Who is this strong-willed child?

The strong willed child is an elusive creature. He can assume many shapes and is known by many names, from the affectionate “spunky” and “spirited” to sterner terms such as  “naughty” and “oppositional”. Teachers and educators might consider this child the “troublemaker.” Parents and relatives might call them their “problem child”.

I call him, fondly, “my child”, because I am raising a fine specimen at home. And because I was one too. My inner child is strong willed again, after recovering from the emotional wounds I suffered to my self-esteem while growing up. However, my healing journey was tough enough to persuade me that it is much wiser to try and raise whole children than to repair broken adults. Even though I vowed to spare my son that ordeal, I didn’t know exactly how to do it

Fortunately, he had many ideas of his own on how children ought to be treated, and he let us know from early on his strong preferences. A powerhouse of energy and creativity, this child is an endless source of joy and challenges for us. He’s extremely bright and sensitive and totally unimpressed by authority. In fact, he seems as determined to educate me and his dad as we are to educate him.

Although this instinct to resist control is quite common, it is one of the most challenging dynamics of raising a strong-willed child. The relentless passion, persistence and determination that is so characteristic of these children can be confusing and infuriating. 

Why is this child so demanding and stubborn? Why so inflexible and easily frustrated? How can we begin to make sense of these behaviors?

“What if a ‘strong-willed child’ or a ‘highly sensitive child’ are labels we give to children whom we don’t understand from the inside out?” suggests the paediatric psychologist Dr Mona Delahooke, Ph.D.

What if?

Why is my child so difficult?

Scientists propose that when children’s behavior is unreasonable, it is because their reasoning skills are being temporarily impaired due to emotional overload. Dr. Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine calls this flipping the lid. Often adults judge the behavior as deliberate, or even personal. Yet, more often than not, it’s really the best the child can do at that moment. 

The strong-willed child is a personality type that appears to have a heightened sensitivity to stress, and a strong propensity for autonomy that can be easily overwhelmed and shows up as unreasonable behavior. 

“Approximately one in five children are more affected or stirred up by their environment and stand out in comparison to their peers. They are the kids who get more easily overwhelmed, alarmed, intense, sensitive, prickly in their responses, and passionate in temperament,” says Clinical Counselor Deborah McNamara.

What do mental health professionals say?

But strong-willed children, like all children, are not an homogeneous category. Each one is a special individual with a unique body and mind, operating within a specific environment. They may all appear to stubbornly resist coercion and display challenging behaviors at times, but they don’t all respond in the same way, to the same degree, for the same reasons, on the same occasions.

Cultural, social and personal factors also influence our perceptions of a strong-willed child. Their behavior may seem extreme to some and not so to others. And extreme does not necessarily mean pathological. As tiring as it may be for grow-ups, a strong will, by itself, does not usually qualify as a medical concern.

This does not stop us seeking answers, explanations, even diagnosis. But in my experience, these can be subjective. As clinical psychologist Naomi Fisher points out “It’s not at all clear where the line between typical and diverse should be drawn.”  While for some families, pursuing a diagnosis may be helpful or even essential, this is not the case for all, and strong willed behavior alone doesn’t necessarily indicate a need to embark on this process. 

We do not know, either, to what extent strong-willed tendencies are hereditary. I can’t for example say for sure if the fact that my child and I are both strong-willed is a classic case of “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” or if it’s a matter of pure luck! 

However these differences in behavior come about, the void in understanding the dynamics that derive from them has given rise to a multitude of misperceptions. And the consequent mishandling of this trait can sadly result in additional troubles for both children and adults.

Why conventional