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Step-parenting a Strong-Willed Child

On a good day, step-parenting a well-behaved, easygoing child can have its challenges, but step-parenting a strong-willed child can seem nearly impossible.
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On a good day, step-parenting a well-behaved, easygoing child can have its challenges, but step-parenting a strong-willed child can seem nearly impossible.

Strong-willed kids have specific personality traits that can be exhausting to parents, much less someone who isn't lucky enough to have endless patience or unconditional love for them. One of the ways stepparents often describe a strong-willed child is that when these kids walk in the door the energy of the house immediately changes. It's frought with anxiety and tension. These kids are often known as the squeaky wheel and get the majority of their parent's attention, leaving siblings, and you, out in the cold.

Here are some common behaviors of a strong-willed child according to an assessment form from Craig Lounbrough, M.DIV., LPC:

  • Frequently cries and often has a "cranky" attitude.
  • Tends to get angry or "throw a fit" when stopped from continuing an activity.
  • Is not particularly cuddly, seems to not "warm up" to touch.
  • Tends to be erratic in schedule and is difficult to work into a routine.
  • Often spontaneously is loud and tends to verbally interrupt in conversations.
  • Has a hard time focusing attention on something unless he or she is really quite interested in it.
  • Has a lot of "monkey-like" energy and is generally very obviously active.
  • Doesn't like unanticipated changes.
  • Will stick persistently to an idea or a preference, even when parents try hard to persuade the child otherwise.

This is not to say these kids aren't loving. They are. In fact, they're usually quite sensitive and charming, yet they're often mislabeled as being "bad." They're not bad, they're just wired differently and feel the need to be in control of themselves and their environment at all times. They believe they know what's best for themselves, even at a very young age.

If you're a highly sensitive person, the energy of a strong-willed child can rob you of your peace of mind, so if you're having a difficult time being around your strong-willed stepchild, here are some tips on how to protect your sense of well-being:

  • Headphones. Seriously simple, yet effective. A strong-willed child seemingly has endless energy to engage in arguing in order to get his way. This is a perfect time for you to escape to a room you've reserved as your own private sanctuary, put the headphones on and tune out the noise until things have calmed down.
  • Connect with him. No, not while he's in the middle of a fit. When he's calm and happy. It takes more effort to focus on positive experiences than negative ones, especially when the negatives far out number the positives. But if you can form a bond with your stepchild by engaging in family activities, taking an interest in his hobbies, spending some one-on-one time with him and keeping communication open between you two, you'll start to have more positive experiences to draw from when things get rocky.
  • Educate yourself. Strong-willed children require different parenting techniques than compliant children. For example, instead of grounding a strong-willed child for a week when they misbehave, experts suggest removing everything for a short period of time. You might take away his cell phone, gaming time, etc... but only for an hour or two. If you punish a strong-willed child for an extended period of time, due to his all or nothing mentality, he sees the punishment as a "lifetime," causing feelings of hopelessness and subsequently will see no reason to change or improve his behavior. Shorter punishments are more effective with these children. One book worth checking out is Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child : Eliminating Conflict by Establishing Clear, Firm, and Respectful Boundaries by Robert J. Mackenzie.
  • Boundaries. Even if your partner doesn't get on board with disciplining and parenting the way experts suggest, you can enforce your own boundaries that will be effective in protecting your personal space and helping the child know exactly what he can expect from you.
  • Offer options. Strong-willed kids like to be in control. By offering them options that you're comfortable with, you're giving them a sense of control, thereby lessening their anxiety and their need to act out.
  • Remove yourself from the situation. If your situation is a bit out of control, there's nothing wrong with planning activities for yourself around the time your stepchild is at your house. Even leaving the house briefly for a walk can help save your sanity when your stepchild is having a meltdown.

As these kids mature, it's important that they learn to manage their emotions and channel their energy in a positive and productive direction. When this happens, their strong-willed traits such as stubbornness and impatience often transform into determination and perseverance, enabling them to be highly successful in life. As their stepparent, when you ensure your own well being first, you'll find yourself in a wonderful position to help support their growth.

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