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Parenting the Strong-Willed ChildThe Clinically Proven Five-Week Program for Parents of Two-to Six-Year-Olds
By REX FOREHAND NICHOLAS LONG
McGraw-HillCopyright © 2010 Rex Forehand and Nicholas Long
All right reserved.
Chapter OneStrong-Willed Behavior and How It All Begins
"He was born with a strong will!" That was what Tommy's parents told us when he was two years old. Several hours after Tommy was born, they said, the hospital nurses told them how fussy he was. Tommy cried and cried and cried. His parents thought it was colic and that his crying would decrease as he grew older. Unfortunately, as the months passed, the crying and fussing continued. By eighteen months, he was always fussing and crying to get his way or to show he did not like something. He would fuss and cry when he had to take a bath or get dressed. Going to bed and getting up led to more fussing. It was not pleasant!
Four-year-old Johnny was very outgoing and independent. Unfortunately, he was also very demanding. His parents and his preschool teacher stated that he was "as stubborn as they come." If he did not get his way, Johnny would become upset and have temper tantrums. These tantrums included yelling, crying, and stomping his feet. Johnny was also very active and intense. He always was on the go and filled with boundless energy. As a result of his activity level, he often fell down. Although he rarely hurt himself, he would scream and act as if he had been mortally wounded.
Mary was a six-year-old kindergartner. Testing at school indicated that she had above-average intelligence and academic skills. She was also very confident and would persevere in challenging activities long after most other children gave up. Mary had never minded her parents very well but did follow her teacher's instructions at preschool. Unfortunately, when she went to first grade, Mary began not minding at school. At first Mary would just ignore instructions her teacher gave her. Then she became openly defiant, saying, "No, I will not do it!" in response to instructions from her teacher. Mary's parents were concerned that her behavior would affect her future education.
What Is Strong-Willed Behavior?
The parents of Tommy, Johnny, and Mary all considered their child to be strong-willed. But what does being strong-willed really mean? From our experience, these children usually have a very strong sense of independence. In many ways this is very positive because individuals who are independent are typically also assertive, confident, determined, and persistent. Unfortunately, a strong sense of independence also frequently leads these young children to become stubborn, argumentative, and defiant. To see whether parents agreed with our view of the characteristics associated with being a "strong-willed child," we conducted a survey. We asked a group of parents of two-to six-year-old children, who were enrolled in a parenting class, to tell us whether or not their child was strong-willed and what they believed were the characteristics of being strong-willed. An amazing 48 percent of the parents reported that their young child was "strong-willed." To read how they described those children, see the box titled "Is Your Child Strong-Willed?" later in this chapter.
A strong-willed child can be very frustrating and challenging to a parent (as you probably well know!). However, both positive and negative qualities are associated with being strong-willed. The key is to nurture your strong-willed child's positive qualities while minimizing the impact of the negative qualities on him—and on others.
If you are like most parents of strong-willed children, your child's strong will may continually conflict with what you, as his parent, believe is best for him and your family. If this is the case, you will need to work with him to direct his strong will in more positive ways. The purpose of this book is to help you do this. You will decrease the negative aspects of your child's strong will while encouraging him to use it in positive ways. We hope that your child will learn to use his strong will to excel in life.
In the Beginning There Was Temperament
How does a child become strong-willed? Many of the characteristics of being strong-willed have their roots in a child's temperament. As you will read in Chapters 2 and 3, a child's temperament lays the groundwork for his behavior and then interacts with a number of factors, particularly parenting, to lead to behavior that can be labeled strong-willed. This chapter will focus on helping you understand temperament and its relationship to the behavior of children and their parents.
Temperament generally refers to a child's inborn behavioral style or innate tendencies to act a certain way. Temperament is reflected in how a child typically approaches, interacts in, and experiences social relationships. Imagine two fifteen-month-old children who fall down while running across a lawn. Neither child is injured, but one child screams and cries following the fall. The other child laughs after he falls, gets up, and starts to run again. The different ways these children handle the fall reflect, in part, their temperaments.
Temperament is generally considered to be something with which you are born. Many professionals believe that a child's basic temperament can be seen in early infancy, well before a particular parenting style has had time to have a major impact on his behavior. However, as we will show you later, your child's actual behavior (for example, what he does when told "no") is a function of both his temperament and your parenting.
Is Your Child Strong-Willed?
If your child is strong-willed, you probably have known it since he was a baby! These are the children who feel their wants and needs strongly, and they let you know just how they feel. A group of parents in a parenting class described their own strong-willed children in the following terms:
"If she doesn't want to do something, there is no way you can make her do it"
"Always wanting to do everything for herself"
"Demands constant attention"
"Always wanting to make the decisions/choices"
"Not recognizing authority of adults/parents"
"Talks back a lot"
"Frequent temper tantrums"
"Negative reactions— everything is a fight or a struggle"
"Doesn't respond to discipline"
"Knows no limits"
"Tells us what to do"
"Resists anything done to him—diaper changes, bath, dressing, etc."
"Completes a task in her own way even if you show an easier way the task can be completed"
"Cries to get her way constantly"
"Her way or no way—no matter what"
"Argues every point"
"Pushes things to the extreme"
"Works on a frustrating task (one that may be over his age level) until completed"
"Will focus on one thing and be persistent until she gets what she wants"
"Has own ideas"
"Resistant to change"
Do any of these descriptions sound like your child? If so, you have a lot of company!
Researchers have identified numerous temperament traits. A child's overall temperament is the combination of these individual traits. While there is not a pure "strong-willed temperament," there are several traits that are seen in many strong-willed children. These temperament traits include reactivity (how intensely a child reacts, either positively or negatively, to different situations or events), adaptability (how well a child adapts to changes in situations and events), persistence (how long a child stays with an activity), and emotionality (the stability and the positive/negative aspects of a child's mood or emotions). Strong-willed children are more likely than other children to react intensely, to have a difficult time adapting to transitions, to be persistent when they want to have their own way, and to have inconsistent moods.
In summary, there are several specific temperament traits that we frequently observe in strong-willed children. This observation leads to the next question: are these early temperament traits associated with later behavior problems?
According to a number of research studies, a child's early temperament is significantly related to his later behavior. For example, infants and toddlers who are more irritable, restless, and have trouble adapting to new situations tend to have more behavior problems as they get older. Studies have found that difficult temperament in toddlers is strongly related to aggression and behavior problems from at least ages three through twelve. A child's early temperament has been linked not only to later behavior problems but also to later issues in other areas, including peer relationships, preschool adjustment, and even academic achievement. (However, as we will discuss next, most of these same studies indicate that temperament cannot explain the whole story about a child's behavior.)
Temperament, Parenting, and Behavior
Many parents ask us whether it is their child's temperament or their parenting that has "caused" their child's strong-willed behavior. Such a question is like the often-debated question of whether nature or nurture is most important in determining our personality. Since temperament and parenting continually interact, we seldom can know which is more important in determining a child's strong-willed behavior. It is interesting to note that several recent research studies have found that children with difficult temperaments are more affected by parenting practices than children with average or easy temperaments. So, you can make a difference in your child's strong-willed behavior.
What is clear is that temperament and parenting are both important and clearly linked. Research suggests that many of the temperament traits we have been discussing can change as a child develops. That is, many of these temperament traits are not biologically fixed but rather are tendencies that can be modified by parenting style and other environmental factors. As we will discuss in Chapter 2, we believe that strong-willed children typically have certain temperamental traits that lead to certain parenting practices. These practices, in turn, often strengthen the very strong-willed behaviors that parents want to decrease. This is good news because it means your strong-willed child's behavior is not biologically "fixed" by his temperament! You can influence your child's behavior through your parenting practices. Our five-week program for parents (Part II of this book) lays out parenting practices that will decrease the likelihood of later behavior problems in children with difficult temperaments.
In summary, strong-willed behavior is common among young children and often has its roots in a child's early temperament. However, you can change the negative aspects of your child's strong-willed behavior through your parenting. In fact, that is probably why you bought this book!
Chapter TwoWhy Is My Child Becoming Even More Strong-Willed?
The evidence suggests that many children are born with a strong-willed disposition, and this is not necessarily good or bad. However, a young strong-willed child is more likely to engage in more of the negative behaviors we associate with a strong will—such as stubbornness, impatience, and tantrums. When that happens, strong-willed behavior becomes a problem. And a key factor that determines whether the child's behavior becomes more problematic is the way the parents manage the behavior.
If your child's behavior is becoming worse, don't simply blame yourself. The way you have been responding to your child's behavior has been, in part, a function of his behavior. Unfortunately, strong-willed children often bring out the worst in parents. Responding in a positive way to a child who has an easy temperament is relatively easy. In contrast, when faced with the frustrations of dealing with a strong-willed child, parents are much more likely to use less-than-ideal parenting strategies.
The focus of this chapter is how your child's behavior affects the way you respond to it and how your response, in turn, affects his behavior. We will start by discussing ways children learn to behave through their interactions with others. Our goal is to give you a basic understanding of how a child's behavior develops as a result of the environment in which he lives. This will help you analyze and solve the problem behaviors of your strong-willed child.
Learning Through Social Interactions
Much of how a child behaves is learned from interactions with others, which has been termed social learning. Temperament and other factors lay the groundwork, but it is through social learning that children establish most specific behaviors, both appropriate and inappropriate. Social learning occurs in three major ways: through modeling, reinforcement, and punishment.
This aspect of social learning is basically learning by example. Modeling occurs when a child learns how to behave a certain way by observing others behaving that way. Your child may see another child having a tantrum because the child wants a cookie. If the other child receives the cookie after the tantrum, your child learns, by observation, that a tantrum may be an effective way to get something. The next time your child wants something, he is more likely to have a tantrum.
Observing someone behave in a certain way does not mean your child will automatically behave that way, but it does increase the chances that he might. Whether your child will imitate someone depends on many things, including whether he wants to be like that other person, how many times he observes the behavior, and whether the behavior observed had a positive outcome (like the child receiving the cookie to stop the tantrum).
Modeling is a very important and powerful way of learning. You need to make sure that the behavior you model for your child is appropriate. Since young children look up to their parents, they are especially likely to behave like their parents do. For example, losing your temper in front of your child when you become frustrated increases the chance that your child will handle frustration in a similar way. Children often look to their parents for examples of how to behave in difficult situations. The philosophy "Do as I say, not as I do" does not work. Modeling is more powerful than words in teaching children how to behave. Set a good example for your child! If you are strong-willed yourself, try to model the positive behaviors associated with being strong-willed, not the negative ones. For example, when you are upset with someone, try to model appropriate assertiveness, not aggressiveness. Model persistence when you face challenging tasks. Let your child see you keep doing something difficult until you are successful.
When most people think of reinforcement, they tend to think of giving children things like candy or money for good behavior. Such an understanding is immensely oversimplified and does not do the principle justice. Although many people resist the notion, reinforcement guides much of our behavior. In fact, it is a major key to the development of our child's behavior. The principle of reinforcement is simply that if a behavior is followed by something positive, the behavior is more likely to occur in the future.
We are not saying a child's social behavior is primarily guided by someone's giving him material things whenever he behaves in certain ways. Most reinforcers are social in nature. These social reinforcers—attention, smiles, laughter, and so on—have the greatest impact on your behavior and on your child's behavior. Much of your child's behavior is gradually established through social reinforcers that occur over and over again each day. No single reinforcer will have a dramatic impact on behavior. Reinforcers work slowly and have to occur repeatedly in order to really change a person's behavior.
Think about situations in your life in which social reinforcers guide your behavior. For example, you are more likely to talk to someone who smiles at you as you approach her than to someone who looks away. This is usually because your past experiences have been positive when you talked to individuals who smiled at you. Similarly, you probably spend more time talking to someone who gives you attention and makes you laugh. Your talking is being reinforced by the attention and laughing. In the same way, your child is reinforced more by little (but frequently occurring) responses to him, such as a touch, a smile, a compliment, a positive glance, or a word of encouragement, than by material rewards such as toys, candy, or money. A parent who gives a lot of social reinforcement to her child tends to receive a lot of social reinforcement from her child in return. One mother who went through our clinical program told us, "When I started smiling more at my child, he started to smile more at me. It made me feel so good."
Excerpted from Parenting the Strong-Willed Child by REX FOREHAND NICHOLAS LONG Copyright © 2010 by Rex Forehand and Nicholas Long. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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