“NO!” is the word you often hear from your strong-willed child. Often accompanied by tantrums, meltdowns and even physical aggression, these children just won’t let go until they get what they want.
As parents, we often call these children “difficult, hard, defiant and rebellious” causing these children to further live into these descriptions we label them with.
As a parent with a strong-willed child, I know first hand it is not easy raising a kid of this nature. I also know that if I didn’t find a new way to raise this kid, I would continue to suffer and our relationship would soon become one filled with disconnection, mistrust and seething resentment.
The hardest parts of parenting a strong-willed child are changing how you perceive your child and not reacting to their constant demands. But if we can understand the underlying factors that cause our kids to dig their heels in and fight, then perhaps we can shift into a place where we can actually see the positive qualities of these children and have the confidence to raise these kids with more curiosity, calm and compassion.
Understanding a strong-willed child
Parenting feels so much harder when our children are not compliant and obedient. Yet we are seeing more and more kids pushing against the old paradigms of authoritarian parenting, and fighting for more control and freedom to be who they want to be, in every moment!
Strong-willed children, although on the surface seem defiant and non-compliant, and may seem like they are engaging in behaviors on purpose, are actually just trying to get you to accept them for who they truly are – a child who needs to feel more in control, express their own intrinsic power, be more in charge of themselves, and maintain their integrity.
This is the AUTHENTIC need of a strong-willed child.
Going a little deeper, why will a strong-willed child go to the lengths they do to get what they want and need?
Because deep down, underneath the nature of their personalities, lies a deeper need – to feel SAFE.
The automatic nervous system reaction of a strong-willed child
Every human has a nervous system that craves predictability, clarity and choice to feel safe. Our nervous system needs to know how, what and why in order to come into safety. We also need co-regulation (connection with other humans and animals) to help us feel safe – this is especially true for children. We need these cues of safety to help our bodies relax, trust, and be willing to comply and do things that make our nervous systems uncomfortable.
Every human also has a nervous system that automatically reads the surrounding environment for cues of danger and safety. When our bodies sense something that feels unsafe, we go into Fight, Flight, or Freeze mode. When our bodies sense safety, we go into Social Engagement mode and are more willing to engage with others, listen to others and feel comfortable enough to follow another person’s suggestions.
Our bodies (nervous system) react automatically to the environment and send this messaging up to our brain, causing us to create a story of the threat and react.
Since strong-willed children go into “Fight” mode easily, we can say their nervous systems’ scanning system is more heightened to read the environment for cues of danger. These kids are just way more sensitive to anything that feels like a threat to their system – and they are not doing this on purpose – a lot of it happens automatically.
Strong-willed children, at the core of it, have nervous systems that do not feel as safe as the more typical child.
A parent’s nervous system in the face of a strong-willed child
The unpleasant part of parenting comes when, in the face of our dysregulated child’s automatic fight response, our own nervous system senses a threat and reacts back with its own automatic fight response, causing the interaction to lead to an explosion.
Parents – it is not your fault! Your nervous system detects your child as a threat to safety. It’s also not your child’s fault – he or she has a nervous system wired to react to the smallest threat to safety.
But, if we can notice this automatic reaction taking place, then we can use tools to calm our nervous systems, and that of our children, and help us all get back to safety, where the higher thinking brain comes back online and can make healthier choices of how to handle the challenging moments.
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3 ways to bring everyone back to safety, and co-regulate with your strong-willed child
The reality of this human body we live in, with a nervous system that automatically reacts to perceived threats, is we need to help it to get back to safety first before we can help our child co-regulate with us and get to safety, and hence better behaviors.
Here are 3 ways to help you and your child get back to safety:
1. Use your breath
Breath is the easiest tool to hack into the automatic nervous system reaction and bring it back to safety. Breathing to activate your Vagus nerve (the calming nerve that signals relaxation and “presses the safety button”) involves breathing into your belly and releasing a longer, slower out-breath. Breathing in this way, when in reactive mode, helps to train your nervous system to feel safe in the face of the perceived threat (your child!).
You can also practice breathing in the “nervous system zone of safety” with Wild Divine’s iom2 device, which has biofeedback capabilities, reading your nervous system in real-time and helping you learn how to breathe to regulate your heart rate and hence your nervous system. Kids can use this tool too, so it’s great for the whole family to learn to calm their bodies.
Once your nervous system is back in a place of calm, your child will read cues from your nervous system, take those in and start to calm as well. This is the essence of co-regulation that all kids feed off of when parents are in a calm place. From here you can start to connect again and problem-solve together.
2. Speak less, with a soft tone of voice
There is nothing that activates a strong-willed child more than a parent who, in the face of any defiance, starts to talk louder and faster.
When children are in the Fight zone, their bodies automatically shut down their ability to hear you or understand you. Their higher thinking brain goes offline and they are in their primitive, reflexive brain now. All they can understand at this point are the cues from your angry face and the aggressive energy you are spewing out at them. This causes them to feel even more unsafe and the reaction heightens and even explodes.
In these heated moments, it’s important to stay quiet at first and start to shift your breathing and come back into the energy of connection and compassion.
In addition, the Vagus (calming) nerve innervates our ears, and when our nervous system hears a soft tone of voice that is melodic and prosodic, it starts to feel safe and can come down from the ledge of Fight and back into the zone of Safety.
In my personal experience, even when I’m slightly heightened and breathing to regulate myself in a heated moment, I find that once I start to speak softly in a prosodic tone of voice, my own nervous system begins to calm down even more.
It’s a win-win for both you and your child!
3. Change your face and eyes from a grimace to a soft smile
Children read our faces more than we know. We read others’ faces more than we realize. A person’s face and eyes always give away how they are truly feeling.
If you’re going to choose between words and body language – in the world of nervous system reactions, body language always wins! And this includes the state of your face and eyes.
Once breathing, try shifting your face from a grimace or frown to a softness, lifting your cheeks slightly with a soft smile, and softening your eyes as well. Just the act of doing this signals calm to our brain, helping us to come back into a compassionate place. This is because the Vagus nerve also innervates our facial muscles. Try it now and see how your feeling state shifts.
Since children read our faces like hawks (especially strong-willed children!), just the slight act of shifting your face to be softer, kinder, smiling and compassionate can signal to your own nervous system and your child’s nervous system that all is safe.
What strong-willed children need more than any child are cues of safety, and this can come from shifting our nervous system state, empowering them to have more control and choice, and accepting the qualities of their strong-willed nature to be their authentic gifts that will help them later in life.
From a place of safety, shifting our mindset about strong-willed children
Learning to shift our nervous system state and helping our child to feel safe can have an immense impact on the reactive nature of your child. As we learn to calm ourselves in the face of our children, we mirror to them that they can feel safe in the face of whatever they perceive to be a threat.
In addition, if we want to suffer less and enjoy more connection and calm with our children, we can help shift our perceptions of the qualities of our strong-willed child from ones that are limiting to ones that are empowering.
Shifting our mindset of strong-willed children from difficult, defiant and non-compliant to the successful qualities of perseverance, knowing what they need and want, authenticity, with strong integrity can help us parents shift from resentment and fear to acceptance and appreciation of the gifts our children have to offer us and this world.
Becoming a resilient parent, raising a confident child
It is no easy task raising a strong-willed child. But, if we can shift our nervous systems to feel safe in the face of our child, and shift our mindset to see our child in a new light, our parenting experience can go from exhaustive and draining to fulfilling and promising.
As a result, we win and our child wins, as we get an easier parenting experience and they get to see themselves in a new light, through our eyes, as children worthy of the nature of their being. In turn, children learn to love and accept all of who they are and become confident to handle the challenges of life!
About Afshan Tafler
Afshan Tafler is a Whole Life Coach and Conscious Parenting Coach who helps you discover your power to transform your emotional health so you can handle life’s challenges with resiliency, create more connected relationships, and live from your full life force energy.
You can learn more about Afshan and her services at www.illuminateu.ca