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Strong-Willed Children: TEAM Not TAME!

Updated: Apr 5

“We’ve tried EVERYTHING!”

“They couldn’t care less about punishments.”

“The only thing that gets them to stop is if I really lose it.”

“They are just totally manipulative.”

“They don’t listen to anything we say.”

If you’re saying to yourself, “Does this woman have a listening device planted in our home?” you may be the proud parent of a strong-willed child (SWC)! Believe me, I get it. I REALLY get it. Been there, done that as they say.

In the midst of raising my SWC, I was mired in negative thinking about my child and felt completely defeated as a parent. Honestly, it was kind of humiliating.

From my perspective, nobody else had kids like this. If I had a dollar for every time someone said to me,

“Boy, you really have your hands full don’t you?”

I’d be a very rich lady.

I handled “bad behavior” the way I was taught to handle it by watching my own parents, and through the strategies I learned in my classroom management courses while earning my degree in education. The rules were:

  1. Give lots of positive reinforcement! Say things like, “Good Job!”, “Well done!”, “I’m so proud of you!”, “Atta boy!”, “Way to go!”

  2. Create elaborate and impossible to keep track of systems so you can give rewards for good behavior. Think charts, stickers, marbles in a jar, etc. So many stickers, marbles, tickets=something terrific, like a piece of candy or extra recess or a toy or any other bribey-type thing.

  3. Give a warning (or two or three) if a child is headed in the wrong direction.

  4. Give consequences for kids who have now gone in the wrong direction. Do things like take away a toy or activity, send the child to time-out, take away privileges, have a child sit at recess, etc. etc. etc.

In the classroom, we used things like a traffic light to supposedly keep kids on track. It worked like this:

  1.  All kids have their names on a clothespin or some other item that can be clipped or stuck on the “traffic light” (a teacher-made replica)

  2. All kids start on green. Yay! We’re all amazing!!

  3. If a student breaks a rule their name is moved to yellow and some entry-level consequence is given, like a warning.

  4. More rules broken=moving your name to the red-light. Booo, no fun! Now I will call your parent and tell them how horrible you were today and NO RECESS FOR YOU!

Sounds great in theory, right? Make being “good” rewarding and being “bad” so unpleasant that the kid learns the lesson and never does THAT again. But, here’s the real story: The kids who have their names moved to red on day one had their names on red most days of the year, and the kids who ended on green day one never moved off of that green light. Ask any educator and they’ll confirm this unspoken truth. In the true definition of crazy, we keep doing the same thing over and over with the hope of a different result.

This reward/consequence system sounds great in theory, but for many kids, especially SWCs, not only does it not work to improve behavior, it actually makes things worse. Here’s why:

⇒These kids have big emotions and a fierce need for autonomy.

⇒They desperately want and need intense connection. We inadvertently give them the message that the BEST way to get this from us is through bad behavior.

⇒They acquire self-regulation skills a bit later than their peers.

⇒When they overreact or break a rule, more often than not it’s a result of not possessing the skillset to do differently.

For example, telling an SWC that Xbox time is over may be met with outrage. This is an instantaneous, knee-jerk, fight-or-flight reaction. They literally have NO control over it at that moment. A typical response might be to take away the Xbox privileges for a set period of time as a “natural consequence.” If this actually worked, you would expect that the next instance when Xbox time came to an end, the child would peacefully acquiesce and go about their day. Which happens NEVER! Why? Because the actual issue was never addressed. This child needs someone to teach them how to transition and deal with disappointment and frustration. You can take away everything and punish them until they’re 30, but until the child learns how to regulate their emotions, you will still have reactive, volatile responses.

When I share this information with parents, they almost always follow up with a version of this question, “Well, what are we supposed to do? Just let them get away with everything? Don’t they need to learn a lesson so they won’t do it again??”  To which I answer, “Nope, definitely not. Kids need boundaries, clear, firm, fair, and consistent boundaries. But also, nope they don’t need to “learn a lesson” (aka harsh punishment) to do better, they just need us to show up differently. More compassion, more calm, more empathy, and more co-creating solutions to problems. Harsh punishments create shame and these kids are already up against it. The reality is, their strong-willed spirits are a blessing to be nurtured and embraced. Once parents understand how to make small changes, big transformations can happen. So, don’t try to TAME these kids, learn how to TEAM with them! They truly are our future leaders and change-makers.

If you want to learn how to TEAM not TAME, schedule a free DISCOVERY call with me here: Talk To Cindy!

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