Thursday, October 25, 2018

Parenting Pointers: Help Your Willful Child Become a Skillful Child

By Laurie Hollman, Ph.D.

A willful child is a misnomer. Willful children actually are belligerent only because they can’t articulate their needs and express their anger and frustration. 

Typically, when parents face a child with a temper tantrum or oppositional behavior, they may try to use rewards to teach the lesson they want to share. However, the rewards may work temporarily, but the lessons learned aren’t internalized -- only the wish for the reward. Similarly, when parents use punishment to send a message, the punishments are usually resented and the negative behavior increases. 

The problem behind willful behavior is typically that the child is delayed in his or her critical thinking skills. These involve:
  • Impulse control
  • Empathy
  • Understanding the consequences of one’s actions on others
  • Flexibility
  • Tolerance of frustration, disappointment and disillusionment
  • Regulation of intense emotions
  • Organization and planning
  • Focus and attention
This means that the willful child is not bad, but just not skillful yet at these abilities. However, a child can be taught these skills by the parents using what I call “The Parental Intelligence Way.” If parents, too, aren’t skillful in these abilities, Parental Intelligence will guide them. 

The Parental Intelligence Way includes five structured steps that require reasoning and thinking before acting on the parents’ part.

Let’s say that, out of nowhere, your 10-year-old son lashes out that he hates you. If your tendency is to say, “You can’t talk like that,” chances are he won’t feel understood and will become even more angry. Instead, put into play the five steps of Parental Intelligence: 

1. Stepping back. This means pause, wait, observe and nonjudgmentally try to think about his behavior, past and present, to see if there are patterns you may have missed.

2. Self-reflecting. Before reacting, take a few moments to reflect on how it feels when he talks this way. Perhaps you feel anger in return or confusion or anxiety. Think about whether anyone in your past or present has lashed out at you in this way. You may be reacting to the person from the past more so than your child in the present.

3. Understanding your child’s mind. This is where the critical thinking skill set comes in. You need to help your child express himself more thoughtfully, but perhaps he’s too angry to engage in a dialogue. Instead, ask him to write down what’s on his mind. 

Let’s say, he writes “I’m angry you changed my room without asking. Now I don’t know where anything is. It’s like it’s not my room anymore.” All you actually did was organize his things, pick up laundry off the floor, and straighten his desk. You thought you were being helpful. But this child isn’t flexible. He can’t tolerate change. To him, his room was taken away from him. Now, indeed, he doesn’t know where to find anything readily and he feels disorganized. 

He doesn’t have the skill of organization, so it would have been more helpful, in retrospect to organize his room with him. Then he’d learn how to do it and know what was changing in his room. Your aim is to teach him the skills he lacks or is delayed in learning. 

Tell him you were trying to help, but see it isn’t feeling right to him. Teach him how to be flexible by asking him what alternatives, from his perspective, could have been done so that you could vacuum his floor. He first might say, “Just leave my stuff alone,” but you asked him for his alternatives, which catches his imagination. You are also now engaging in step 4.

4. Understanding your child’s stage of development. For this child, who hasn’t yet mastered planning, organization and flexibility, he also can’t tolerate frustration. Asking for his alternatives from his perspective settles him down. He responds, “If you want to vacuum, just put all my stuff on my bed. If you want to do the laundry, give me a basket to put my clothes in. After you do the laundry put them back in the basket. Then I know where they are.”

These are great alternatives. Your son is thinking! You’ve begun to help him develop his skills. He isn’t as willful as you imagined; he just doesn’t know how to resolve a problem like this on his own.

Keep the wheels in motion by asking him what he’ll do about sleeping if everything else is on his bed. You’re teaching him how to plan ahead. If he says that he’ll put his stuff on his desk and dresser so he’ll know where to find them, again, he’s now thinking ahead and thinking of you and what you want. In this way, he’s becoming empathic with your need to have things clean and organized. You’ve now arrived at the fifth step of Parental Intelligence.

5. Problem solving. Here, the problem solving is collaborative. Your son is making suggestions, thinking of alternatives and becoming somewhat flexible inch by inch. He’s learning how to think critically -- without rewards and without punishments. Thinking and communicating are beginning to develop. This is a far cry from a willful child. He isn’t belligerent and oppositional; he just needed guidance.

This may sound ideal and not work easily at the beginning, but you are helping a child with delayed abilities. If you can cope with your own feelings from being told he hates you, then you can step back and give your son the skills he lacks.

When this type of scenario occurs over and over again, he’ll begin internalizing these critical thinking skills. He’ll observe your satisfaction with his ideas, and that will provide him with confidence and the desire to please you. Meanwhile, you will have mastered Parental Intelligence, which will help you strengthen your parent-child bond.

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Laurie Hollman, PhD, is a psychoanalyst specializing in modern parent-child relationships and an award-winning three-time author. Widely published in hundreds of academic journals and popular media outlets, she has taught postgraduate courses at New York University and the Society for Psychoanalytic Study and Research, among other universities and institutes. Her new companion books are The Busy Parent’s Guide to Managing Anxiety in Children and Teens: The Parental Intelligence Way and The Busy Parent’s Guide to Managing Anger in Children and Teens: The Parental Intelligence Way. Learn more at

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