Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

Parenting the strong-willed adolescent.

What to do when adolescence increases wilfullness in children.

In general, adolescence is a more willful age than childhood because self-determination begins driving growth toward social independence in predictably powerful ways. Through words and actions, the young person says and shows new assertiveness in statements like the following.

"I will want more freedom to grow."
"I will question rules and authority."
"I will do things my way."
"I will dress as I like."
"I will not like being told what to do."
"I will choose my own friends."
"I will be more private from parents."
"I will want more money."
"I will tell less truth as needed."
"I will try older experiences as desired."

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Increased expressions of willfulness like this creates more disagreements with parents, so they need to anticipate more conflict during adolescence. In addition, if their adolescent was a strong-willed child, that conflict is likely to be even more frequent and intense. How to identify a child who is willful from the non-willful kind?

Deny a non-willful child what he wants, and some degree of sadness may follow before he lets go of the disappointment and moves on to other things. For a strong-willed child, however, there is usually a different emotional response -- anger, and holding on to what was wanted. Why?

One characteristic that identifies a strong-willed child is the tendency to make a ‘conditional shift' when deciding on what is wanted, and when having that want refused. This is the sequence of thinking that seems to take place.

"If I want something, I want it a lot."
"If I want it a lot, I must have it."
(Now the conditional shift)
"If I must have it then I SHOULD get it."
"If I don't get what I should, that is unfair so I will be angry."
"Mad at this unfairness, I will keep after what I feel entitled to."
Anger at the injustice of refusal energizes stubborn pursuit of what has been denied.

A strong-willed child is one who has great strength of want. To the "good" this can mean she is highly directed, is motivated to achieve what she wants, is persistent in pursuit of personal goals, and does not give up easily when resisted, rejected, or refused. It's a mixed blessing. To the good, she won't take ‘no' for answer; and to the bad, she won't take ‘no' for an answer.

To the "bad" this can mean demanding control, never relenting or backing down, refusing to compromise, needing to be right all the time, fighting to win at all costs, being wed to getting one's way. Since willfulness is double-edged, the difficult task of parents is to maximize the good side and moderate the bad.

If you happen to have a have a strong-willed child (up to age 8 or 9), he or she is likely to be an even stronger-willed adolescent. Therefore, while still in childhood it is worthwhile to help the boy or girl channel willfulness toward interests and accomplishment, become more tolerant of delay and denial of gratification, reduce conditional thinking by separating desire from entitlement, and understand the damage to relationships that extreme willfulness can insensitively do.

So the parent continually tries to explain this difference. "It can be good to know what you want and to go after what you want and not give up until you get what you want; but it may not be good when you do so at other people's expense or oppose reasonable limits that others in responsibility have set. What can be hard to manage is frustration you feel when you know what you want and what you feel is right, and other people disagree."

So what are some possible parental guidelines for managing a strong-willed adolescent? Consider these.

Do not ignore conduct you don't agree with in order to keep the peace. Parental avoidance of conflict empowers willfulness.

Do not indulge requests you do not agree with to please. Giving in for the sake of approval only encourages more willfulness.

Do not get into power struggles to prove who will win or who is in charge. Pitting parental will against adolescent will only trains the young person to act more willfully.

Do give adolescent arguments a full hearing, but having stated and explained your final position clearly, do not keep arguing back. Continuing to argue keeps open the possibility that you will change your mind.

Do not engage in any disagreement that is not conducted safely and respectfully. By example and interaction, parents must teach the strong-willed adolescent tools of constructive conflict for use in later relationships.

Do be firm and consistent in high priority parental rules and requests. Inconsistency sends an irresistible double message to the strong-willed adolescent - "sometimes my parents mean what they say and sometimes they don't." (The willful teenager will usually vote for "don't.")

Do be non-evaluative when correcting. Specifically, take issue with the teenager's decision: "We disagree with the choice you have made, this is why, and this is what we need to have happen in consequence." Attacking a strong-willed adolescent's character, conduct, or capacity is usually inflammatory.

Do recognize and appreciate willfulness when the adolescent carries an ambition to conclusion or keeps a hard commitment. Affirming the positives of willfulness encourages that side to grow.

One single parent I talked with years ago staked out her position with two stubborn teenage sons this way. "I will listen as always, I will be firm when I have to, I will stick to what I say, I will be flexible when I can, and I will let you know when my mind is already made up." Enough said.

For more about parenting adolesents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week's entry: Adolescence - when there's a "good" child and a "bad."

Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Austin, Texas. His most recent books are: The Connected Father, The Future of Your Only Child, and Stop Screaming.

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