How To Deal With A Stubborn Child?

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Dealing with stubborn children is a challenge for parents as getting them to do even basic chores like taking a bath, eating a meal, or going to bed is an everyday battle. Parents inadvertently encourage adamant behavior in children, by giving in to their tantrums.

The best way to deal with a stubborn child is to show them that their behavior doesn’t work. Pay attention to their good behavior for the desired outcome. MomJunction has listed down a few tips which might help in dealing with a stubborn child.

Characteristics Of A Stubborn Child

Not every child that exercises free will is stubborn. It is important to fathom if your child is stubborn or determined before taking any strong action. Strong-willed children can be highly intelligent and creative. They ask a lot of questions, which may come across as rebellion. They have opinions and are “doers”. On the other hand, stubborn children stick to their opinion and would not be ready to listen to what you have to say.

Here are a few other characteristics that stubborn children may display

  • They have a strong need to be acknowledged and heard. So they may seek your attention often.
  • They could be fiercely independent.
  • They are committed and bent on doing what they like.
  • All children throw tantrums, but stubborn ones may do so more often.
  • They have strong leadership qualities – they can be “bossy” at times.
  • They like to do things at their pace.

Managing a stubborn child may be difficult, but it is not all bad.

Stubborn Child Psychology: Understanding Stubborn Children

If determination is one of your strong suits, you’d love to see that in your children as well. But the tricky part is to know the difference between determination and stubbornness. So how do you tell one from the other?

  • The dictionary meaning of determination is ‘firmness of purpose’.
  • Stubbornness is defined as having an unwavering determination to do something or act in a particular way. Simply put, it is refusing to change one’s thoughts, behaviors, or actions regardless of the external pressure to do otherwise.
  • Stubbornness in children can be genetic or an acquired behavior due to environmental influences (1).

Dealing with stubborn children might require extra patience and effort, as you would need to observe and understand your child’s behavior pattern carefully. Next, we will give you a few tips that might help in dealing with stubborn children.

Tips That Might Help To Deal With Stubborn Children

You may have a stubborn toddler who refuses to stay in their crib or brushes aside their cereal spoon every time you try to feed them. Or you may have a bullheaded six-year-old who insists on wearing the same clothes every day and stomps their foot to defy every rule or instruction you give them. Here are a few tips that could come in handy while dealing with the stubborn nature of your child.

1. Try to listen

Communication is a two-way street. If you want your child to listen to you, you have to be willing to listen to them first. Stubborn children may have strong opinions and tend to argue.

They may become defiant if they feel that they aren’t being heard. Most of the time, when your child insists on doing or not doing something, listening to them and having an open conversation about what’s bothering them can do the trick. For example, if your child is throwing a tantrum to finish lunch, then do not force-feed your child. Instead, ask them why they do not want to eat and listen – it could be because they are playful or having a tummy ache.

If you want your stubborn five-year-old child to listen to you, try to approach calmly and practically and not head-on.

2. Connect with them, don’t force them

When you force children into something, they tend to rebel and do everything they should not. The term that best defines this behavior is counterwill, which is a common trait of stubborn children. Counterwill is instinctive and is not restricted to children alone. Connect with your children.

For example, forcing your six-year-old child, who insists on watching TV past her bedtime, will not help. Instead, sit with them and show interest in what they are watching. When you show you care, children are likely to respond.

Children who connect with their parents or caregivers want to cooperate. “Establishing an unshakable connection with defiant children makes it easier to deal with them,” says Susan Stiffelman in her book Parenting Without Power Struggles.

Take that first step of connecting with your child today – hug them! (2)

3. Give them options

Stubborn children might have a mind of their own and don’t always like being told what to do. Tell your stubborn four-year-old child that she has to be in bed by 9pm, and all you will get from them is a loud “No!”. Tell your adamant five-year-old child to buy a toy you chose, and they will NOT want that. Give your children options and not directives. Instead of telling them to go to bed, ask them if they would want to read bedtime story A or B.

Your child could continue to be defiant and say, “I am not going to bed!”. When that happens, stay calm and tell them matter-of-factly, “well, that was not one of the choices”. You can repeat the same thing as many times as needed, and as calmly as possible. When you sound like a broken record, your child is likely to give in.

That said, too many options aren’t good either. For example, asking your child to pick one outfit from the wardrobe could leave them confused. You can avoid this problem by minimizing the options to two or three outfits picked by you and asking your child to pick from those.

4. Stay calm

Yelling at a defiant, screaming child will turn an ordinary conversation between a parent and a child into a shouting match. Your child might take your response as an invitation to verbal combat. This will only make things worse. It is up to you to steer the conversation to a practical conclusion as you are the adult. Help your child understand the need to do something or behave in a specific manner.

Do what it takes to stay calm – meditate, exercise, or listen to music. Play calming or relaxing music at home so that even your children can listen. Once in a while, play your child’s favorite music. That way, you can gain their ‘vote’ and also enable them to unwind.

5. Respect them

Your child would probably not accept authority if you force it onto him. Here are a few ways you can model respect in your relationship:

  • Seek cooperation, don’t insist on adherence to directives.
  • Have consistent rules for all your children, and do not be lax just because you find it convenient.
  • Empathize with them – never dismiss their feelings or ideas.
  • Let your children do what they can for themselves, avoid the temptation to do something for them, to reduce their burden. This also tells them that you trust them.
  • Say what you mean and do what you say.

Lead by example is the mantra you should follow here because your children are observing you all the time, according to Betsy Brown Braun, the author of You’re Not The Boss Of Me.

6. Work with them

Stubborn or strong-willed children are highly sensitive to how you treat them. So be watchful of the tone, body language, and vocabulary you use. When they become uncomfortable with your behavior, they do what they know best to protect themselves: they rebel, talkback, and display aggression.

  • Changing the way you approach a stubborn child can change how they react to you. Rather than telling them what to do, partner with them.
  • Use statements like “let’s do this…”, “how about we try that…” instead of “I want you to do … ”.
  • Use fun activities to get your children to do something. For example, if you want your stubborn child to put their toys away, start doing it yourself and ask them to be your “special helper”.
  • You could also time the activity and challenge the child to put the toys away faster than you can. This is a sneaky trick that mostly works.

7. Negotiate

Sometimes, it is necessary to negotiate with your children. It is common for them to act out when they aren’t getting what they want. If you want them to listen to you, you need to know what’s stopping them from doing so.

  • Start by asking a few questions like, “What is bothering you?” “Is something the matter?” or “Do you want anything?” to get them to talk about it. This tells them that you respect their wishes and are willing to consider them.
  • Negotiation need not necessarily mean that you always give in to their demands. It’s all about being considerate and practical.
  • For example, your child may not be willing to go to bed at a set hour. Rather than insisting, try and negotiate a bedtime that suits both of you.

8. Create a congenial environment at home

Children learn through observation and experience (3). If they see their parents arguing all the time, they will learn to imitate that. Marital discord between parents can lead to a stressful environment in the house, affecting the mood and behavior of the children. According to a study, marital discord may lead to social withdrawal and even aggression in children (4).

9. Understand the child’s perspective

To better understand your stubborn child’s behavior, try to look at the situation from their perspective. Put yourself in your child’s shoes and try to imagine what they must be going through to behave in such a way. The more you know your child, the better you can deal with their stubborn streak.

Empathize with the child even while not giving in to their demands. You can understand their disappointment, anger, or frustration and support them whilst being firm.

For example, if your child is not willing to do their homework, he or she is overwhelmed by the task. If there is too much to do or if your child is not able to focus, you can help by breaking the homework into smaller tasks that can be completed in a short time. You could include short, one or two-minute breaks between the tasks to make the activity less stressful for them.

10. Reinforce positive behavior

There will be times when you would not know what to do with stubborn children to control their anger and aggressive behavior. But if you react without thought, you may develop a negative attitude towards the problem and even reinforce their negative behavior unwittingly.

For example, your child may be saying “No!” to almost everything you say. Think about it – do you say “No” a lot? If yes, you are reinforcing negative behavior by example.

One way to change your stubborn child’s negative responses is the “Yes” game, a clever strategy recommended by marriage and family therapist Susan Stiffelman.

When playing this game, your child has to say “yes” or “no” to everything. Questions like “You love ice cream, don’t you?” “Do you love playing with your toys?” or “Do you want to see if your dinosaur floats in the bathtub tomorrow?” are likely to get a “Yes” from your child. The more your child responds positively, the more they are likely to feel like they are being heard and appreciated.

How To Deal With Some Common Problems With A Stubborn Child

Here are some common issues parents are likely to face while dealing with a stubborn child

1. How to potty train a stubborn child?

Potty training is difficult as it is, but when you are dealing with a stubborn child, it can become a pain. You can potty train your three-year-old stubborn and aggressive child by:

  • Talking about it.
  • Explaining to them how it is done.
  • Making it fun – don’t get serious if your child refuses to use the toilet.

Remember that a stubborn child may take longer to learn to use the toilet than an obedient one. You must remain patient and work with your child to help them reach the goal, rather than push them towards it.

2. How to get a stubborn child to eat?

Children tend to be very fussy when it comes to food. That said, you cannot always feed your child what they want. The best way to make sure your stubborn children get what is good for them is to make dinner time fun.

  • Use creative ways to present food to your little one.
  • Get them involved at the dinner table (ask them to set the table up, serve, etc.).
  • Encourage them to try the food (just one bite) before rejecting it. Serve them small portions of everything and let them choose.
  • Reward them with a dessert or treat if they finish their meal.

3. How to punish a stubborn child?

Children need rules and discipline. Your child should know that there will be consequences good or bad, for their actions.

Make sure that they are fully aware of the consequences of breaking the rules.

Consequences should be immediate, especially when you are dealing with children so that they can connect their actions to the result. Time-outs, cutting down playtime, or TV time and assigning little chores can be a few ways to discipline the child. You could also get creative with consequences, based on the problem.

Remember that the idea is not to punish the child but make them realize that their behavior is wrong.

If you have other tips on how to handle a stubborn child and want to share your story with other mommies, feel free to use our comments section. We’d love to hear from you!


MomJunction's health articles are written after analyzing various scientific reports and assertions from expert authors and institutions. Our references (citations) consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.