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Strong-Willed Women Mothering Strong-Willed Children

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Illustration of a mom adamantly pointing over the head of her son in a commanding style. Boy's arms are crossed in resistance.
If you’re a strong-willed woman, it can be tough to parent a younger version of yourself. But you also have a definite advantage—you know what it’s like to be a strong-willed child. 

“My strong-willed child and I are like two goats fighting on a cliff — neither of us is backing down and we’re both willing to go over the edge to get our way.” This recent admission from a strong-willed mom undoubtedly has a lot of you nodding in agreement.

If you’re a strong-willed woman, it can be tough to parent a younger version of yourself. But you also have a definite advantage — you know what it’s like to be a strong-willed child. From that angle, let me remind you of three important truths:

Often it’s not what we say; it’s how we say it.

You’re tired and frustrated and you command, “I said do it now!” No strong-willed child wants to be ordered around, but we all need to respect and obey authority. So think about how you’d want to be spoken to — and if necessary, ask for a do-over. Keep your voice calm, but firm.

“We need to get this done before we leave — are you about ready to go?” you ask.

“No,” answers your child.

“I’ll give you a couple more minutes to finish, and then we’ll go.”

If your voice is pleasant and firm and you add a small smile, you’ll be amazed when your child responds with “OK.”

We shouldn’t accept bad behavior — from the child or the parent.

When I was a new parent, I would hear myself issuing an ultimatum, knowing full well that my strong-willed child would not respond positively.

As my boys got a little older, I changed my approach. We made a deal that anytime I was talking to them and they felt I was being overly bossy or rude, they had my permission to raise their hand and interrupt me with the code word ouch. That would stop everything, and their response helped me realize that my tone or words were offensive. Then I’d back up, rephrase and continue. This approach tended to depersonalize the conflict and improve our relationship.

We need to model the right way to handle conflict.

Your strong-willed child is quickly figuring out how the world works — and a lot of those lessons have come from watching how you handle life’s ups and downs. Because I was a strong-willed mom, I tended to defend my opinions with passion and unswerving conviction. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me when my strong-willed son and I went toe-to-toe on almost everything, but it took me awhile to figure out he was mirroring my method of arguing.

It was when I began to consciously model how I wanted him to handle conflict that our relationship began to improve. For example, when we’d begin to disagree, I’d try to ask more questions and make fewer demands. “Mike, are you trying to get in trouble?” And pretty soon he began to adopt the same approach. “Mom, are you sure you want to make this an issue?” This provided an opportunity for each of us to rethink and — when prudent — to back out gracefully.

One of my favorite quotes from my recent book research was from the mom who said: “When my third child was only 5 years old, we asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. Without missing a beat, she said, ‘In charge.’ She meant it!”

When both mother and child have an inborn drive to be in charge, it has the potential to create epic power struggles that end in a damaged relationship. But if Mom can think about what she was like as a child and how she’d want to be treated, then she can back off and see the situation from the perspective of her own strong-willed child.

Your life as the mother of a kid who’s a lot like you may not be particularly easy, but you can use your own experience to strengthen the relationship with this young version of you. And then if you have an opportunity to complain to your parents, they will no doubt empathize — but there’s a good chance they’ll say that you were well worth all the trouble.

Cynthia Tobias is a best-selling author of several books, including You Can’t Make Me and A Woman of Strength and Purpose.

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