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Parenting a Strong-Willed Child

Using behavior modification to improve your child’s behavior

What is a “strong-willed” child?

What is a “strong-willed” child?

Parents across the country and world often have difficulties managing their child’s behavior. You have probably been in the store buying groceries or in the mall shopping and walked past a mother or father shouting to their child, “Stop crying because I am not buying that today." You may have even had your own personal experience with your child who cries because they can’t get something they want or uses aggressive tactics that result in you giving in to your child’s request and/or demands. These children are characterized as being “strong-willed.” A strong-willed child is defined as one who is stubborn and always has to get their way. These children often have difficulties associated with disruptive behavior disorders such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Conduct Disorder. The key to coping with and understanding these children is that these behaviors are malleable and can be changed with the use of behavior modification.

Managing the “strong-willed” child with behavior modification

In my experience as a clinician, I’ve often encountered parents that are so distressed and hopeless after coping with their child’s misbehavior that they seek treatment as a last resort. Parents often attend initial appointments thinking “I’m a bad parent” because all of the things they’ve tried have had little success. However, these behaviors can be changed with simple behavior techniques. Behavior therapy has a long history of being effective in treating disruptive behaviors such as noncompliance, tantrums, and aggression. One big step in receiving treatment is overcoming negative attitudes about your parenting skills and decreasing any stigmatizing views about mental health services. The main goal of behavior modification and behavior therapy techniques is to decrease undesirable behavior and increase desirable behavior. Treatment often includes understanding the behavior in context through examining Antecedents, Behaviors, and Consequences (which is often referred to as the ABC method).

Although most of us would like to have the perfect child, no such children exist. Below are some simple strategies to keep in mind when managing minor behavior problems.

  • Focus on the positive: Most children like attention and often we attend more to negative behaviors (e.g., not listening) than to positive behaviors (e.g., adhering to expectations). If you see your child behave in a desired way, point it out to them.
  • Be consistent with consequences: In order to maintain appropriate behaviors, children must know that you will respond the same way under all circumstance. Remember children like to gamble, if it worked once in their mind it will work again.
  • Establish routines and adequate sleep: Children greatly benefit from structure and sleep is very important to your child’s physical and emotional health. Just think about yourself, when your day is off or you didn’t sleep well, life tends to be a little more frustrating. Children are the same way, except they also make your like more difficult.

If you recognize significant behavior problems, seek assistance from a psychologist or mental health professional to develop appropriate behavior management strategies. With early intervention these “strong-willed” children can be little angels. For more information on seeking help in your area visit the American Psychological Association ( or the National Institute of Mental Health (

Copyright 2013 Erlanger A. Turner, Ph.D.

You can follow Dr. Turner on Twitter @DrEarlTurner for daily post on psychology, mental health, and parenting. Feel free to join his Facebook group, “Get Psych’d with Dr. T” to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

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