10 Signs You're Raising a Strong-Willed Child

A strong-willed child won't take no for answer.

Ariel Skelley / DigitalVision / Getty Images 

Although all kids can be strong-willed sometimes, some children exhibit certain characteristics consistently. Also referred to as “spirited children,” these kids' temperaments are often evident from a very early age. 

Being strong-willed isn't the same as being a "bad kid." Strong-willed kids are simply determined to do things according to their own terms. While their sheer stubbornness can be admirable at times, it can also be downright frustrating for parents and teachers.

It's hard to convince a strong-willed child to do anything they don't want to do. If your child exhibits these behaviors, the key is to find ways to help them channel their energy into something positive, rather than crushing their spirit.

Intense, Angry Outbursts 

While all kids throw temper tantrums, some exhibit intense anger that doesn’t subside for a long time. They have low frustration tolerance and they struggle to express their anger in a socially appropriate manner. And sometimes, you might have no idea what even set them off in the first place.

What to Do: Acknowledge Your Child's Feelings

Angry outbursts are often an attempt to ensure other people understand the extent of child's distress. Validate your child’s feelings by saying, “I understand you’re upset that we can’t go to Grandma’s house right now.”

Even if you think your child's behavior is overly dramatic for the situation, don't minimize their feelings by saying, "It's not a big deal." When kids feel heard and understood, they feel less compelled to prove to you how bad they feel.

Demands to Know Why 

Hearing “Because I said so” is frustrating for many kids. They want to know why they can't play in the rain or why it's a bad idea to jump on the couch. While you might be tempted to say, "I don't know," or "Just because," those types of answers won't satisfy your child. You'll need to share why it's a safety, moral, social, or legal issue if you want your child to stop arguing.

What to Do: Provide a Brief Explanation

While a lengthy discussion isn't helpful, a description of the underlying reason why you’ve set a certain limit can be helpful. For example, saying, “We can’t go to the park today because it’s snowing out and the playground equipment will be unsafe,” will help your child understand that your rules aren't simply an attempt to deny your child something, but that there's a valid reason behind them.

Stubborn Arguing

Kids with a strong-willed temperament don’t give up when they disagree. They love to engage in power struggles and their stubborn persistence often tires people out.

They're great debaters who are good at finding loopholes and exceptions. So don't be surprised when your child recalls that one time you let them eat ice cream for breakfast or justified lying because you didn't want to pay the adult rate for a movie ticket even though they were too old for a kids' ticket.

What to Do: Give One Warning and a Consequence

Sometimes parents avoid giving kids consequences because they don’t want to deal with the aftermath. But children need to develop an understanding of when their behavior crosses the line.

Offer a single warning such as, "If you don't stop arguing right now, then you won't be able to watch TV for the rest of the day." If they don't stop, follow through with a consequence. Negative consequences, such as removing privileges or time-out, can increase your child's motivation to follow the rules in the future. 

Bossiness

Strong-willed kids have a vision in their mind about the way things should be and they’ll often orchestrate ways to turn that idea into reality. They have no problem telling their peers where to stand or how to behave and they’re not shy about telling adults what to do either.

What to Do: Call for a Do-Over

When your child says things like, "Give me that toy," or "Stand over there," have them practice stating their needs in a more appropriate, polite manner. Say, "That's not how we ask for something. Try again in a kinder way." Have conversations about the importance of being respectful and discuss how other children are likely to feel about them when they are bossy.

While you'll likely encounter many challenges along the way, raising a strong-willed child can also be an exciting adventure.

Refusing to Comply

Don’t waste your energy trying to convince a strong-willed child to do something they don’t want to do. Nagging, begging, and rationalizing isn’t likely to get you anywhere. Strong-willed kids will dig in their heels and refuse to budge.

What to Do: Offer Two Choices

Kids are more likely to comply when they feel like they have some choices in the matter. So rather than say, “Clean your room now,” ask, “Do you want to clean your room now or in 10 minutes?” Giving a choice can help your child feel more empowered and reduce their need to control everything. Just make sure you can live with either answer.

Impatience

Many kids want to do everything according to their timetables. They hate waiting in line at the grocery store, they don’t like waiting for their turn when playing a game, and they aren’t interested in sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. They don’t want to waste a second waiting for someone else.

What to Do: Encourage Problem-Solving

Waiting is a part of life and it's important for your child to learn how to cope with it. Plan ahead and help them see that they have options by asking questions like, "What do you want to bring with you to do while we wait in the waiting room today?" Whether they decide to color or play with a favorite toy, make it clear that they have options in how they handle the situation.

Making Their Own Rules

Strong-willed kids aren’t interested in hearing your opinion about when it's time for bed. Instead, they’re likely to insist they’ll go to sleep when they’re tired. They prefer to make their own policies and set their own guidelines rather than follow an authority figure's rules.

What to Do: Avoid Making Too Many Rules

Too many rules will overwhelm children and reduce their motivation to comply. Focus on the most important rules only. Avoid power struggles over minor issues and allow your child to face natural consequences whenever possible.

For example, if your 10-year-old insists they don’t want to wear a jacket to the store, avoid getting into a battle over it. If they are cold, they may choose to wear a jacket in the future.

Entitlement

Many kids struggle to understand the difference between a "need" and a "want." Whether they want to play outside in the rain or eat a hot dog for breakfast, they’ll claim they need to do it. They're also very concerned with fairness. Even when things are going their way, they'll often insist they're not getting their fair share.

What to Do: Use Rewards More Than Consequences

Use a reward system, like a token economy system, to reward good behavior. Just make sure you make the parameters for earning rewards abundantly clear ahead of time.

A reward system leaves the choice up to your child. Say, "Clean your room and earn time to watch TV. If you decide not to clean your room, and you don’t get to use your electronics." A token economy system will give your child a chance to earn privileges without feeling punished.

Selective Hearing

Tell some children to "be careful," or "use your walking feet," and if they are not interested, they'll simply ignore you. Strong-willed kids are good at using selective hearing and they easily tune out anything that doesn’t suit their needs.

What to Do: Stick to Your Word

If you tell your child to do something and they ignore you, step in and address the situation so they know that you say what you mean and you mean what you say. If you say you’re going to take away a privilege, it’s essential that you follow through with that limit. Then, your child will learn that you aren't making empty threats.

Moving at Their Own Pace

Kids with a strong will often eat fast, talk fast, and walk fast when they want to. But they move at a snail’s pace when doing something they aren’t interested in.

What to Do: Make Expectations Clear

Does your child often say, “But you didn’t tell me that!”? Whether you’re headed to the library or a neighbor’s house for a visit, set your expectations ahead of time. Be specific about what constitutes acceptable behavior and discuss the consequences of breaking the rules ahead of time.

Say, "I expect you to be ready in 10 minutes." Explain what will happen if they aren't ready, and then make sure to follow through with consequences if needed.

A Word From Verywell

While it's challenging now, your child's attitude might actually be an asset at some points in life. A 40-year study research study found that kids who break the rules become some of the highest income earners as adults. While money isn't everything, knowing that your strong-willed child can use their power for good might give you some solace. Strong-willed kids can be great leaders who aren't afraid to stand up to the things they believe in.

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Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Spengler M, Brunner M, Damian RI, Lüdtke O, Martin R, Roberts BW. Student characteristics and behaviors at age 12 predict occupational success 40 years later over and above childhood IQ and parental socioeconomic status. Dev Psychol. 2015;51(9):1329-1340. doi:10.1037/dev0000025

Additional Reading
  • American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry: Discipline.
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