How to Discipline the Strong-Willed Child

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

How to Discipline the Strong-Willed Child

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. 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.

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).

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.

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 and Parenting Skills: Look to Yourself First.

Reinforcement is what happens after behavior. If the behavior is followed up by something positive, then behavior is strengthened and more likely to occur in the future (page 17). 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, behavior is also strengthened. They 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. I wish they had more information on this in the book, but I doubt most parents really care about the intricacies of negative vs. positive reinforcement 🙂

See also these posts on Encouragement vs. Reward and Encouragement.

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 is a punishment. 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 (pages19-20):

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

For more on punishment, see the discipline blog label linked below.

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 affect 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. Your child’s response will be to obey. You will be more likely to raise your voice in the future, an probably sooner. 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. Then it got hard to choose only three! As I focused on my blessings, I noticed my blessings.

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 for the positive behaviors, your child will have no motivation to continue positive behaviors.

Inconsistent DisciplineConsistency is really key. For more on this, see Toddlerwise: Discipline Points and Discipline Foundations.

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. 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.

Lack of Rest
A beauty of following Babywise (the -wise series) throughout the years is that this category should not apply to your child!


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Valerie, also known as The Babywise Mom, is the mother to four children. She has been blogging on Babywise and general parenting since 2007. She has a degree in technical writing and loves using those skills to help parents be the best parents they can be! Read her book, The Babywise Mom Nap Guide, to get help on sleep from birth through the preschool years. You can also find her writing at, Today Parenting, and Her View From Home. Read more about Valerie and her family on the About page. Follow her on FacebookPinterest, and Instagram for more tips and helps.

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  1. Michelle
    December 12, 2009 / 1:33 PM

    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. Plowmanators
    December 24, 2009 / 6:10 AM

    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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