dealing with conflict and the strong-willed child

Learn to handle conflict, inspire empathy and recognise teachable moments in your home
By Tamsyn Cornelius

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Let’s face it, raising a strong-willed child has its challenges. Constantly butting heads with a mini version of yourself, may leave you feeling a little out of your depth and under strain. Take a seat. We’re here to help.
 
Think before you react
When you’re in a heated argument with your feisty toddler over their newfound dislike of a food that you know they ate (and enjoyed) just yesterday, it’s easy to blow your top and get stuck in a cycle of negotiation. Sometimes we need to step back and consider our approach before we react.
 
According to The Child Development Institute, the way we speak to our children can strongly influence how they choose to engage with others. In fact, the Institute for Security Studies and the University of Cape Town compiled a local case study to assess how positive parenting, or a lack thereof, may influence a child’s development.
 
The study, which surveyed children aged 6–18 from a rural Western Cape community, found that most children were far more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and aggression if they experienced similar behaviour at home, including parental stress, spanking and slapping.
 
How we respond and communicate with our children can, therefore, have a significant impact on how they learn to manage difficult situations. If we constantly respond out of anger or frustration, we indirectly teach our children that these harsh responses are appropriate during conflict situations.
 
Create a place of trust
We spoke to Cape Town-based educational psychologist Mirna Van Wyk, who specialises in guiding educators and parents in effectively dealing with children in difficult circumstances. She stresses that it is important to create a foundation of trust at home and to have open communication with your child.
 
“Allow your child to talk to you about anything. If they see that you are interested, listen to the small things and don’t overreact, they might trust you more easily with the difficult emotions and issues that growing up presents,” explains Van Wyk.
 
Try engaging your child in conversation at their level. Get down on your knees if you must and listen to what they are saying (and how they are feeling). This response alone will help to reinforce the trust-relationship between parent and child as you create a safe space that is far less confrontational.
 
Learn to listen and empathise
Lynette Snyman, children’s pastor at The Father’s House Christian Fellowship, says: “When there is conflict, make sure that you stay in control, even if you must take a breather and then resume the conversation. Also, be sure to acknowledge your child’s feelings during a tense situation.” In her experience of working with local families, particularly primary school children, over the past 20 years, Snyman encourages parents to forge meaningful relationships with their children to help work through conflict at home. “Really listen to your child’s point of view. Make sure that your child knows that they have been heard, even if you don’t agree with what has been said.”
 
Model the idea that conflict can be resolved through respect, an empathetic ear and simple conversation. In her book Daring Greatly, research professor Brené Brown explains the power of empathy. “Empathy is a strange and powerful thing … It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘you’re not alone’.”
 
Empathy does not mean that you need to give in to the demands of your child. It does, however, teach your child to approach people and situations with kindness, a calm temperament and a level head. Through empathy, we can teach our children compassion, respect and how to positively react in times of stress.
 
Teachable moments
“Children are like a wall that you throw a ball at. The harder you throw your emotions at them, the harder it will come back. Sometimes talking softly with few words can settle down a child so that you can teach them,” explains Van Wyk.
 
Think clearly, stay calm and give your child choices. Teach them to brainstorm solutions. Help them to stop and think before they react. In turn, they may realise that negativity and harsh reactions are not appropriate. It is important to recognise these teachable moments and help our kids develop creative problem-solving skills and resilience for the future.
 
Let’s not break the spirits of our strong-willed children. If we want to help them cope through hard times, then perhaps it is time to rethink our approach to conflict and aim to nurture our children into functional future adults.
 
A five-step guide for parents
Educational psychologist Mirna Van Wyk shares an action plan for parents to cope with their strong-willed children.
  1. Identify good behaviour: Praise positive behaviour in your child, then perhaps you may not need to punish negative behaviour later. Start by acknowledging your child’s name. Name the desired behaviour and then specify a positive outcome because they have complied, for example, “Thank you, Calvin, for listening the first time I asked you to get ready for bed, now we have time for a bedtime story.”
  2. Build a relationship: Spend time together and play games with your child. Card and boardgames are fantastic options to teach your children how to follow rules. If your child loses, they will also learn how to deal with disappointment.
  3. Model positive behaviour: Don’t be afraid to share your own concerns and disappointments with your children. Model your own positive reactions to negative situations and how you have successfully dealt with conflict and setbacks of your own.
  4. Stay calm. Always: In the heat of the moment, step aside and calm down. Use a time-out for your child (and yourself) to settle down. You can stop a child from a dangerous action by shouting at him, but you cannot teach him the correct behaviour by shouting.
  5. Intervene early: Investigate what your children’s triggers are when they overreact and work at eliminating these triggers. All children overreact sometimes, but if your child’s school also reports worrying behaviour, consider seeking professional help through an educational psychologist or paediatrician.

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