Surviving a Strong Willed Toddler

Who knew humility would be served to me by a three foot tall toddler. My first child, Timothy, bright eyed lover of life, has stolen my heart, but has also caused me to eat some extra chocolate (for medicinal purposes). I am the mother who strolled into the grocery store, only to stroll right out, because their child was screaming bloody murder while trying to leap from the cart. I am the mother who had to straight arm my child to try to get him into his car seat long enough to buckle him in. I am the mother who tried to get two kids in the house, while one is screaming “help” loud enough for neighbors 5 blocks away to hear.

I am “that” mother.

Warning Signs

Since the age of 6 months I should have known I was in trouble when he refused to allow me to feed him jar foods. His coordination was not there yet, but apparently my E-Trade baby was independent enough to handle it on his own. So let’s just say there were a lot of days the floor looked like we had a food fight. Now, if you are saying, “you’re the mother, just feed him,” this article is not for you. You do not have a strong willed child. We finally compromised by letting him have a spoon in one hand, while refilling the other spoon and then swapping. Hey, if it works, go for it.

Jekyll and Hyde

Tim really has such a kind, sweet heart; it amazes me when he gets in one of his focused tirades. There are times when he is so sweet to his sister, dad or me that I could just melt. Then, there are other days that I could melt from the glossy stares of onlookers. Their face screams, “She must not be disciplining her child for him to act that way.”

One day, I was talking to a friend, who I know had honest intentions; nonchalantly said, “Parents are praised when their kids are good; we should assume when the kids are bad, it is the parents fault.” I think at that moment I initially told her I didn’t think so. But I don’t even know, because at that moment my fears reached the surface. I had been trying so hard with my son, and I felt at that moment I was being told I was not good enough.

Sticking it out

We have tried numerous disciplinary actions. After a few months, we have to switch up the disciplinary action of choice, because he starts to enjoy the discipline, or at least pretend. On countless occasions we have told him no for the same thing 10 times over, but he’ll just happily repeat the same thing. We are currently going with the time out approach to discipline. Every 2 minutes we see if he has corrected his action. Like the Cheezit commercials we check to see if he’s ready yet. Lets just say, the other day it took 45 minutes to get him to eat two bites of spaghetti for dinner. Mind you, he used to love spaghetti, but that’s the point with strong willed kids, they are just always testing boundaries, holding off until you break. His stamina is amazing.

Transitions can be hard

Transitions can be very hard. He will dilly-dally until you pick him up and remove him from a situation, which undoubtedly will upset him and lead to a fun bout of kicking and screaming. Yesterday, I was pretty sure he yelled help, as I tried to guide him to the door, while holding his sister. Who was he calling help to? I guess anyone who would listen.

There is light at the end of the tunnel

Now I don’t want to completely throw Timmy under the bus. His attitude is improving, and that allows for his infectious personality to really shine. But there are days that he is so focused on his game plan, so determined to win out, that it can be very defeating as a parent. I just wanted to share my story so other mothers know they are not alone.

So what do we do? When all the handbooks tell us if we discipline a certain way, we will have a new kid before we know it, and yet some of us are left stranded, feeling helpless, as the temper tantrums still come.

Some things that help most of the time

  • Warn the child that change is coming. “This is your last book” or “We are leaving after one more slide.”
  • Routine and consistency. Kind of goes with number one, it just prepares them for what to expect.
  • Being on the same page with your spouse. I always tell Tim, “Me and Daddy are on the same team.” As soon as Tim thinks he is in charge, we have lost the fight.
  • Encouraging your child, even when they aren’t vying for it. If Tim is doing his own thing in the corner, or I see him share with his sister, anything that I want to encourage him to do, I praise him. “You are such a great big brother. Thank you for sharing with your sister.” “That is such a great coloring job; you are an artist.” When we take the initiative, he is usually so appreciative and so sweet with his words.
  • Include your child in your activities. It makes them feel apart of grownup things and part of the bigger picture. E.g. unloading the dishwasher, handing me the laundry. Although it takes longer to include him in chores, it 1. gives him an activity and 2. allows him to feel appreciated and that he is helping.
  • Once you say something to your child, stick with it. Don’t back down, no matter how inconvenient or trying on your patience it is, whether it is a reward or a punishment.
  • Let them know when they make you sad, it connects them with an emotion they know, and can associate the problem with a negative feeling.

These are just some of the things that I have found work with my strong willed child most of the time. There will be those days that nothing works, but stay encouraged. Continue to love on them, focus on their strengths, and make the most of every moment. They are God’s personalized gift and responsibility to you. Not only were they handpicked for you, you were handpicked for them!

I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Psalm 139:14

Update: My son is now 7 years old! If you are interested on an update on how he is doing I would love to share Signs of a Leader-My Strong-willed Child part 2

Please Share Your Thoughts

  • Linda Henderson

    Excellent article, Grace. Even though it sounded funny, I’m sure it’s not funny for you being in the parental role with a “very cute” strong willed child.I think you gave good advice on how to handle a strong willed child- like including him in your activities, and sticking to what you tell him. Another thing that may work ( from experience) is playing it “cool.” When Timmy acts up ( as all kids do- thank goodness you guys didn’t usually do it out in public, though) just pretend it’s no big deal. Another words- try to ignore it. I know that’s easy to say, and harder to do when your’re in the situation. Honestly- if he doesn’t settle down, just take him back to the car & give him a good swat on the butt. If you really love your Son- you will spank him. It’s not child abuse! The Bible says: “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child,but the rod of discipline will remove it far from him” Proverbs 22:15. Also, it says in Proverbs 23:13 “Do not hold back discipline from the child. Although you strike him with the rod, he will not die. You shall strike him with the rod & rescue his soul from Sheol.”( Proverbs 23:13 & 14). I truly believe what a strong willed child needs the most is 1) to come into a relationship with the Lord, & 2) Discipline . Discipline ( including spanking) will enable him to develop self-control . It tells him you care more about him than you do yourself. I knew it was the one thing missing in my upbringing. And so when Baby Harold came along- who was also strong willed- I wanted to make sure he would get disciplined so he would grow up developing the self- control he needed. Anyway, honey, I know it must be humbling, but God will get you through it. He may be doing it because he needs more attention, too. What you said about encouraging him & complimenting him on the ” good job” he’s doing coloring was excellent advice! Even though Timmy’s the big brother, he still likes to be acknowledged. If he can’t get attention by getting your approval, he will do it by getting disapproval. It’s great when you can encourage him, but don’t be afraid to spank him every now & then, too. You know I love Timmy & you. This is just a bit of Motherly ( & Grandmotherly) advice( from time tested methods) that could help both of you.

    • Tim gets lots of love and attention. He is just very particular, and focused on his own agenda. I know sometimes acting out is a sign they are seeking attention, but I don’t think that is where tim struggles. I think his struggle is respect, and a feeling of entitlement to his specific agenda, and because he can’t really control his emotions yet, it sometimes comes out in feistiness. Squirming, yelling, trying to get away when we try to transition him to the car if he wants to be outside, etc. We have even tried spanking. I feel though spanking can take on many extremes. I personally don’t think it is right to personally take out your aggression on your kids. Our rule of thumb is spank him once consecutively, just so he knows what he did was wrong. And that is really a last resort for us. Then we tell him why we disciplined him, and then make him fix the problem..i.e if he hit his sister, he has to say his sorry. If he wasn’t eating dinner, he has to eat a bite of dinner, etc.

  • Julie Babcock

    As a former strongwilled child, I approve of this message ;). The very good thing about strongwilled children is that the verse “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” is very true! Training is very difficult, but so is UN-training with peer pressure. That persistance (read: stubbornness) is the very thing that God can use later in leadership: the ability to keep doing what you believe is right dispite resistance. So stubbornly show love and stick to your guns!

    • I love that verse! Thanks for your input and encouragement. Strong willed def. has leadership qualities. It is amazing how we can use the same characteristic negatively or positively.

  • Linda Henderson

    Wow Grace, Impressive. This is the first blog I read of yours. Sorry it took so long to seek it out, but I’m definitely going to take a walk down this alley more often. Now that I’m looking into these nanny jobs (which I have been getting a lot of replies to btw :) ) I wanted to absorb some of the Mama Gracey wisdom. I like the advice, but I’m scared too This is going to be a wild ride.

  • Joel

    Man, Grace, I like getting a look into “The Life and Times of Grace Houle.” The struggles remind me of struggles I have teaching some of my students. I feel like some of their parents didn’t exactly tell them no a lot. I do appreciate your insights.
    I do really like knowing at least part of how life is as you are raising your kids. I feel like I’m missing out on this stage. I feel like I might miss out on a lot, but I feel I am where God called me. Otherwise it would be awesome to live driving distance away. I guess all I’m trying to say is it’s really good to get a glimpse of a daily part of your life. I’m not the mother this was written to, but I loved reading it.

    • Joel, that would be awesome if you lived closer!! I should write more to you, to let you know the life of the houles more. And would ALWAYS love a closer look of the life of Joel as well. I am proud you are doing what you feel God has called you too. Even though we miss you always.

  • Nunya

    Your “tips” are good for the most part (except for the inflexibility of never backing down — sometimes you will make a mistake or need to change your approach, which is different from being inconsistent), but I think your mindset is all wrong. Your son does not have a problem with respect or feel “entitlement to his own agenda” — he’s a TODDLER. He’s doing developmentally-appropriate things. It sounds like you handle most things appropriately, like leaving the grocery store (or better yet, not having unreasonable expectations for a toddler to behave in a grocery store). But creating battles out of what he eats is only going to cause more problems later.

    You fundie types get so worked up about your child’s eternal salvation (and your own) that you lose sight of normal child development. There will be plenty of time for him to be brainwashed by your religion later. For now, focus on building a healthy relationship with your child and please, PLEASE do not hit your children. To those who quote the bible to justify violence toward children, I ask: when is the last time you stoned a prostitute? Sacrificed an animal? etc. etc. Plenty of things in the bible are not appropriate for our modern culture, including hitting your children.

    • Dear nunya, Clearly we differ on a lot of things. And since you are reading this article I am assuming you too have a strong willed child, and have not found an approach that works 100% of the time. We as parents do the best we can with the knowledge we have. To break down your response, you said “sometimes you will make a mistake or need to change your approach.” I also said that right in the article, that every few months I had to switch up the approach, with our strong willed child, because it became uneffective. Secondly, just because he is doing things that other toddlers do, does not mean I have to accept the behavior. I freely let him explore areas, and challenge him, as well as make certain choices, but I do not think allowing our children to freely have temper tantrums should be encouraged or overlooked. As far as battles with what he eats. Our house hold rule is eat 2 bites. Nothing excruciating, just a rule we have. I was never forced to eat anything. Hence my favorite meal still being mac and cheese, and learning when i hit 30, an enjoyment of sweet potatoes. I wanted my kids to have a more balanced diet. We don’t make them eat the entire plate, but we make them try the food. As far as “brainwashed by my religion”. When I hear that a flag goes up that you probably don’t have a set belief yourself, because if you truly believe your life is changed by something, you want to share with others that passion you have. Since I have been on my journey with Christ. I have received a lot of peace and joy, and surety of the faith I profess, so of course I want to share that with my child. Instilling the beliefs I have do not negate having a strong relationship with my child, but on the contrary, encourage me to love them more. I want the very best for them. I want to spend time with them, love them wholeheartedly, and share my hope.

    • Julie Babcock

      Please respect the author’s personhood enough to refrain from demeaning namecalling. This is a blog, which by nature means that an actual person with opinions and feelings created it.

  • Emily

    It’s amazing how a complete strangers experience can have me in tears after a particularly challenging day with my own strong willed toddler. It is so comforting to know I am not alone, especially when I find myself being “that mother” more often that I would like. After reading all the handbooks and feeling like a failure because none of these ‘methods’ are working for our daughter like they do for her friends, I would just like to say thank you for sharing what has worked with your son.

    • You are def. not alone and def. not a failure! I know I don’t know you personally, but I am convinced that people that are searching for how to be the best mom they can be, and taking the time to read blogs, talk to other people, and pray for Gods strength, because He is the only one who can truly help us be the best mom we can be, that makes you a sacrificial and loving mom. Time is such a fleeting commodity, and by making your child a priority, and seeking to be the best equipped you can be, I give you kudos for that. Keep striving for the best, and take comfort that we are responsible to do the best we can do and then lay the rest at the feet of Jesus. God bless.

  • C. Goesling

    You are absolutely right. I had/have one of these and at 11, he is not only a joy for our family (usually) but also a real charmer everywhere he goes (most of the time). Not that we can let our guard down, but to our amazement its actually getting easier. Guide that strong will and you will have an unstoppable force. It belies advanced intelligence trapped in a frustrated toddler.

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to encourage and uplift! I wholeheartedly agree with you about the intelligence thing as well. He knew his alphabet by age 2, and is not content until he perfects the task at hand. This def. can cause frustration when you are a toddler and still have a lot to learn. God bless you

  • Laurie

    Thank you for opening up to write this article. I too have a strong-willed child. We have 2 adopted daughters. One has a gentle and quiet spirit and the other is very strong-willed. My sweet s.w. girl is African-American and we are Caucasian, trusting in God and releasing all of this to Him is a daily challenge. My fear is that when she makes a scene, outsiders may misunderstand her personality and think I am abusing her or kidnapping her. (she also wails for help out of the blue and for no apparent reason) We too have tried all of the above, but I find your reminder of God handpicking us for each other to be the most encouraging! I REALLY NEEDED to hear from someone who truly understands, has experience with and is surviving the journey with a sweet strong-willed blessing.

    • This is what I love, to be able to relate with others on a personal level. Thank you for commenting and sharing. I totally am with you, with sometimes worried what others think. It’s hard not to, because if I didn’t have a strong willed child, I would probably have thought the same thing. But through this humbling process, I know things are not always black and white and to give people the benefit of the doubt. By you reading this article I see you are searching to to still find any tidbits, so you can be the best mom you can be, and that in itself shows me that you are a good mom. May God Bless you and continue to grant you the strength for each day.

  • Amanda

    This could have been me that wrote this. This sounds EXACTLY like my little boy who is 2. Glad I’m not alone. Thanks for sharing.

    • You are def not alone! Thank you so much for commenting

  • Aimee

    I, too, have a strong-willed child. While reading your blog I thought, “She could have written this about Rikki.” I went through all of this with her (the food thing still drives me nuts, when her favourite foods are suddenly something the “hates”–ARGGH!)

    Rikki is the youngest of 6 children. Her next youngest sibling is only 14 months older. I didn’t have the issues with any of the others that I struggle over with her. She was difficult & demanding right from birth (she’s now 8). I wish I could tell you that it will come to an end, but while it’s somewhat better now, it’s not over. I get the same magnitude of tirades for reminding her to brush her hair (which she obviously has not done) or asking for her lunch bag at the end of the school day or for telling her to put her laundry away (while I’ve also just handed her slightly older sister her own laundry to take care of)–total melt-down.

    My heart went out to you when I read about him crying for “Help!” as you were trying to get into your home & the looks from strangers & the comments from friends–I’ve been there.

    Know that you aren’t doing anything wrong. It’s not you, it’s not even really Timmy. Your tips that work “most of the time” are the same ones I use. But you’re right, they are not always the key. You just have to find the things that work for all of you. And yes, they will change often.

    Take heart, as ALL children ARE very different, your daughter will likely NOT be the same.


    • Thank you for taking the time to encourage me! I wrote the article about my son a couple years ago, and can empathize with you that those who are not just terrible twos but have this strong willed personality engineered in them, carry that trait with them. My son is 4 1/2 now and somedays he still seems nearly unbreakable with his focused agenda. My hope and prayer, is that he uses his strong will for the right causes when he is older, and hones it into positive leadership roles. My heart empathizes with you when you gave your personal examples. We may not have had the exact scenario but similar feelings of heartbreak and frustration, over our awesome children, who we want to trust us enough to listen and obey. God Bless you as your raise your 6 awesome children, may God grant you the wisdom to lead and guide them.

  • April

    I think I have little Tim’s girl counterpart! My 15 month old is definitely a strong willed feisty little thing. I am a stay-@-home mom with a 10 year old son and a 15 month old daughter. My son is sweet, sensitive, funny, easy going, and a people pleaser. My daughter is sweet, loving, funny, opinionated, stubborn, independent, defiant and strong willed. Complete opposites! My daughter, Carsyn, is definitely not the “acting out for attention” child! Between her dad and I, her 10 year old brother who adores her and grandparents she is definitely not lacking in the attention! I have a “mamma’s boy” and a “mamma’s girl” which melts my heart! Now, like most things, Carsyn takes this to the extreme! She does NOT like to share my attention. Since she was about 6 months old, If I’m trying to have a conversation with someone she will grab my face with her two little hands, turn my head towards her, get in my face so we’re nose to nose and start babbling. She can’t stand it if she can’t see me at all times and now that she’s tall enough to open the bathroom door, there is no private moments=) I guess because, while my husband is at work and my son is at school, it is just the 2 of us for most of the day. Although this can be exhausting, I think my biggest (and most exhausting) struggle with Carsyn is her defiance. When she is told to do something she gives the “what are you gonna do about it” defiant smirk and continues to cross the boundary. For instance, when I tell her “come here so I can put her shoes on” or “Please give me (insert forbidden item here)” she will take off running or stand there and give the “what are you gonna do about it” smirk or throw ” forbidden item” (cell phone, remote, car keys etc). She’s a smart little thing. And she’s not sneaky. She usually makes sure one of us are watching before she does something she is not supposed to do. I was diagnosed with MS a year before I got pregnant with Carsyn, so when I say she can be exausting, I really mean it! She has such a strong personality and is very loving! I know God gave her these qualities and will use them to build His Kingdom and glorify His name. By the grace od God, She will definitely be a Godly force to reckoned with as an adult…we just have to stay on our knees and, by the grace and mercy of our Heavenly Father, survive the strong willed toddler years! I know God is preparing in our hearts an amazing testimony of perseverance and patience!

    • It does sound like you have tim’s counterpart! And when you said “def. not lacking in the attention.” I completely believe you, because tim is the same way some days we can spend the whole day together, have really good quality time and their still may be an episode. It all depends on what kind of day it is going to be. I usually can tell when he wakes up. We have totally had the chasing game over here as well, when putting on pj’s or shoes, etc. My husband, gave me some good advice that I have been trying to implement as of late. Whenever tim would refuse to put on pj’s etc, I would chase after him to get his pj’s on. Tim thought it was a game. So the last couple of weeks I have been saying,” Tim, I am not going to chase you, it is time for bed time, it is not playtime. And it has some good success. (He actually tried to do the chase game tonight!) Some days he also needs a negative consequence if he refuses to listen. Thank you for sharing your heart and story of your relationship with your sweet child. I know days can be challenging, and only those with strong willed kids can empathize completely. That is one of the reasons why I am thankful to have a strongwilled kid, because before tim I really saw parenting so differently. I refuse to assume things. If a kid is misbehaving, it does not mean that the parent is doing a bad job. i have taught my timmy the same thing over and over and over again. I love him soo dearly, and am learning to love through the good, the bad and the testing. I love your focus, and know God will grant you the strength to be the mother you need to be to your sweet child.God bless you!

  • Amber

    Wow! Reading your article made me feel so good to know I am not alone with a very strong willed 4 yr old. He can be so sweet and loving and the next a little terror. Sometimes I feel like this out of control parent whose child won’t listen. I have tried putting him in his room and holding door shut, tried making him stand in the corner and now for the past week have started the calm down corner. As exhausting as it is at times- I tell myself he will be the most independent and strong willed adult ever!!

    • I totally hear you! Keep up the good work, continue to lovingly guide and direct your strong willed child. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” Gal 6:9. One thing refreshing about strong willed kids, they are def. not easily swayed. Whenever someone says something around my Tim that he knows I have taught him isn’t right, he will say you shouldn’t say that or do that, no matter the age. If he discovered that it was truth, he wants everyone to adhere to it. So I can def. see a leadership quality in him, and perhaps you can see the same trait in your 4 yr. old. Parenting is quite the adventure. God bless!

  • Emily

    Great article! i have identical twin boys who very much have their own agenda. Right now we are trying to work on learning not to run into the street. It’s sooo hard when one goes right to the edge and turns around and laughs, and the other one takes off down the street despite several warnings not to do so. I love my boys and would not change a thing; most mothers I know have children who don’t share the personality traits of my children. It is great to connect with other parents who have been blessed with the journey of raising leaders!!

  • Natasha

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I too have been blessed with a very passionate little boy. No matter what it may be he is either very happy or angry… At the extreme level of what seems to be every emotion. I pray for patience and understanding daily. This little boy challenges me so much and some days I have no idea what to do as I’m sure he doesn’t like to feel so angry either. I find this topic hard to speak with other parents… So thank you again for sharing this. I truly appreciate your words.

    • I know exactly how you feel. Keep taking it one day at a time, one moment at a time. You are doing a great job, I can say this because you are praying for patience and understanding to the only One who can grant us that request. My son is 5 now, and the struggles are def. no longer the same, and as consistent. Take heart that for each season or trial it is temporary. Tim is my oldest and I don’t know if I would have believed people if they told me it is seasonal, because his personality was very strong. He still has a strong personality, but it isn’t mixed with all the emotion of a 2-3 yr old, and he kind of gets cause and effect a little better. Hope God continues to give you the strength for this season of life. Blessings.

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  • Heidi

    Thank you so much for this article. I only had a small melt down over my child’s strong willedness lol. Shes so strong willed that she only wants to babble most of the time because she knows I already knows what she wants so why should she have to talk. It’s killing me that she won’t talk because i’m so sure that she can more than she lets on because of all the other smart things she does. Plus i’m so afraid to take her to play groups because of her feistyness and the fact that she only likes to listen to me when it makes her happy. It is so unbelievably comforting to know that i’m not alone. It’s especially hard now because i’m going through the terrible twos on my own because my husband is away at officers training.
    God Bless You and Your Family

  • KC

    My strong willed child is now 9. I remember I had no idea what the “terrible two’s” really were until she hit them. Her brother had been much more mellow. She has been independent since the day I gave birth to her! I remember the two times I tried a time out with her…what was only to take 3 minutes ended up taking an hour because she refused to just be in her room, she would keep sticking her foot out in the hallway. We have found different things that work with her and continue to change things up every now and then just to keep it interesting. She has given in a lot since the dreaded toddler years though thankfully. She also like your son has an amazingly beautiful heart and can love just as fiercely as she can fight.

    • The story of your child was a perfect description of the persistence of a strongwilled child, sticking her little foot in the hallway just testing to see if the boundaries are indeed set. I also love how you ended your comment saying your children have an “amazingly beautiful heart and can love as fiercely as she can fight.” That is beautiful. You are def. the mom God purposefully picked for those two sweet children.