Handling Your Headstrong Child

When to try conflict resolution and when to get help

By Melissa Tucker


We’ve all witnessed, or been an unwilling participant in, this scene at the playground, swimming pool or park: A parent says, “It’s time to go!” and a child assertively answers, “No!” 

The conflict and ensuing tantrum rolls on from there. 

“Every child attempts to assert themselves and to take control from time to time. It’s often how children learn about decision-making, boundaries and their role in the world,” said Ashley Petray, a licensed clinical social worker at Methodist Counseling Clinic in Little Rock.

Parents dealing with conflict-prone children may call them “strong-willed” or, if the problem worsens, begin to wonder if professional help is necessary. 

Dr. Glenn Mesman, director of education for the UAMS Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, says temper tantrums are fairly common among children ages 3-5. 

“It’s developmentally appropriate for them to be saying ‘no’ and learning mastery over things in their own life,” he said. “They’re supposed to be saying ‘no,’ and I’m more concerned in that age range if they’re not exhibiting strong-willed behavior.”

As children age, however, this behavior becomes less common but is still problematic. 

“We typically see tantrums less in the 7-12 age range. So, I look at the age of the child and how often are these behaviors happening, how long do they last, and what are the specific behaviors that are occurring,” he said.

Categorizing a child as “strong-willed” means the child will seek control in most situations, is challenging to redirect, argumentative and frequently displays disruptive behavior, Petray said. 

On the positive side, strong-willed behavior does not indicate a mental health disorder, and can often be helpful later in life. 

“A child who is strong-willed often clearly knows what he or she wants and likes or dislikes. With the help and guidance of parents and other positive adults, children can learn to use these characteristics in positive ways to develop into leaders, be less likely to give into peer pressure, and be assertive,” she said. 


Stop The Power Struggle

But she admits the bright future for these children is of little consolation to parents dealing with their assertive behavior now.

“Parenting a strong-willed child can be challenging, frustrating and exhausting. It can often feel as though the child is battling the parent every step of the way and, at times, she is!” Petray said. 

She offers a few suggestions to avoid the trap of engaging in power struggles with your child. 

“Providing limited choices for a child is a powerful tool parents can use to encourage positive behaviors, reduce power struggles and promote decision-making skills. For example, if a parent is wanting their child to clean up, a parent can offer, ‘You were hoping to keep playing, but play time is finished. You can pick up the cars first or the blocks first. Which one works for you?’ This keeps the parent in a position of authority while giving the child a chance to exert some control,” she said. 

“It can also be helpful for parents to ‘reframe’ their thinking about their child’s behavior. Rather than viewing the child’s behavior as an intentional attempt to be disrespectful or defiant, a parent can remind themselves that their child is attempting to be independent and make their own decisions.”

Mesman suggests improving the parent-child relationship first and foremost. 

“The first step is developing a stronger relationship, and also parents and children spending one-on-one time together in an activity that is enjoyable to the child, at least five minutes a day,” he said. “Just having parents spend more time with their kids in a positive activity is beneficial.” 

He also suggests positive feedback, and ignoring minor disruptive behavior. 

“Parents should catch their child being good. Kids will do anything for attention, they don’t care if it’s good behavior or bad behavior, so helping them realize they’re only getting attention for good behavior and ignoring bad behavior is best,” he said. “And they’ll eventually realize negative behaviors aren’t getting them the attention they want.”

When To Get Help 

A few signs your child’s behavior is something more than a strong-willed personality: 

“If a child displays behavior that is unsafe, aggressive or has a significant impact on his or her ability to carry out the daily job of being a child, such as making friends, learning at preschool or school, remaining focused for an age appropriate period of time, it can be helpful to consult with a mental health provider to determine if there are additional or underlying factors contributing to the child’s difficulties,” Petray said. 

Monitoring the consistency and frequency of unwanted behaviors will also help. “Tantrums one day a week are not consistent with ADD or other mental health disorders, but more days a week, with more frequency of behavior can indicate psychiatric conditions,” Mesman said. “Also, there has to be impairment in their life, and it needs to negatively impact their function at home, in the community, or disrupt relationships. If it’s not doing that, it’s probably not a psychiatric condition.”