Bringing Out the ‘Softer Side’ in a Strong-Willed Child

Has your child or student been referred to as a Firecracker? How about Bossy Boots? You know the kid. The one who has to get their way and, on the spectrum from passive to aggressive, is a little more on the more aggressive side. They’re stubborn and they don’t back down.

While strong-willed children have many very valuable strengths (e.g. leadership, decisiveness, engagement), sometimes they lack the ‘softness’ that is required to create harmonious relationships and navigate complex social situations. Their ‘my way or the highway’ style of interaction can push people away because it’s harsh, inflexible and becomes a barrier to connection. When a child always needs to be heard first, often speaks over other kids and has little patience for their friends…naturally these things are not ingredients for healthy friendships and can be quite isolating. A softer approach is one that is kind, empathetic, and considerate of the feelings of others.

Here are a few strategies to encourage a headstrong child to soften up & take on a gentler approach in their friendships:

  • Give them a second chance to get it right. Often strong-willed children act on impulse. Encourage them to “Try again!” when you witness harsh, inflexible behavior. Read more here.
  • Focus on fairness. Explain the importance of fairness and how ‘taking turns’ is one of the ways that we create an equitable balance of power in our friendships. Draw a picture of a scale and show them how, if they’re the one who’s always in charge, the scale tips and isn’t balanced. Ask them, “How do you think your friend feels?” and “How would you feel if you weren’t heard?” Get them to see how it should be fair. For instance, in a class of 20 students, a child should technically be heard every 20 times so that everyone gets a fair chance to put a voice to their thoughts.
  • Reinforce the benefits of teamwork. Describe how a rope with more threads is stronger than a rope made out of one thread. Or, if there’s a sport they’re into – explain how each player has an important role and that, together, that makes the team stronger. Get them to really see the value of working together and hearing their friend’s ideas.
  • Role-play. Because a strong-willed child does not have these instincts, they need to be developed. And, in order to clear those neural pathways so that kind behavior becomes their default, they must practice, practice, practice. If you witness them react to a friend in an aggressive way, find a good time to get them to re-enact the scenario with you trying a different approach. Follow these steps:
  1. Retell the scenario that you witnessed using just the facts. Demonstrate their body language or tone of voice so they can see what they looked or sounded like.
  2. Ask them how they think their friend felt when they reacted in an aggressive manner.
  3. Then say, “Okay, how could we soften that up? What could you have done or said instead? Let’s practice.”(If your child is younger, get them to practice using their favorite stuffies or dolls.)
  • Reinforce when they get it right. Be sure to give your child tons of praise when you witness them using kindness and empathy in their friendships. Positively reinforce those interactions so they can see how good it feels to take on a gentler approach. “Wow! I love how you asked Steven what he wanted to do first. That was so thoughtful of you!
  • Encourage their friends to stand up for themselves. When other kids ‘allow’ strong-willed children to be this way, it encourages them to keep dominating. Upskilling the kids around these children can be really powerful. For instance, at a playdate, if you notice your child’s friend is letting your child get their way all the time, try saying: “Oh sweetheart. Don’t let Ruby get her way! Your opinion matters too. What would YOU like to do?” This way, you are modelling how to stand up to your child and giving permission to the more submissive child. What we know is that people will only carry out behaviours that are working for them. So, when other children stand up to your child and they realise that being dominant isn’t actually working for them in their friendships, eventually they will change their behaviour and find a more helpful way to interact.

Being strong-willed is definitely a strength. But, as with all strengths, there’s a tipping point when strengths become unhelpful. When the scale tips, our strengths become vulnerabilities. When you see your child using their strengths of leadership, engagement, and decisiveness in positive and helpful ways, be sure to point that out. This will help them identify when they are using their strengths effectively. Praise the things you want to see more of, affirm your child’s strengths, and coach them through the challenges. All children want to be liked and want to get along, so helping them find a more tender approach will ultimately give them the greatest reward of all – better, healthier, and even MORE friendships.

Written by Dana Kerford
Friendship Expert and Founder of URSTRONG

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