Dear Thelma: How do I deal with my strong-willed child?

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Dear Thelma,

My child is incredibly strong-willed, and while I admire her determination, it often leads to challenges in our daily life. I'm struggling to find the right balance in parenting and could use some help.

My child's strong-willed nature manifests in many ways. She is fiercely independent and determined to do things her way. While I want to encourage her independence, it sometimes results in power struggles and conflicts. I worry that I might be too permissive or too strict in response, and I want to find a better approach to guide her as she grows.

I've tried various methods of discipline and communication, but it seems like nothing works consistently. I want to provide a loving and nurturing environment for my child while also instilling values, discipline, and respect for others. It's challenging to know when to stand firm and when to give her room to make her own choices.

Thelma, I want to strike the right balance between supporting my child's unique personality and ensuring she grows up with the skills and values she needs to succeed in life. Any tips, strategies, or words of wisdom?


What an interesting question! Parenting is one of the toughest gigs life brings, and this question underlines again what a challenge it is.

Stubbornness is a complex issue because it is a quality that can be both beneficial and damaging.

A stubborn child who has been taught right from wrong will resist peer pressure at school when tempted into dangerous pranks – a common problem with all the crazy Tik Tok challenges. Also, if bullied, a stubborn child is much more likely to be able to maintain their self-esteem, because their mindset is less easily influenced.

The downside is that we are a group society with a strong focus on harmony. The benefit is that we have strong ties, but the cost is that we have to compromise – this isn’t easy for people who are stubborn!

Then there is the gender issue. Too often, a boy who is stubborn is called focused whereas a girl is called difficult. It’s unfair but it can’t be denied that this is a factor in society. It is significant because it may impact on your daughter’s friendships. As friendship is important to happiness, this is a vital issue.

Clearly, it is a complex issue and so it will be difficult to apply a universal rule. Also, you’ve not shared how old your daughter is, but I’m guessing she’s younger than a teen.

To figure out an acceptable method, let’s look to fundamentals.

To phrase it in Star Trek terms, a parent’s prime directive is to take a baby and to help them develop into an independent adult.

As babies develop into toddlers, young kids, preteens, teens, and young adults, their social skills change over time. A parent adapts to provide the correct level of support.

When tots quarrel at kindy, we explain simply and facilitate the process in person. “Taking toys without asking is rude, so now say sorry and then share, okay?”

With a preteen, we discuss, advise and then coach from the sidelines. “So we have figured out what is going on. Now go and talk it out. Remember, they’re your friend. Be nice. Speak gently. Go on, you’ve got this.”

Parents allow kids more autonomy as they mature because they know the process helps their young ones master important life skills. And that is where it gets tricky.

We want to see kids succeed and it can then be very tempting to micromanage, especially when we see them about to make a mistake.

I suspect that this is where you worry about your stubborn girl. If she is resistant to influence, you may see her make and repeat behaviour you don’t like or value.

Typical issues a stubborn child may encounter include not being diplomatic when an adult is unfair or incompetent; dressing to please themselves rather than conforming; and having opinions that run counter to the group.

I think the key to whether you should run interference would then depend on your daughter’s age, and on how damaging the fallout is.

As she’s young, she will likely not be able to tell what is super important and what is simply uncomfortable or unfortunate. You will have to make that decision each time you feel there is a problem.

I’m aware as I write this that it’s not a simple response. That’s because parenting is complex and there is no one answer.

So let me end with one bit of reassurance and one bit of advice.

Parenting is hard, you’re going to make mistakes and that’s okay. When kids know they are loved, they are resilient. So the occasional bit of yelling and not getting it right don’t matter – especially if you model an awesome apology.

It’s the kids who know they aren’t loved or who are frightened of their parents who have issues as they grow up.

Your letter shows you love your daughter, you respect her individuality and you want the best for her. Fundamentally you are coming at this with a great attitude. So please try not to worry too much.

But as parenting is tough, you need support. Find a few parents who share your attitude and blow off steam when you need to. It will give you relief and remind you that everyone is struggling.

Finally, save this letter and write back to me in 10 years' time when your stubborn girl is a raging success, OK?

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