Living with a strong willed child & how to manage their behaviour.

Parenting is simultaneously the most wonderful and the most difficult job you can ever have. We love our children more than we love ourselves and we would do anything to see them happy, this means sometimes the lines become a bit blurred as to what behaviour is ok and what is not. I’ve been 100% guilty of this with my son. I accepted that his strong will was part of his personality – and that’s fine, it gives him great determination and sticking power and it’ll probably be what helps him go places when he’s older. The problem I realised though, was at 2/3 years old 90% of the time he had no regard for a word I was saying. This was not only frustrating but also meant that all the safety talks we had such as being safe around cars, running off in supermarkets, climbing etc were being ignored.

I realised that this wasn’t just being strong-willed, by allowing him to get away with doing whatever he wanted whenever he wanted his strong will had developed into him being a spoilt child. Not spoilt in the material sense, we don’t buy him tonnes of toys and we actively encourage him to give and to share. I guess I mean he was emotionally spoiled; as a mum I was great at love, cuddles and emotional support but not so great and setting boundaries and effectively addressing negative behaviour.

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It’s bloody hard. As a rule I don’t shout at my children, Its not me and its not something my son responds to in a productive way. But that’s just me and my child, we each parent differently. If parenting was only about cuddles and affection it would be easy.. and I would probably be an award winning mother! But its not. As parents our job is to help shape our children into who they are in the future, demonstrating to them good key values until they are ready to make their own educated choices. who would my child become if I didn’t teach him that some actions and ways of treating people aren’t ok?
I realised for my sons sake as well as my own I needed to make some changes to the way I addressed unkind or unsafe behaviour. So, naturally I consulted the internet, and I was surprised to find there is actually some great advice out there especially from other mums who had been through similar stages. I also found some great help from the other the other mums In my life. It was from this I developed some new rules for addressing my sons strong willed personality in regards to negative behaviour – In a way where I felt no need to shout and I didn’t feel as if I was being mean or unfair:

1. Be Consistent

If something is not ok one day, It cannot be on another. When my son first started walking he went through a phase of biting. It didn’t really hurt or leave a mark, usually the person would just squeal and then they would laugh, as would the people in the room. But, then he kept biting again and again and it began to really hurt. Of course we started being more thorough in telling him that it wasn’t nice to bite and that it hurt but he would always go back and try again. Why? Because he was looking for the reaction that he had previously gotten. He would bite and then look to others to see if they were laughing. He loves laughing and to make others laugh so it was only natural that he was trying to do something he thought we found funny. We had unintentionally encouraged this unkind behaviour and it was really hard to address the situation.

We should have been consistent from the start about what behaviour was unacceptable or unkind, even when it didn’t actually hurt. We finally managed to explain to him that it was unkind to bite and that it hurt, unfortunately he then transferred biting to aggressive behaviour if he wasn’t getting his own way, usually whilst we were just trying to keep him safe! we needed not only to be consistent about what behaviour was unkind but also that unkind behaviour was not acceptable.

The idea of him going to preschool and biting the teachers or other children really frightened me. Obviously I didn’t want him hurting anyone but it was also because I really wanted school to be a fun and positive experience for him where he made loads of friends, the last thing anyone wanted was for him to ostracise himself because of our lapse in addressing his behaviour.

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He may have been using some unkind behaviour but he was not an unkind child. so we decide to add more consistency to the way we handled negative behaviour, we decided what behaviour was unkind and we created a behaviour response plan that would be consistent in demonstrating that unkind behaviour wasn’t ok.

Another way it pays to be consistent is if you say you are going to do something, follow through and do it. children very quickly learn what they can and can’t get away with when It comes to different adults. I remember once my son kept hitting my toes with a dinosaur and I kept telling him not to do it again or I would have to put the dinosaur away, naturally he did it again and I didn’t follow through on what I said, I just told him the same thing again and of course he didn’t believe me and disregarded what I said, he just didn’t really think I was being serious, perhaps that I was just playing. Nowadays I always follow through on what I say, he doesn’t get confused and listens to what I tell him which is obviously so important for his development, the way he treats others and also his safety.

2. Develop a plan to address negative behaviour that suits both them and you

As a family we are 1000% against hitting our children, its just not something we would ever do. How could we ask them to treat us kindly and with respect if we didn’t treat them the same way. If someone bigger than me hit me, i’d probably want to smack them back! We also don’t really shout either, I think the only time ive really shouted is in panic when I thought he was either going to hurt himself or another.

So we had to find a way to deal with negative behaviour that suited my soft nature and his strong will but also resulted in no power struggle and an understanding that hurtful actions would not be accepted. I’d read online about a method where you select a calm down spot such as a bean bag and you go with your child for a time out period and you sit with them and hug it out until they are calm and ready to talk. It sounded lovely and I bet it works for some kids too. My son however just got really cheesed off by it, it didn’t calm the situation and just stressed him out, completely the opposite to what I’d hoped to achieve.

So I went back to the drawing board. I decided to create a calm down space for him, initially I thought about a calm down corner in his room. However, his room was set out just how he liked so that he could easily access all toys and activities, it really didn’t make sense to change that. I eventually decided to use his bed, he often used it like a sofa anyway. I placed several different teddy bears along the side of the bed and created a pocket space to store some books, this became the comforting – but not fun space that he went to when he had been unkind or was feeling angry

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How long do children need to calm down?

Back when I was working in the preschool the recommendation was 1 minute per 1 year of the child’s age and it was usually pretty effective. The problem I found with Ted though was sometimes it took less time for him to calm down and sometimes it took more. Being so strong willed and knowing his mind, he knew when he was ready to address the situation and talk. At first I thought letting him decide was giving in to him again and allowing him to take control but actually with the way his behaviour was he needed to be the one to make that decision in order to understand his own feelings and to be able to actively manage them as he grew.
If he was left to calm down longer than he needed he would become distracted and forget why he was there in the first place but if I tried to talk to him too soon whilst he hadn’t calmed down he would become more angry. By allowing him to decide when he was ready to talk we avoided both these situations, allowed him to emotionally grow and could also best talk about what had happened.

Just like Adults, children have their own personalities and their own ways of dealing with different situations, these need to be considered when developing a behaviour plan. Forcing something upon them that doesn’t work for them as individuals wont work and isn’t fair.

Here are some questions to consider when creating a behaviour plan

Does my child calm down better whilst I am sat with them or whilst having some alone time?
does my being in the room affect my child’s ability to calm down?
does my child need a teddy or a comforter to help calm down and defuse the situation?
Will my child benefit more from having a set period for calm down time such as 2/3 minutes or will they benefit more from emotionally making the decision that they are ready to listen/talk?
Does my plan suit me and my parenting style?

3. Allow them to take risks

Children learn so much through play. Even as adults one of the main ways we learn is through action and consequence, we do something good or bad, something happens as a consequence and we discover whether or not that’s something we should do again or not. Of course I don’t mean big risks which could majorly put your childs safety at danger, I mean small little everyday risks such as trying the rickety bridge at the park or the opportunity to try walking down the grass slope themselves. As parents we love our children more than anything, we work so hard to keep our children happy and safe but if we don’t allow them to make decisions and experience consequences themselves how can we expect them to confidently make decisions when they are older?

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Taking a risk can be a positive experience in many ways, if it pays off it can help to build their confidence and if it doesn’t it can help children to reflect and make wiser decisions in future. Allowing your strong willed child to take controlled risks can really help improve their behaviour because it gives them a way to fulfil their need to be in control in a way that is proactive and isn’t resulting in aggressive behaviour.  We all need to express who we are and reasonable risk taking gives strong willed children that opportunity.

4. Talk to your child in a way they understand

Reading a two year old a ten page essay on their behaviour isn’t going to work. The message you are trying to covey needs to be short and understandable, think about the words you are using and if your child will understand what you mean. Reflection time isn’t a time when you need to be teaching your child new words, it’s a time where they need to understand that it is not ok to use certain behaviours. It does get easier for you and them to communicate as their speech improves, improved speech also means that children have an added ability to communicate verbally instead of physically but you can communicate with your effectively before they’re speaking confidently.
I also personally think its really important to not label children, I would never tell my son that he is an unkind child, I think telling him that he is a kind child and that he has used unkind behaviour is not only a nicer approach but it is also not moulding them into a given label.

5. Be the emotional support they need but look out for you too: Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Being little is hard. Every day offers new situations and experiences and everyday they experience new emotions that they’re yet to understand and learn to control. It’s important to try and see things through their eyes and imagine how they are feeling. As parents our main job is to simply be there for our children, to give them endless love and to provide what they need to thrive.

However, Parenting a strong willed child can be really hard and it can stretch you out further than you thought possible. It is important that as parents you look after yourselves too. If you are stressed and stretched that will affect your daily life and the way you appear to your children. Having a good support group is great; your partner, family, friends anyone who is around to give you a hand, who you trust to babysit every now and then or who you can go out with; Don’t be afraid to ask for help.. or an evening out. There is no reason for you to feel guilty about going out, this is something I’m only just learning.. it is ok to go out sometimes, it can be hard, I know. I very rarely do it but every now and then, a couple of hours with a group of adults or even a date night with your partner can help you feel refreshed and can really support your mental health.

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Another place you shouldn’t be frightened to seek support is your health visitor. We were lucky enough that Ted’s behaviour was something we could address ourselves. Sometimes it isn’t that simple and that’s ok. Your health visitor can offer you some really great support both emotionally and with behaviour techniques, they’ll also be able to help you spot if something more is going on such as sensory processing disorder. you should never be frightened to contact them, they are there to support both you and your child and they are experts at what they do.

Here’s an example of a recent incident and how I dealt with it using our behaviour plan.

  • Ted became angry and hit his cousin without being provoked.

  • I intervened and told him that I was unhappy with his behaviour, he had hurt his cousin and that I thought he needed a minute to calm down.

  • Ted went to his bedroom and sat on his bed with his teddies whilst I comforted his cousin

  • About 2 minutes later he reappeared and said he wanted to say sorry.

  • Ted apologised to his cousin and gave her a cuddle. He then gave me a cuddle, he sat on my lap and we had a chat about being kind.

  • Ted and his cousin went back to playing and there wasn’t a single incident for the rest of the day.

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This is a major improvement from the days where he would scream and cry, throw himself on the floor and try to hurt anyone who went near him. Even then though, he really was a lovely boy, he just needed some consistency when it came to managing his behaviour and supporting his emotions.
Nowadays he is much more calm and able to deal with his emotions, I do think a couple of months age wise does make a difference but the biggest game changer was creating a tailored plan to address negative behaviour that suits us as a family. It was hard at first, he was going in to calm down a few times a day and I was trying to combat behaviour that we’d previously not really combatted further than just telling him no. But over the space of a few weeks the aggressive behaviour slowly calmed and he overall became a happier and more content child. He still has the occasional moment -but what human doesn’t? We now know how to work through it and his newfound respect for myself and his dad has made us even closer than we were before.

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