Tips for Parenting a Strong-Willed Child: Keep the Sparkle, Don’t Let the Unicorn Break Your Back


On the morning of my daughter’s third birthday, I laid out a sparkly unicorn dress with tulle in beautiful pastels, and I braced myself for a battle. My daughter adored all things horses and unicorns. As today was the first birthday party with invited guests for my firstborn, I spent more hours than anyone should searching Etsy for the perfect paper products, party favors, and decorations. Everything matched, and the item that tied it all together was this dress I was holding in my hands — a dress I was preparing to convince, coerce, or compel my daughter to wear.

My daughter is bright, joyful, sweet, and curious. She is also willful and wild and the most stubborn person I have ever known. As a single mama for the first four and a half years of her life, I spent many mornings chasing, and then wrestling, her into the clothes I knew were perfect for her.

“Sweetheart, you can’t wear flip-flops today. There is snow on the ground.”

“You can’t go to preschool without pants, darling.”

We went to battle over almost everything, big and small. So on the morning of her third birthday, I tried all my usual tricks:

  1. Working to generate interest and excitement
  2. Moving on to bargaining
  3. Then threatening
  4. Wrestling my precious toddler to the ground like Hulk Hogan to get her into the unicorn dress I so lovingly picked out for her

I felt victorious as I got the last button fastened three minutes before the party was to start.

I prepared to get up, but I couldn’t get off the floor. The pain was so intense it made moving nearly impossible. I had thrown my back out in the struggle, and my parents pulled me off the floor to answer the door as our first guests arrived.

That sparkly, unicorn dress with the beautiful pastel tulle has taught me a lot about being a mother to a strong-willed child. This delightful girl of mine is now seven, and I am still learning every day how to best love, support, guide, and nurture her.

Here are a few things that have helped me move beyond suplexing my strong-willed child into obedience, and have made motherhood a little less painful.

strong-willed child

  • Pick your battles.

If it’s not a safety or a moral issue, maybe you don’t need to break your back over it. Set a few rules that most accurately reflect your values and let them be where you draw your line in the sand. The sparkly unicorn dress made for some cute pictures, but the happiness and joy my daughter experienced at her very first birthday party wouldn’t have been lesser had she worn something more comfortable. Plus, her mother wouldn’t have had to smile through gritted teeth.

Someone I respect said that in her house she has three rules, referred to as the 3 Ds: no disrespect, no dishonesty, and no disobedience. Within that guardrail triangle, kids are permitted to exercise independence and encouraged to be creative. That simple mantra has helped me emphasize and stress the important things, all while allowing my children to explore and grow.

  • Offer choices.

I’ve found I’m much more successful in reaching a positive outcome when I encourage my daughter to take part in the decision-making, giving her a voice.

Currently, she will only wear three pairs of shoes: sneakers, a beat-up pair of pink flip-flops, or her riding boots. For Christmas Eve, I explained to her that she would need to wear dress shoes, but I let her choose them. We went shopping, she chose a pair of shoes, and I got a lot less resistance getting ready for Christmas Eve services than I otherwise would have. I just had to be okay with my seven-year-old daughter in heels.

  • Don’t hesitate to apologize.

I sometimes lose my patience, especially with my strong-willed eldest. But when I apologize and admit my mistakes, I think it teaches my daughter that it’s okay for her to do the same — and that it’s okay to change your mind. We teach each other grace.

  • Take heart and embrace your child’s willfulness.

This is for the times you’re in the middle of a showdown, all of your approaches have failed, and you’re exhausted, frustrated, and close to tears or screaming. This is not easy, but these are the kids who will change the world. They will fight for what’s right on the playground, in the board room, in the courtroom, and in the gym. No challenge or obstacle is too big to stop them from moving mountains.

Often I feel like the most we can do as mothers to these dynamos is to model kindness, and then trust and believe our strong-willed child will use this energy and resolve to do incredible things. It’s not always easy to live, but it is going to be wonderful to watch . . . and it might keep you away from the chiropractor.

What strategies or approaches have saved your back in parenting a strong-willed child? I’d love to hear them!