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Focus on the Family Broadcast

Surviving the Strong-Willed Child (Part 2 of 2)

Surviving the Strong-Willed Child (Part 2 of 2)

Author and speaker Cynthia Tobias offers practical advice and encouragement to frustrated parents of strong-willed children. (Part 2 of 2)

Original Air Date: January 28, 2003



Cynthia Tobias: She said, “I have a 17-month-old – not quite two years old. I can’t stand to be in the same room with him. He drives me crazy. I look forward to the times when I can be away from him. He’s so self-centered. All he thinks about is himself.” She said, “He won’t listen to me. He won’t do what I say.” It doesn’t have to be that way.

End of Excerpt

John Fuller: Regardless of your struggle with your child, especially if it’s a battle with a strong-willed child, Cynthia Tobias has a lot of encouragement for you today. This is Focus on the Family and your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly, and I’m John Fuller.

Jim Daly: John, as we heard last time, strong-willed children – they can really create stress in a family because sometimes they would rather take the punishment than obey a direct order. For some reason, it’s offensive to them to just simply do what they’re asked to do, and that can create a relationship where the parent is always angry at the child and the child is just being willful and stubborn for the pure joy of it.

John: And whenever you are parenting that child, it’s a minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day frustration. It gets old and tiresome and wearisome. It wears you out.

Jim: Man, you’re painting a picture there.

John: Well I’m feeling that, yes.

Jim: Hey, today, Cynthia is going to share something that seems impossible: how we can actually enjoy the relationship with your strong-willed child. She herself is a strong-willed child and now adult, and she has a strong-willed son. So as we have alluded to, God does have a sense of humor to get back at us. She has a unique insight into how strong-willed people think. And if you missed part 1 of Cynthia’s presentation yesterday, get in touch with us. We can send you the entire message on CD or audio download. Or you can get the Focus on the Family Broadcast App for your smartphone.

John: And we’ve refreshed that app, and you can now download programs. It’s a great way to listen on the go.

Jim: And send to a friend.

John: Indeed. You can share it as well: focusonthefamily.com/radio is the website, access the audio. Or give us a call and we’ll tell you more: 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.

Jim: Let me reintroduce Cynthia Tobias. She’s an expert in learning styles and is the author of over a dozen titles. The book she’s talking about today is called, You Can’t Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded): Strategies for Bringing out the Best in Your Strong-Willed Child. And you can get it through Focus on the Family as your way of supporting this ministry.

John: Yeah, stop by the website. We’ve got a link to the store there. And for now, here’s Cynthia Tobias speaking at the church where her father is the senior pastor. I wonder if he told many stories about her?

Jim: I’m sure.

John: Here’s Cynthia on today’s Focus on the Family. We’re gonna, by the way, just start with a brief recap in case you missed last time.


Cynthia: I know authority has to be in place, but you’re not the boss of me. You can’t force me to do something. You can’t force me to love you. You can’t force me to respect you in the end. You can’t force me to do anything. I figured that out at 18 months. You know, they can open your mouth and they can put the peas in and they can force your mouth closed, but they cannot force you to digest peas, because there’s a certain amount of control that you in the end will always have, should you choose to die. They can’t make you do the right thing. This is very frustrating to traditional parents, especially.

How you talk to me is going to make all the difference in the world. Your authority can still stay intact while you respect me. Big difference between saying, “Get yourself down those stairs and into that van right now. We are late. Get in the van.” See, why don’t you just say, “You know what? The van leaves in two minutes. Let’s go.” Same bottom line, same accountability, consequence met. Whole different way the way you treat me.

“You’re not doing any – you’re not watching any TV till that homework’s done. You understand me? No television ‘til the homework’s done.” Wrong way. “Feel free to watch television. That favorite show you like, feel free to watch that as soon as your homework’s done.” I still know that I can’t watch TV till my homework’s done, but you know what? You phrased it in a pretty positive way, and I know I have a choice. I know if I choose not to do my homework, I never will get to watch TV tonight. It may be a consequence I’m willing to pay. If you can back up a little and back off a little, you’ll be surprised how much more I’ll cooperate with you. Stop yelling at me. Stop screaming at me.

We had a rule in the police department. When you pulled over a violator when they were speeding or they had a violation, you did one of two things. You either wrote them a ticket or you gave them a lecture and left them off with a warning. Now, here was the rule, see. If you were gonna give them a ticket, you couldn’t give them a warning, too. They didn’t have to listen to a lecture ‘cause they’re getting a ticket. If you’re not gonna give them a ticket, then they have to listen to the lecture ‘cause they’re not getting a ticket, so they gotta endure a lecture, but you can’t do both.

I’m convinced when it comes to parenting, especially the strong-willed, independent, spirited child that we give way too few tickets and we give way too many emotional warnings. “How many times have I told you this? Do I have to tell you this one more time ‘cause I’ll tell you what. Didn’t I say that this would happen? Why did you do this again? I’m not kidding, if you don’t…”

Write me the ticket. Just write me the ticket, and could we move on? I did the wrong thing. I know that. Write me the ticket. I pay the fine. I might get another ticket a couple more times before I stop doing it, but stop yelling at me. The yelling has no effect whatsoever except to alienate me. And you need a relationship with me as your strong-willed child. You need a relationship, because if you don’t have a relationship that I want to keep and preserve with you, you’ve got no leverage. You’ve got nothing.

Some of you have heard me tell the story, I was flying down on Northwest Airlines from Seattle to Orlando, and I usually take a book or two with me ‘cause the Lord usually tells me who I should give them to. Sometimes it’s subtle. Today, it wasn’t. I sat down, and the man that sat down next to me introduced himself this way. He said, “Hi, I’m Vince. I’m a fighter pilot for the United States Air Force. I have six kids. Three of them are driving me crazy. How are you?”


I said, “Oh, Vince, do I have a book for you.” We started talking, and you know, it did not take long to figure out that Vince – Mr. Military, highly analytic, highly detailed, highly focused – the three kids that were driving him crazy – yeah, kind of you know, whatever kids, big picture, kind of random, kind of take-it-easy kids. He said as we talked, he said, “You know, how tough can it be for a little kid to remember to put a little check mark in a little box on a little chart on the front of that refrigerator? How tough can that be?” And he said, “Don’t they realize, you do not brush your teeth before you put your pajamas on? You put your pajamas on, then you brush your teeth.”

I said, “Vince, how do you eat M&Ms?” He said, “I always eat the primary colors first.”


He said, “How do you eat them?” I said, “I just dump them.” He said, “No, no. Don’t you understand? The Mars candy company has no formula for how many of each color go in each bag. It’s random. You can’t just eat them.” I said, “Vince, you’re a sick man.”


We laughed, and he said, “Oh, no. No, this is starting to make sense.” He said, “Now listen, you need to know. I have spent my whole life finding the best way. It never occurred to me that those three young upstarts, who wouldn’t do it my already-proven best way, were being anything but insubordinate, defiant, rebellious.” He said, “I might have to back up a little, huh?” “It could help, yes.” He sent me a note a couple months later, and he said, “Things are different around our house. There are times now when I actually let those kids do things the hard way.” He said, “They like me better. It’s not as big a deal. I can back up a little and figure ‘What’s the point? Is it worth it? Is this really a battle worth fighting?’“

See, your authority is only increased and enhanced with us as strong-willed kids when you approach us with respect; when you approach us with the respect that says, “I know you have a choice. I know you could always choose the consequences. I hope you don’t, but I know you could.” I always know, as a strong-willed kid, that they’re going to be there – the consequences. But see, our motto is “It’s always worth a try.” You know, you drew the line and you said, “Don’t step over that line.” And I say, “What? This line?” “Yes, that would be the line.” See now, I know I’m probably going to get punished. I’m not counting on not getting punished, but I figure there’s a chance I won’t get punished. It’s always worth a try.

I’m pushing. I just want to see if you push back ‘cause I want to know where the parameters are. I can’t tell you how many kids want to know that. I talk to them. These are prodigal kids. These are rebellious teenagers, and they still say, “No, I wanted them to push back. I did, but I didn’t want them to push back with their finger in my face. I wanted them to push back to say, ‘Nope, sorry. No deal. Nice try. Not going to happen.’ I wanted a calm, loving ticket, not rage and outrage and emotion and threats that ‘If you ever do this again, this will happen.’ I don’t deal well with that. Pretty soon I have to leave. I have to leave.”

I was in Fayetteville, North Carolina, I woke up one morning early enough to watch Good Morning America, I think it was. They had a whole week-long emphasis on “Kids on Drugs”, and evidently the day before had been “Tough Love Contracts” ‘cause they referred to that several times. And today was “At Home Drug Test Kit.” They had a mom and a dad and a 13-year-old boy who had been caught doing drugs. And he was sitting back there with his arms folded, and his mom had the microphone, and she was just ranting and raving, “I can’t believe he did this to us. He’s grown up in a wonderful Christian home. He knows better than this. He has betrayed our trust. I’ll tell you what, from now on, he’s doing that Tough Love Contract, one word and he’s out. And I’ll tell you what, he’s gonna do that At Home Drug Test. He’s never gonna know when it happens.” And she just went on and on and on.

While she was talking, I watched the boy in background. You could tell by looking at his face, he knew he’d made a big mistake, I’m pretty sure he knew that. You could tell looking at his face he knew he had some serious consequences to pay – I’m pretty sure he knew that too. But looking at his face, I don’t think he knew his mom still loved him. His face didn’t look like that at all. ‘Cause see, she didn’t come out and say, “You know what? We almost lost this boy, and he’s so valuable to us. He means so much to us, we – we’ll do anything it takes to get him back. If it takes tough love, that’s what we’ll do. If it takes at home drug test kit, that’s what we’ll do. If it took lock down and rehabilitation, we’d do that too. ‘Cause we want him back. ‘Cause we love him.” She didn’t say it that way. At the end, almost as an afterthought, the reporter turned the camera on the boy and he said, “By the way, how do you feel about all this?” The 13-year-old boy looked straight into the camera and he said one sentence: “I can’t wait to leave home.” The camera went black. It’s not worth it. It’s not worth it.

Program Note:

John: Cynthia Tobias on Focus on the Family. And you can get her excellent book, You Can’t Make Me, for a monthly pledge or a one-time gift of any amount to the ministry of Focus on the Family when you call 800-A-FAMILY or stop by focusonthefamily.com/radio.

Let’s go ahead and hear more now from Cynthia Tobias on Focus on the Family.

End of Program Note

Cynthia: Do you know, with the very best of intentions, how many strong-willed kids we currently are driving out of the churches? We drive them away. You get a lot of advice if you’re the parent of a strong-willed kid from very well-meaning parishioners. “You know, you need to be harder on that kid. You need to use more discipline. You better put your thumb on that kid or you’re gonna lose control.” Lots of advice, but that’s not necessarily gonna work.

You need a relationship, that’s what you need first. You need a way to talk to us, a way to show us that you love us, a way to show that you push back when we push, but you won’t yell and scream and be unreasonable. Now, there’s one word that if you started using it tonight on your strong-willed family members – this includes husbands and wives – if you start using it tonight, 80 percent of the time you’ll notice a difference. You wanna know what the word is? “Okay.”

Listen to the difference. Tracy, my strong-willed niece in the car, “Tracy, put your seatbelt on.” “No.” “I said, ‘Put your seat belt on.’“ “No.” What have you got now? You’ve got nothing. You’ve got a 10-year-old girl who knows you can’t drive and hold her seat belt on.


You are now locked in a knock-down, drag-out power struggle that you can’t win. She dies first, you lose. “Tracy, put your seat belt on, okay?” “No.” “How come?” “Too tight, don’t like it.” “Let’s loosen it, then we’ll put it back on, okay?” “Okay.” Eight times out of ten, eight times out of ten. It’s a small point of negotiation. “Sit down, don’t move, okay?” “No.” “How come?” “Thirsty.” “Quick drink, then sit down, okay?” “Okay.”

See, now, the okay at the end lets me know I always have a choice. I could die if I want to. It doesn’t need to be said to me pleadingly. Now, you know if you say, “Now, honey, I just really need you to do this, okay?” No, see, that would be weakness, and now, I’m going to have to kill you…


…figuratively speaking, but I will move in for the kill. It’s just part of my nature. I feel like a shark drawn to blood. No, don’t be weak. Don’t be tentative in your negotiation. You are negotiating from a position of strength. You have parental authority. Hang onto it, but don’t dictate it. Don’t point at me. Let me know, here’s the deal. Here’s the deal. And if things don’t work, and I try to get by with something, instead of yelling and screaming at me, tell me, “Nice try. That was a good one. I think you and I both realize it was inappropriate. Can’t let that go, but I’ll tell you what, I love how your mind works. You are the master of a quick comeback. If we could just use that the right way.”

See, I as a strong-willed child, most of us, we don’t get smiled at very often, not even as toddlers. Now think about this for a minute, those of you that have very young children. When you catch them doing anything, do you smile at them first? No, you are usually pointing, you are scolding, you are frowning, you are correcting. And I talk to so many strong-willed young kids and they don’t – their parents don’t smile at them. You forget. You know, you’re pretty busy. You got ‘em doing other things. You don’t smile at us very often. You don’t point out the good things very often ‘cause you’re so busy and you’re so stressed that I’m driving you crazy. And pretty soon, you are like those other parents that I’ve talked to. You can’t wait to get away from me. You can’t wait till I grow up and leave home. You can’t wait till someone else can take over for you for a few hours so that you can just get a little peace and quiet instead of constantly arguing with that strong-willed child. It doesn’t have to be that way.

I think one of the most poignant stories I’ve heard so far this last year – a mother came up to me after a seminar. I don’t even remember where it was, Ohio, or somewhere. They kind of all blend together after a while. She came up, and she said, “I need to tell you about my 16-year-old son – strong-willed. He was driving me crazy.” She said, “Every time his room was full of clothes and mess and I had argued with him and bargained with him and threatened him and punished him, and there were still a ton of clothes.” And she said, “I was so angry with him.” She said, “One morning after he left from school – for school, I picked up – started picking up his clothes and felt this anger and bitterness coming back.” And she said, “God spoke to me so clearly and said, ‘Instead of yelling at him about this, you need to pray for your son every time you pick up something. Every time you have to clean up a mess or do something that irritates you, you pray for him instead of yelling at him.’“ She said, “I did that for six months. It was amazing how our relationship improved.”

She began to cry. She said, “Just a few months ago, I lost my 16-year-old son in an automobile accident.” She said, “I have never regretted that the last six months I had with him were spent with love and prayer, not anger, not pointing fingers, not exhaustion that says, ‘Why don’t you ever do anything I want you to do?’“ Prayer, love, realizing that that strong will is going to be his very best asset when he grows up.

I had one lady in South Carolina, just a few weeks ago. She took the quiz that we took in here. She took it and she went, “Ah! It’s me.” She said, “It’s me. I thought it was my daughter.” She said, “I’m the strong-willed one.” She said, “No wonder.” She said, “I just – I’m so far away from my daughter. She’s 32 years old, and she won’t even speak to me. She won’t return any letters. She won’t return phone calls.” She said, “I’ve done everything wrong, everything you talk about here, I’ve done it wrong with this girl.” She said, “It’s too late, beyond hope.” No, it’s not. It’s not. It’s never – as long as you and your strong-willed child or strong-willed friend or strong-willed spouse are still both living, it is never, never too late.

One of my most favorite success stories in the book talks about a boy who it seemed too late. He was probably the biggest rebel you could ever hope to meet. He came from a highly dysfunctional family. His dad divorced his mom and ran off with his secretary. His mother ran bars and did a lot more bartending than she did raising of him and his brother. He had a profanity coming out of his mouth all the time. He learned to drink at a very young age. Learned to smoke. Wine, women, song, he was a hellion. He just raised all kinds of Cain and trouble most of his life.

At 27 years old, this highly rebellious troublemaker, with an out-of-control strong will, got witnessed to by a Christian lady – a little old lady. She was his landlady, and she just prayed for him. She never preached to him. She never told him what to do or what not to do or backed him into a corner or said, “You better clean up your act, or you’re going to be eternally damned.” She never said that. She just loved him and cooked breakfast for him and invited him to church. And pretty soon, you know what? He surrendered his strong will to Christ. He did it out of love and out of the promise of a relationship. And the very next Wednesday night when he stood up in the church – in the Church of the Nazarene in Wichita, Kansas – and gave his testimony, he about shocked most of the older ladies in the church ‘cause he still had the language.


It was a colorful testimony. I would have loved to heard it. Those poor ladies, but you know, they didn’t say a word to him. They never said, “You know, you shouldn’t talk like that. Now that you’re a Christian, you shouldn’t talk like that. That language has no place in your life. You better knock that off, and you better get rid of that booze. You can’t be a Christian and be drinking like that, and you better stop that cigarette smoking.” No one ever said that to him, not one.

And over the course of the next week or two, or month or two, he just suddenly felt like it wasn’t the right thing to do. He surrendered his strong will to Christ. And you know what? Over the rest of his life, he really needed that strong will. See, he didn’t give the strong will up. He gave the behaviors up. That’s what he did. He needed that strong will ‘cause his whole family disowned him. He had to keep a strong will, because he had a call to the ministry, and his family disowned him. They said, “If you go, you’re not part of our family anymore.” He needed that strong will, because 40 years it took him in praying to ever get his dad to accept Christ as his Savior. Forty years and all those years, people said, “Why don’t you give up? It’s been 40 years, for heaven’s sake.” “No, sir. I’m going to pray every day, and I’m going to believe every day.” There was convictions of steel.

Thanks to that man and his strong will that some people at 27 would have said is beyond redemption, he had what he needed in order to not only be a very effective pastor but a very effective dad of a highly strong-willed daughter. That’s me. See, because of my dad, I surrendered my strong will at a very young age to Christ. I didn’t give up the strong will. I gave up the bad behavior. And if they’d have given up on my dad, I wouldn’t be here tonight, and a whole lot of other people in his ministry, they wouldn’t be here either.

I know there are some of you right now. I know there are some of you that are at the end of your rope with your child. Your child may be very young or they may be very old already, and you’re at the end of your rope. You are so frustrated and so exhausted and so tired of arguing. You need to quit. You need to relinquish it. You need to get the relationship back. And I’ll tell you the truth, you can’t do that by yourself. I am firmly convinced of that. God needs to bring the relationship back. He needs to give you love again. He needs to give you mercy and strength that you simply cannot muster yourself. 


John: That’ll bring us to the end of this presentation from Cynthia Tobias on today’s Focus on the Family. And after she finished speaking, and again, this was at the church where her dad pastors, Cynthia invited parents of strong-willed children up for prayer. And Jim, I know you wanted to kind of extend that offer to pray for our audience members.

Jim: No, I do John. And I know that having a strong-willed child can be such a frustrating experience. But the beauty of that strong will is the fact that it can become a godly determination. A can-do attitude in an adult – just look at Cynthia. So let’s pray for all of us who have this parenting challenge. And obviously, just pray along with me.

Lord, we lift up these strong-willed children and their parents to you. Parents who may be at the end of their rope emotionally. They’re tired of the arguments. Lord, I’d like to pray for that one mom or dad listening right now who need you to restore the relationship with their child. Lord, we ask that You would give this parent Your love for that child even if it’s hard to find at times. Help us all as parents to make a commitment to stop yelling and arguing with our children. We don’t get that from You, Lord. Help us to model the relationship we have with You with our own children. Help us to calmly give our children consequences for their behavior. Help us to give up our own strong will and press in to the relationship with that child. And Lord, help us to see how our strong-willed child can use that stubbornness for your glory. They are future leaders. Help us to shape their behavior without breaking down that very strong will that you’ve given them for your purposes. We ask these things in the strong name of Jesus our Lord, Amen.

John: Amen.

Jim: John, I know that many parents prayed that prayer with us just now. And some of you are feeling desperate. Let me remind you that we’re here for you. Please call us if you’d like us to pray with you for that very specific son or daughter. We’ll stand with you before the Lord. And if you need more help, we’ll take down your information and have one of our counselors call you back. They will be able to guide you to some next steps that will be helpful. And I’m sure our phones are gonna be busy today. This is a hot-button issue, so please be patient with us so that we can get back to everyone.

You know, when we aired this program in 2011, a woman named Julie called to say she was desperate for help. She and her husband were fostering their three very strong-willed grandchildren who were taken out of a bad situation. I can only imagine the fear that those little ones had. She said these kids were running them ragged from morning ‘til night. Thankfully, Focus on the Family was able to provide resources and counseling to help Julie and her family get back on track. So let me say on behalf of Julie and all the other families who have been helped by Focus each and every day – let me say thank you for supporting the ministry and praying for us. You are an important part of the work here. And we may be the hands and feet, but you are the fuel that the Lord is using to get the job done. We couldn’t do it without you.

And if you’re not already giving to Focus on the Family, let me ask you to pray about becoming a monthly partner. That’s the most effective way for you to stand with us as we provide, together, these great resources to help families thrive in Christ. So please join us as we do all we can do to provide these helpful resources to parents who need them by supporting our work financially. And when you make a monthly pledge of any amount, we’ll send you a copy of Cynthia’s excellent book called, You Can’t Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded). Ask for a copy when you become a monthly partner here at Focus on the Family today. And if you’d rather not make that monthly commitment, we’ll get the book to you for a gift of any amount as our way of saying thank you. 

John: Donate and ask for that book when you call 800-A-FAMILY or stop by focusonthefamily.com/radio. And while you’re online, be sure to look for our free survey to help you identify strengths and growth points for your parenting. It’s called “The 7 Traits of Effective Parenting”.

And next time, you’re going to hear a powerful reminder that God loves you for who you are, not for what you achieve.


Sara Hagerty: I didn’t actually step back and think God needs me to perform for Him in order that He would like me. I just kind of naturally saw Christianity as a treadmill that we just turn up and run harder and run faster.

End of Teaser

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