If you’re raising a strong-willed child, you may feel the urge to temper their ‘spirited’ or ‘stubborn’ personalities. Strong-willed kids are self-directed and focused on their own path, which is actually a great thing! These traits can be massively challenging in day-to-day parenting, I know. But strong-willed characteristics in kids will serve them well later in life if gently nurtured.
Below, I will explore 10 strong-willed child characteristics, and how reframing your view of these can shine a light on the benefits they will have on your child’s future. For example, all of those so-called negative traits – defiance, resistance, stubbornness – are clues to the strong-willed adult they will become!
Have you ever taken the time to really think and reflect on what qualities you’d most like to see in the little human being you’re raising? Of course, I’m not talking about the qualities you’d like to see now, those are fairly easy for most of us to tick off.
Easy going. Check!
Never leaves room after being put to bed. Check!
The wish list I’m referencing to is the one you’ll get to see much later down the road when your child begins to look more like an adult who’s ready to pack their bags and head out into the world (gulp).
For many parents, the qualities of perseverance, determination, and integrity in a child are high on the list for future adulthood but do not feel as desirable when we’re in the grind of day-to-day life with an intense determined strong-willed child.
Hey kid, if I could just be able to fully control you now…then LATER you can break out the fierce oppositionality (like when you’re being peer pressured to smoke a joint or something) that’d be great, thanks.
If only it worked this way!
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The roller-coaster of raising a strong-willed child
We humans don’t exactly love an uninvited challenge, which if we’re being honest is exactly what raising a strong-willed child is. Many parents come into my office exasperated from raising their spirited and intense child, wondering how we can fix their stubborn kid.
Here’s the deal though- they don’t need fixing, I promise.
Although it may be hard to remember when their heels are literally dug into the sand because they don’t want to leave the beach, these strong-willed child traits are your kid’s own unique blueprint for future success. It will be a marathon and not a sprint, but with extra patience, teaching and encouragement from those around them, their amazing blueprint is sure to come to life.
The first step is changing our perspectives when it comes to our child’s strong-willed traits.
This Time magazine article on stubborn kids references a study that tracked kids into adulthood, “Therapists say it’s true that strong willed kids are more willing to do what’s right, rather than what their friends are doing. If parents can motivate them and turn their drive to doing well at school or a real purpose, these kids can make motivated leaders who will do the right thing even if they have to do it solo.”
A Strong-willed or spirited child has become a common term to reference a toddler or child born with the temperament and personality traits contributing to the following qualities in a child’s nature: exuberance, independence, determination, outspokenness, and at times highly emotionality and inflexibility. Strong-willed children are natural leaders, highly empathetic, and intelligent.
In generations past (and before the research on temperament and personality became more mainstream) strong-willed children were often referred to as a ‘willful child’, defiant, spoiled, or naughty.
Thankfully, it is becoming more commonly understood that characteristics of a strong willed child are in fact very positive and beneficial in our world, as long as adults learn to work with them productively and not fall into the common trap of taking their behaviors personally and trying to stifle and control the child’s natural characteristics.
After all, what is ‘strong-willed’ if not the very traits so many parents hope to nurture in their child? (Can you think of any parents that would argue they don’t want to raise their child to be a strong, confident adult who can speak up for themselves?)
So what are strong-willed child characteristics?
Does your child have tunnel vision when it comes to seeing a plan through? Perhaps they don’t seem to hear you when you prompt them to leave the park, “but I neeeed to finish climbing the rock wall first!”. Many children that are strong-willed get stuck in their own cognitive trajectory of what they thought would come next and may struggle with the mental flexibility needed to make what’s known as a ‘cognitive shift’.
How determination will help in the future:
Determination will keep your strong-willed child striving towards life goals as small as making it to the top of the rock wall and as large as sticking with 8 years of medical school.
When your 4-year old decides to build a fort in the living room you are amazed at how he can focus and engage with it, it’s like he’s in his own little world. The strong-willed child is often a creative outside-the-box thinker, often engaging in new projects and ideas with tons of passion, enthusiasm, and gusto.
How passion will help in the future:
While right now it may look like lots of giant messes in your house, passion is what serves as your strong-willed child’s ‘north star’ guiding him toward where and how he wants to share his unique gifts and talents with the world. When a person is passionate in their endeavors (ie motherhood, a career, hobbies etc) they will be more engaged, committed, and fulfilled.
One parent’s disrespect is another child’s sense of conviction. You promised your little guy two bedtime stories (before you knew bathtime would become a full-on water circus) and when you tell him there’s not enough time he reacts with an uproar, “well you’re a liar then!”
Your child innately has a strong sense of fairness and ethics. When it comes to what he believes is right, he will stand strong and as a result, may struggle to take situational context into consideration and be flexible.
How conviction will help in the future:
It’s not always easy to stay calm and remember the root of an emotional outburst, but don’t be surprised to see your strong-willed child standing up to another child bullying others at recess, or working in a social justice profession later on down the road.
On the playground, your child often jumps in to orchestrate a game of freeze tag. Being strong-willed, taking charge comes easily for them with siblings and friends. It can be a challenge for them to accept leadership from others because following is not their strong suit.
How leadership will help in the future:
While they’ll need extra support with friends and siblings to remember important social skills such as communication and cooperation, a clear idea of the ‘big picture’ comes naturally to them and they very well may turn out to be an entrepreneur or leader in their own community ( school, church, peer group etc).
Your strong-willed daughter wants a pet and until that day comes, she will incessantly bring up the topic of cats…or guinea pigs…or anything that exists at the nearest Petsmart. This incessant pestering stems from an inner striving that comes as naturally as air to your strong-willed child.
How perseverance will help in the future:
When you hear yourself saying, “If you ask me about a stinking pet one more time today the answer is NO!” remind yourself this inner strength and unwavering fortitude is what will allow your strong-willed daughter to overcome major obstacles in her future such as passing the SAT’s, learning a new hobby/skill or running a half-marathon.
The phrase “You can’t make me!” likely makes a regular appearance in your household. Your little guy’s fierce sense of personal integrity makes him bristle when caregivers use blatant force or control as a means of interacting on a consistent basis.
How collaboration will help in the future:
Barking orders and using controlling language comes much easier to parents in times of stress (ahem getting out the door in the am), but learning how to speak with a tone of collaboration and positivity during discipline with a strong-willed child will model some killer communication skills for your spirited child to use with peers at school and their future spouse later.
You often notice your child moves and talks more than your friends’ kids’ and you worry they’ll annoy old school relatives who likely still seem to think children should be seen and not heard.
How enthusiasm and energy will help in the future:
It can be draining to keep your bright active child busy on a slow Sunday, but that contagious energy and enthusiasm will be a force of positivity and fun when channeled into public speaking, or a high-energy career such as teaching.
Strong-willed child characteristics are a benefit if we let them be
When we set aside the ‘parent lens’ from which we view our child, it becomes much easier to see our strong willed child as they truly are. A brand new little human learning how to interact with the world given the temperament and personality biology gave them.
Children don’t come into the world to exist as objects for our own control and desires but come as unique individuals bearing all the traits they need to survive and thrive in the world.
Without a doubt, parenting a strong-willed child is more challenging. Our fiery and unique kids force us to learn new ways of communication and leadership, calling into question what we truly value when it comes to raising our child.
The undeniable gift of strong-willed children is that if nurtured and guided, they become strong-willed adults.
For those parents out there raising strong-willed kids, you are not alone. Let’s stick together and remind the world of our child’s positive traits as much as we commiserate about the challenges.
Reminding each other that we are the best parent for our spirited child and that looking at our child through a lens both positive and future-forward allows us to survive this bumpy ride and know we’re giving our child an invaluable gift. The gift of embracing their best qualities, allowing them to live authentic, fulfilled, and successful lives.
P.S. Your spirited child is more complex, and so is your parenting journey…but don’t worry I’m here to simplify the (often) overwhelming and beautiful journey of raising a spirited child. Grab your free 9 page guide here.
About Angela Pruess LMFT
Welcome! I’m Angela, Licensed Children’s Mental Health Professional, Positive Parenting coach and mom to Spirited Kids that help me grow (grey hairs) into a better person every day. I believe EVERY child deserves to live their BEST life and that emotional health is the magic key to lifelong success and happiness. Read more about me and the Parents with Confidence manifesto.