The Challenge of Parenting a Strong-willed Adolescent

Add temperamental willfulness to adolescence and parenting is harder to do

Posted Jul 23, 2018

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

Start with a general way of identifying a young “strong-willed child.” By this term I mean a girl or boy who is temperamentally gifted with great power of self-determination to direct, persist, resist, and to prevail. 

This demanding child is not inclined to easily give up and take “no” for answer. By illustration: “‘No’ is just what my parents say before I get them to say ‘yes’.” 

It’s easy for parents, who feel besieged or opposed at every turn, to see this as a very stubborn child and believe their primary challenge is to assert adult control. I believe a better vision is to understand that what they have is a headstrong girl or boy whose temperament is not going to change, and who is easily aggrieved by delay or denial of what she or he wants. 

What they have is an easily frustrated child, and it is the self-management of that frustration that parents need to teach. For everyone’s sake, it’s better for the child to learn to talk out her natural impatience through communication than to act it out in a tantrum of anger

In addition, there must be some early practice delaying gratification in order to learn that not everything desired needs to be gotten right now; and there must be some early practice dealing with denial of gratification in order to learn that not everything wanted will be permitted or provided. Parents who readily give in to a little strong-willed child to spare unhappiness or avoid a fuss or to keep the peace are likely to increase that willfulness come the girl or boy’s adolescence when there is more youthful urgency to get one’s independent and individual way. 

In most cases, I believe a strong-willed adolescent was once upon a younger time a strong-willed child. (An exception would be the adolescent who becomes substance abusive.) So if parents had alerted early to the little girl or boy born or adopted into their care, they might have used that childhood time to practice necessary child raising skills on their side and to encourage more mature self-management in the child. What could they have alerted to? One answer is: to the child’s willful thinking. 


Operationally, I believe the thinking of a strong-willed child can often be distinguished from a temperamentally more compliant child. When the compliant child is denied what is wanted, sadness and disappointment may follow, but then the little girl or boy moves on. Not so, the strong-willed child whose mind is often governed by making what I call a conditional shift in thinking when something wanted is not forthcoming. The thought process seems to work something like this.

       “If I want something, I want it a lot.”

·      “If I want it a lot, I must have it.”

·      “If I must have it, then I am entitled to it.”

(Now the conditional shift is made.)

       “If I am entitled to it, then I should get it.”

·      “If don’t get what I should, I will feel angry.”

·      “If I get angry, then I will use it to get my way.”

In response to this sequence, parents need to steadfastly declare to the child: “While it’s good to know what matters to you, you are not entitled to everything you desire. Not everything is supposed to go your way. And anger will not get you what you want. However, we will certainly listen to whatever dissatisfaction you want to talk about.” 


Around ages 9 – 13, a detaching and differentiating adolescent begins pushing for more independent action and individual expression. Now three developmental engines that drive this growth come into serious play. There is the drive of Separation for more social distance, the drive of Experimentation to explore older experience, and the drive of Opposition to operate more on one’s own terms. In the process, adolescence normally increases willfulness in a willful child. 

What parents can now encounter is a full court press that they might describe like this. “She keeps trying to take over the parenting job when that is our job to do, which is where we disagree most of the time.” “He’s determined to set his own rules and live his own way until it breaks down, and then we’re supposed to help him out.” But listen to the willful teenager, and there is different story to tell: “They’re the ones making it hard. All I want is to do is what's right for me.”  

What can parents constructively do to maintain respectful standing, responsible influence, and reasonable communication with this especially challenging teenager? Following is a list of some parenting strategies to consider and why, because there is no good point in acting in ways that make a hard willful situation worse.


Expect more limit testing and breaking. The willful adolescent is strongly motivated to do life her or his way, to be less tolerant of family and social demands and restraints. ‘Expect’ does not mean ‘endorse’; it means to be prepared for more opposition through argument and refusal. Parents might declare: “We will not tolerate any challenge to our authority.”  However, I believe it is better to explain: “We will be firm where we have to when our mind is made up; we will be flexible where we can if there is room for discussion; and we will always be ready and willing to hear whatever you have to say when you respectfully disagree with what we have decided.”  

Operationally, keep clarifying basic family rules and expectations. Beware of talking in generalities, using vague terms like the young person being “responsible,” “considerate,” and “helpful.” These are non-informative words in that they have no instructional power. Objectively describe what is wanted in terms of operations –identifying actions, doings, or behaviors that define what you want or do not want to  have happen. Under pressure, parental language often becomes more abstract and less specific. Generally speaking they might say: “We just want you to be more conscientious about your schoolwork!” No. Better to speak operationally and say: “We expect you to bring all classroom assignments home, do them completely, and turn them all in on time.” 

Consistently supervise what you want. Supervise all requests to completion and all rules to compliance. If it’s important enough for parents to ask for, then it should be important enough to follow through. Practice the art of parental pursuit; be willing to nag – the drudge work of parenting. With a strong-willed adolescent, parental inconsistency can send a double message: “Sometimes my parents mean what they say, and sometimes they forget or give up and don’t.” The willful teenager is likely to vote for “don’t.” Used to their supervisory commitment, however, the willful teenager is more likely to accept what cannot be changed: “I just do what they’ve said because I've learned they never give up about this.”   

Keep correction non-evaluative. There will be more frequent times when family rule violations occur. Better to address choices made than critically attack the character of the choice-maker which only injures and inflames the opposition. “Once again you’ve stupidly ignored our instructions!” No. Better to declare: “We disagree with the choices you have made, this is why, this is what needs to happen in consequence, and this is what we wish you to learn.”  

Allow natural consequences to bite. Willfulness can not only lead to violations of home rules, but to violations of societal rules as well. When social consequences for youthful mistakes or misdeeds arise, it is human for parents to want to prevent the harmful costs. However, rescue the young person from consequences, make a special exception, give another second chance, and they may encourage the belief that the willful teenager can get away with anything. “We’ll get you out of this if you promise it is the last time!” No. Better to declare: “We’re sorry you have this price to pay, but hope you can learn from the unhappy outcome of what you chose to do.” 

Treat problems as the exception, not the rule. Just because the willful teenager may be violating bounds and in one area of his or her life does not mean that she is not taking good care of business in others. What not to say: “You’re nothing but a problem.” This is not true. Any problem is only a small part of a large person, and parents must keep that larger perspective because it harms the young person’s self-image to view themselves in such diminished terms. “Messing up is not all you ever do. In most parts of your life you’re managing really well. And we appreciate it.”  

Express concern before asserting control. To stay emotionally connected to the willful teenager during a more contested time, it can help if parents identify themselves first as empathetic and second as authoritative when a problem arises. What immediately not to say: “Because of what you did, this is what is going to happen now.” Instead, begin with your first priority: “Before we talk about what happened and what happens next, we have a more important concern: are you feeling okay?” A great vulnerability of parenting a willful adolescent is seeing the relationship in terms of power, who is dominant, and who gets their way.  Keeping concern front and center allows for caring to rule.

Keep the relationship mutually beneficial. With so much focus on the willful teenager, parents can allow the relationship to become one-sided, primarily based on responding to what the teenager’s needs and wants, and they should not. Mostly doing for the adolescent, with the adolescent not doing much for them, can breed resentment. Therefore, they must keep up a mutual exchange of benefits: “We want a two-way relationship with you. This means sometimes we do for you, sometimes you do for us, and sometime before we do for you, we expect you to do for us.”             

Keep up the parental initiative. With a continual press for attention from their willful teenager, it’s easy for parents to get on the reactive: “We just wait and see what he is going to do to decide what we need to do next. We revolve our life around him!” This is usually a bad idea -- another way of parents living too much on the adolescent’s terms. Assert your own active agenda and make demands on him. Keep an interactive balance of demands in the relationship where he is also responding to demands from you. “You keep after me about stuff all the time!” runs the adolescent complaint. “That’s right, just like you keep after us.”        

Provide ongoing appreciation for willfulness. Despite their fatigue from the full court press of strong-willed adolescent’s demands and objections, it’s extremely important that parents communicate their appreciation of the willful temperament’s positive side. Recall the entry definition of willfulness in this blog: ‘the power of self-determinationto direct, to persist, to resist, and to prevail.’ Then, keep in mind:

“To direct” can empower the teenager to be outspoken and take leadership

“To persist” can empower the teenager to be untiring and self-disciplined. 

“To resist” can empower the teenager to be principled and hard to sway. 

“To prevail” can empower the teenager to be ambitious and successful. 

When a child and adolescent are innately willful, I believe the job of the parent is to teach the girl or boy how to constructively manage this demanding temperamental hand that they're been dealt.

Next week’s entry: Repurposing the Home Room of an Adolescent Off at College