How to Discipline Your Strong-Willed Child

Three important ways to discipline a strong-willed child effectively as well as factors that impact your child’s behavior for better or worse.

Mother lecturing child

There are many wonderful things about having a strong-willed child. You can read my favorite things here

Despite the good, there are many challenges. Discipline is one of those challenges. 

If you have a strong-willed child, discipline can be hard. Part of the reason for this is that parents of strong-willed children often don’t respond well in the discipline moment.

They are often impatient and might raise their voices. This only compounds the problem because it seems to only make strong-willed children more disobedient.

Maintaining patience with an easy child is easy. Imagine your patience level with your 6 month old. Your baby didn’t do anything to deliberately disobey you. The actions are not moral. It is easy to be patient with that 6 month old when she does something she shouldn’t.

Compare that to a four year old who grabs something off the counter right after you finished telling him not to touch it…and your patience level is different. You might have to take a deep breath and hold it for a bit before responding. 

It is harder to be patient with a child who is deliberately disobeying you. Let’s discuss some tips for disciplining the strong-willed child so you can be successful.

Read: What Does It Mean To Be “Strong-Willed”?

How To Discipline Strong-Willed Child

While children have a temperament from birth, they learn other behaviors through various social interactions, for good and for bad. Children learn through modeling, reinforcement, and punishment (Parenting the Strong-Willed Child, page 16 – affiliate link).

This modeling, reinforcement, and punishment trio is the key to you disciplining your strong-willed child. 

Remember that the point of discipline is to correct your child and change behavior. Always keep that in mind as you discipline. 

Modeling Behavior

Modeling is showing by example. If you want your children to do a certain thing, you need to model it. Do you want them to eat vegetables? Then you eat vegetables–in front of them. Do you want your children to say please and thank you? Then you say please and thank you to them and to others.

Reflect what you expect.

The saying, “Do as I say and not as I do” absolutely does not work for children. Example is much more powerful than words. For more about this idea, see In Action: Looking to Self First for an example from our lives and Parenting Skills: Look to Yourself First.

I have read a lot of parenting books over the years, and every book that has talked about discipline has talked about parents needing to lead by example and show their children how to behave, not just tell them.


Reinforcement is what happens after behavior. If the behavior is followed up by something positive, then the behavior is strengthened and more likely to occur in the future (page 17). This is often referred to as positive reinforcement.

Reinforcement does not equal gifts, bribes, or rewards. Reinforcement is often social in nature. A smile, a laugh, attention, etc. (page 17). I think we all know that sometimes we give positive reinforcement that actually reinforces negative behavior, like the first time your baby spits food all over your face. There will likely be a lot of laughter if you have other people watching!

If a behavior is followed by negative reinforcement, the behavior is also strengthened. Negative reinforcement is still reinforcement and your child might seek it out.

The authors of Parenting the Strong-Willed Child point out that true negative reinforcement is difficult to understand, and it is not the same as punishment (page 17-18). It is when your child does something negative and it results in something positive. The example in the book is that the child is assertive toward another child in telling her to stop throwing sand. It works, so the assertiveness is negatively reinforced. 

So your reaction to something is either positive or negative and it reinforces the behavior whether it is negative or positive. Keep that in mind as you respond to the behavior of your strong-willed child.

See also these posts on Encouragement vs. Reward and Encouragement as a Discipline Tool.


Punishment weakens behavior–at least if it is done effectively. Punishment includes time-out, reprimands, loss of privilege, and anything else that weakens your child’s behavior (page 19).

For Brayden, removing his clock from his room was a punishment when he was a preschooler.

Punishment is effective if used consistently and appropriately.

You don’t want to rely too much on punishment to change your child’s behavior. That is likely the reason Forehand and Long listed it last in this list. Relying too much on punishment can create the following problems (pages 19-20):

  • Teaches the child what not to do but not what to do. For more thoughts on this idea, see Childishness vs. Foolishness: Responding When Kids Disobey.
  • Punishment might need to get harsher and harsher over time to maintain effectiveness.
  • Frequent punishment can lead to resentment from the child.
  • You receive what you give. You reap what you sow.

There are times you will need to use punishment, but not all moments of misbehavior warrant punishment. 

How To Discipline Your Strong-Willed Child Pinnable Image


Everything I have talked about so far is straight-forward and easy to understand on paper. It all seems so intuitive. Be a good example. Reinforce good behavior. Punish bad behavior.

Life is never as simple as it looks on paper though. Here are factors that continue strong-willed behavior in your child:

Positive Reinforcement Trap

(pages 20-21)

This is basically when your child starts to throw a fit after you tell him no and you then give in. You reward the child for crying and fussing by providing attention, comfort, candy, toys, etc. The next time your child wants something, he will be more likely to throw a fit to get what he wants.

Doing this one time isn’t going to have a permanent effect on your child’s behavior. Your child will likely try it again, but if you don’t give in again, your child will probably move on to something else like the little scientist that he is.

If your child has inappropriate behavior, analyze yourself. Are you doing something to reward it?

Negative Reinforcement Trap

(page 21)

You tell your child to pick up his toys. He doesn’t. You remind him. He doesn’t. You nag him. He cries. He might call you mean. He runs to his room in despair. You decide it is easier to pick the toys up yourself. Your child learned he can cry, call you names, and run away and not only does it stop your nagging, but he doesn’t have to clean up! Again, analyze yourself.

Coercive Process

(pages 23-24)

The coercive process is basically that you and your child learn from each other and react to each other’s behavior. You might raise your voice after giving an instruction that was ignored.

Your child’s response will then be to obey.

You will be more likely to raise your voice in the future, and probably sooner next time. With the coercive process, the child’s behavior gets worse and the parent’s behavior gets more frequent and aggressive.

Ignoring/Not Recognizing the Positive

(pages 24-25)

You know how you just start to notice things once you focus on them? When I was in college, I started a daily gratitude journal. Each night, I wrote down three things I was grateful for. Every day.

The first few days were easy. Then I ran out of my family members and general things people are “grateful” for. It got a little harder. I kept at it though.

After a while, it got hard to choose only three each day! As I focused on my blessings, I noticed my blessings. It became easier to see the things to be grateful for. 

Your brain literally forms synapses and follows the path most used. If your outlook is positive, it will naturally become more positive. 

When you focus on your child’s negative behavior, you start to only see the negative.

All children respond best to positive words. If you are constantly reprimanding and punishing and talking about the negative behaviors without thanking, hugging, and encouraging your child for the positive behaviors, your child will have no motivation to continue positive behaviors.

Inconsistent Discipline

Consistency is really key when it comes to discipline. For more on this, see Valuable Discipline Tips for Toddlers and Discipline Foundations for Your Baby.

Poor Modeling

This can be poor modeling from parents, peers, and siblings. You have a lot of control over parents and siblings. If you yell when you get mad, don’t be surprised to find your child yelling when he is mad. Again, reflect what you expect.

You have less control over peers, but you do have control over which peers they spend time with. If you notice your child’s behavior decreases significantly after spending time with a certain friend, then you should limit or prohibit time spent with that friend. If your child has a coach who can’t keep his temper, it would be best to find a different coach.

Lack of Rest

If your child is tired, it will be very hard for him to obey. He will be more impulsive and lack self-control. Mkr sure your child is getting the sleep he needs each night and day. It will help his behavior tremendously. 

When your child is tired, you really need to work harder to be patient. It will be so much harder! But remember to reflect what you expect.


These tips can help you know how to respond and how not to respond to your strong-willed child. Hang in there! Strong-willed children can be really hard, but there is sweet payoff when you stick to it and remain patient. 


How to Discipline the Strong-Willed Child

2 thoughts on “How to Discipline Your Strong-Willed Child”

  1. Hi Val,Thank you for your post. As usual, I enjoyed reading your thoughts and opinions. I wanted to make a comment of your following statement: "Maintaining patience with an easy child is easy. Imagine your patience level with your 6 month old. Your baby doesn't do anything to deliberately disobey you. The actions are not moral."I wanted to check with you to see if you are saying that all 6 months are "easy" due to the fact they are not deliberately disobeying. I have a "spirited, strong willed" 10 month old and she has never been easy. In my experience, I have seen that "spirited" babies are "strong willed". Also, my 10 month old is not easy even thought she is not yet "willfully disobeying". I do keep thinking how much harder it will be once she does start willfully disobeying. However, that does not mean she was easy at 6 months.What are you thoughts on that? I do know you have said that Katelyn was the "angel" baby. Was Brayden "spirited"? Do you feel like you have personal experience with the "spirited" and strong willed?

  2. Michelle, Brayden, I believe, would be a touchy? baby? That is without BW. That is my guess. When I took the test, I did it for before we started Babywise and for after. Before, he was touchy (I think…if I remember right). He was textbook after we started Babywise.Brayden has a lot of strong-will tendancies in him, but he is also very dutiful and obedient. But he wasn't an easy baby. I am wondering what you mean by your baby has never been easy. I don't think you can be referring only to discipline issues because you just don't have need for it at 3 months old :)I guess for me, the actions of my child is not frustrating until they are willfully disobeying. It is not hard for me to maintain patience with a 6 month old because the 6 month old isn't doing whatever she is doing in order to disobey or irritate…she is doing them just to do them. Just to explore. For me, motivations behind actions are more important than the actions themselves. So I guess for me, that makes a 6 month old easy. Plus…experiencing the defiance of older children makes whatever a 6 month old can possibly throw at you very minor 🙂


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