be part of that process of decision making. Let me explain a little bit more. This isn't about allowing our child to either go on their device or not go to bed or not eat their peas or not eat their broccoli or not.

This is about where we've got opportunities and we're able. Give our children choices so they feel that they can communicate and have a say in what's happening. Cuz this is often the situation when we've got headstrong children, is they feel disempowered. Is that where we can give them choices within the framework of what we deem is within the values and what we're trying to do at home.

So for example, it may well be that we give our children choices about the vegetables that they have where you can have peas and broccoli or peas and carrot. And so they make a choice. And a lot of time that can hugely diffuse any potential headstrong because we are giving them some parameters of them having choice, but still within the framework that we want to that, that we want to have.

Maybe we have three vegetables with a meal and we don't really care which combination that they have. So rather than having that battle with a headstrong child, And in fact, I would say even if it isn't a headstrong child where we offer choices, it's really great for kids because they can learn about using their voice to make a choice, but they can also learn from the this kind of notion of consequences, both positive and negative.

When I've made a choice, I feel that I feel. Like I own the result. So where possible, let's think and create opportunities for our children, our stubborn children, our headstrong children, to make choices so that they feel that that's part of, that their part of that decision making. The third one is just avoid.

Obvious power struggles or showdowns. Now, sometimes we do have to get our shoes on and we have to leave. We do have to go up to bed. Those things happen because they're part of the parameters within which we operate in within our home, and there's a part of the way that we. You know, things function.

That's absolutely, Of course, we're not going to budge on those, but there are ways that we can communicate that. Ways that when we find that we've asked our children to do something, rather than going at our child head to head in that moment, can we make lightheartedness of it? Can we be slightly diversionary?

Can we distract in some way? Can we find some humor? Can we then, In that moment, offer choices about would you like to do, Are you gonna do this and this before you go to bed and as you go, or as you gonna do this and this as you take yourself off, off to bed, well, or will you do this and this. So we are trying to think on our feet a little bit more and really try and avoid those power struggles and showdowns.

Sometimes we have to have them. And I'm not suggesting that we steer away from them completely, but it is actually working out what are the absolute non-negotiables in our home? Are those non-negotiables, as in they can only be done this way, or are these non-negotiables in terms of values? So, for example, you may have non-negotiables around respect and how siblings treat each other or how children speak to speak to adults.

You may have non-negotiables around eating meals at the table. You may have non-negotiables around bedtime and leaving bedrooms. What I'm asking you to do is almost make a list of those non-negotiables and reduce them down to the ones that actually address the core values in your home. Because quite often we have a lot of non-negotiables that don't need to be non-negotiables.

They've actually, there is some flexibility around those. So it's really working out what are those non-negotiables and those are the things that if you have to go to battle, those are the ones that you go to battle on. But the other ones, it's not that you are suddenly saying, Well, they, my children can go to bed whenever they want to, but it becomes a case of, actually, I want my children to get a certain amount of hours sleep.

But how we get up to bed, whether we do a bath first or a story, or how things work out, I'm actually relatively flexible about how that happens. But the non-negotiable aspect of it is that lights need to be off at eight o'clock or seven. . So it's really thinking through, Cause I think quite often what happens, and particularly I think because it headstrong children can often trigger us, is that we find ourselves being triggered by the way that they speak to us, for example, or them being stubborn or they're trying to control things, is that we find we throw more at them, not literally throw it more at them, but we create more and more rules because we feel that that's the only way to manage.

And actually by reducing the areas that we are ourselves, dogmatic and rigid can make a massive difference. Because what we then do is we only have two or three areas that may well be the real flash points, but we've created opportunities, we've had discussions. Around other areas where there's a bit more flexibility, where bedtime happens, but the flexibility in terms of the timings and how things work going up, we can begin to have as a discussion and we can then begin to get our children involved in that process.

And we know that children who are involved in the process of decision making, children who verbalize what needs to be done, rather than us telling them, we ask them what have we agreed? What does that mean? What happens after that when they use their own words, they're much more likely to do that. So it's really trying to avoid those power struggles across all manner of things and really sticking to the, where are the absolute crucial ones where we're not going to negotiate.

There's absolutely no negotiation in, in how that is done, as well as that particular rule. Whereas everything else is much more an opportunity to kind of discuss, because if we know that a headstrong child has this strong desire and urge to feel that they have some impact on their lives, Then it's not about conceding and just saying, Well, okay, so they've got to be in control.

But just understanding that, and we'll talk a little bit further about that in some of the other ones that we go through. And the, this links specifically to the next one. So strong willed or or head strong children. Typically our children who do their learning experiential. So you may or may not have come across various different learning styles.

You know, you may well have even done a questionnaire that talks about your learning style, but we as adults, as well as when we were children, we learn in different ways, had strong children. Often learn much better through experience by doing. And so you can imagine that what's happening is when we try and restrict them, being able to experience things and try things and do things, we restrict their learning.

Which is why, again, we, we have to try and look at it away from, this is my, this child is being willful to this child is trying to communicate something to me. They're trying to explain to me. How they need to experience things. So if we know that that children who are typically headstrong learn much better through experience, then we can avoid some of these power struggles.

And obviously not in every situation, but we can avoid some of those power struggles by creating opportunities where they can try, where they can experience, which is why we give them choices, which is why we have conversations with. Which is why we canvas their opinion. How might we do this differently?

What do you think we ought to do? How might that work with this though? Because I can see that that might be a bit of a challenge. Have you gotta work around, Can we see whether we can make this work? So it's be, it's being aware. That is how they experience, you know, that's how they learn. Whereas you have some children who are much more observant and actually they learn vicariously.

They learn by watching other people doing things and experience things and fall over and pick themselves up or those mistakes that they have. And we've got children that do that too, that are much more sort of observational. So it's recognizing that that's an intrinsic part of our child. So let's just recap the four that we've talked about before we talk about the last three.

So the first one is very much about reframing the situation. so that we can view our child's behavior from a slightly different perspective. We want to give children who are headstrong choices where we are able, and I would say that there are probably almost every situation there is an opportunity for us to present choice within the parameters that we don't want to.

Be rigid from. So I think there's probably more opportunities for choice than we think, but that requires time. That requires us checking in with ourselves that rather than necessarily responding in that moment. The third is avoid obvious power struggles or showdowns by re getting really clear between yourself and your partner.

Actually one of the things that we really are prepared to go to battle over, because those are really fundamentally a huge part of our value system. And if our children were to respond in that particular behavior, we would want to really have a conversation about it and that that would be unacceptable.

And where are the areas that we've got a bit more flexibility And do you know what? Right now that isn't an area that. Need to address quite as much as this area because what you'll find is if you can restrict those areas of flashpoint as well as introducing the the choices and other things that we'll talk about, then what you'll find is you'll have less of those situations and so you'll be able to manage them more easily.

And then the fourth one is recognizing that strong willed had strong children typically learn most effectively through experience, and that's why they want to sort of jump in. So if we're aware of that, Would we really want to hinder our child's learning by then, not allowing them to experience things so we can then be thinking about which things, which areas in day to day life are we prepared to allow our child to experience, because that's gonna speed up their learning and potentially change their viewpoint about something and which ones can we just not afford to allow our child to do that?

Because it's actually really important that they understand. because of a safety consideration potentially or because of a value system. So those are the four that we've talked about, First of all, the fifth one is communicate regularly. not telling, but setting out clear expectations ahead of time so that they've got some opportunity to think about what's happening.

Now, I know that this isn't always possible, but where you can start having conversations about what might be happening ahead of time. What the expectations might be. If they have choices, let's talk around choices. If they've got opportunities to problem solve, let's also problem solve that because that way your child knows what to expect and you are getting less of the heel digging because they're being stubborn, because they've been told something which they've riled against.

Rather than having a conversation about what is going to. How it's going to look, what your expectations are, if there are certain expectations that are non-negotiable, where are the choices and all of those aspects, and where there might be some areas that they can problem solve and be involved in part of that process of the decision making.

So really communicate regularly. You can't over communicate with a headstrong child. Communication is absolutely key, and when we talk about communication, it's also remembering to actively listen. And you know, being fully present in that moment, not engaged with anything else that we're trying to do. Not getting caught up in our to-do list, but listening fully in terms of not just what our child is saying, but what's their body language doing as well.

What's the tone of their voice? What's their facial expressions? Does it tie in with what we're hearing or do we see something else so that we can truly, this is the whole point about leaning in. because we're able to really pick up on what's my child communicating to me, because words is only one small part of that whole communication thing.

So it's communicating regularly and part of that communication and that listening means that we are also able to pick up on how am I responding to that? Why does I, why did that really annoy me when they said, What's that showing up for me? How might I address this? Is it, is this a me thing, or is this a child, my child thing?

So communicate regularly is really, really key. The sixth one is about talking about family values and involving them in setting family routines so they know what to expect. So talk, give them that framework. We talk about children having to go to bed and we tell them that they need to get a certain amount of sleep, otherwise they'll be emotional or they won't be at their best, or they won't learn, or they won't focus.

But talk about what that matters to your family and why, What. Family values there, there are about making sure that we rest, because by resting we can be more respectful of each other. And also the family values about, you know, there's a certain amount of time during the daytime where the focus may well be very much on your children.

And part of the family values is that there's also this time for the adults to get time that they have to themselves. And how can we find ways. Of making sure that everybody gets what they need, so it's communicating what those family values are. If it's about kindness, then we can talk about kindness isn't just the please and thank yous that we might say, but kindness might also be the way that we communicate the tone that we use with people, whether we listen.

Immediately whether we apologize when we've made a mistake, so we talk about why it's important for our family rather than generalizing it too well, you know, if you're going to be rude like that, if you are never going to get a job and people won't put up with that, but very much about why that's an important value within your family, how that gets embedded.

In how you live your lives and why you talk about certain things and how that also impacts family routines and how that then pans out in terms of what you expect and where possible encourage your children to be part of that process of setting family routines. Within your framework. So bedtime may well be seven lights off at seven 30 or eight, whatever that might be.

Those might be the final ones. But when you have discussions and get your children actively involved in setting those routines, they know that that's the parameter that they can work within. We're going to eat. Emil roughly by this sort of time we have to have lights out by this sort of time. We know that we will have to have a shower or a bath or we wash our, whatever.

Those sort of things that happen. But the order in which that happens surely is open up for discussion because that's also helps our children take ownership and also helps with their problem solving and then definitely reduces this stubbornness and you know, refusal to comply. They're refusing to comply with their own well thought out, agreed sequence.

So really talking to children about family values and involving them in setting those family routines is really crucial. And the final one is be quick to apologize when you've been triggered and use it as an opportunity to talk and connect. As parents, we are juggling multiple hats, juggling multiple roles, and we are not gonna get it right all of the time.

And in fact, I would probably say certainly from the conversations I've had with parents who have had strong children, is that actually. Job is even more tiring and even more exhausting, and so your batteries are being burnt through much more quickly than for the rest of us that might not have a headstrong child.

So it's perfectly all right. To lose your temper, it's perfectly right to get angry and to shout and maybe even lose it completely. That's absolutely fine. You're not gonna screw up your kids in any shape or form. What is really crucial though, is that you take those opportunities to go back and have a conversation with your child.

I'm so sorry. I got so angry and I shouted at you. I said things that were really unkind and I didn't mean. I just found myself becoming so frustrated because I'd asked you 10 times to do something or you could, I could, was juggling lots of things and I felt that you were being deliberately refusing to do what I asked you to do.

Whatever that is. It's having, doing that apology and then having a conversation about, I can see that actually. , I was tired. I was, you know, overwhelmed. Uh, whatever it is that you had, that you had that conversation. Sometimes that's what happens when I become overwhelmed much in the same ways. When you become overwhelmed or you get annoyed and frustration, frustrated, you might do something else.

How can we find better ways? Because I've noticed that this happens a lot. When I ask you to go up to bed or, or when I ask you to come and, and eat at the table or tidy away or do your homework, whatever that might be is have those conversations. I know that that isn't how I want to respond to you, and I don't want to be getting angry like that, but I don't know how else to help.

Talk to me. Help me understand how it feels when I say it's bedtime and you get that overwhelmed. How can we find a better way? When it comes to bedtime of getting started, of going up or whatever that might be that you are battling over, but being quick to apologize when you get triggered, and definitely using it as an opportunity to talk and connect and you won't necessarily be able to use that opportunity immediately.

And it's not always easy and sometimes even despite our best efforts to apologize and to try and connect, it just doesn't happen. But again, if we try and do that on a regular basis and use that opportunity, there'll be times where it works brilliantly and there'll be times that it won't, and we're really not looking for perfection here.

It doesn't exist. If we could do it two times out of 10, that will shift the dial in a positive direction and actually makes such a difference to all of you. So let's recap those seven. The first is reframe the situation and really try. This narrative that we end up having in our head that children are deliberately being willful and actually try and reframe it.

That actually this is an inherent part of my child's personality. I don't wanna beat it out of them. Instead, I want to try and understand what's behind it and respond to that. The second is give choices where you can, and you'll be surprised that there are opportunities to give choices in more situations than you.

The third is avoid these obvious power struggles or showdowns by really looking at what are the core things. If I'm going to have to battle, it'll be on those, and even within those where you can give choices. So that's number three. Number four is this notion that strong willed children typically learn through experience.

So where can we create opportunities for our children to learn through experience, and then respond on that basis? The fifth is making sure that we communicate regularly. About expectations, what's happening in advance as often as we can. We can't always, because generally a lot of this stuff happens in the day to day, but where we can communicate things in advance, let's do that.

Talk about our family values and involve our children in setting these routines because then they're much more likely to comply with that. And finally, Being quick to apologize when we've been triggered and really using it as an opportunity to talk and connect. So my give this week is these top seven strategies in a checklist you'll have space underneath to reflect on where you are right now and what you might need to work on.

moving forward, what's your one thing? So you can use this to serve as a reminder as you go from one thing to the next. What? What's your next thing? But you can also use it practically as a reminder, all you need to do is head over to my free resource library, dr, where you'll find the link to download the.

All you need to do is pop in your email address and you'll get instant access, not only to this week's resource, but all the other free resources across all my podcast episodes. As ever, if you have enjoyed this episode, I would love it if you could follow and review this podcast so that others can find us and we can spread the love.

So until next time.