Book Review: Setting Limits with your Strong Willed Child

Okay, I’ll admit it… I have one of “those” kids.

What I mean by “those” kids is a child who is normal, but is more….loud, intense, dramatic, sensitive, perceptive, energetic, analytical. On the advice of a friend, I just read (twice) “Setting Limits with your strong willed child” by Robert J MacKenzie Ed.D. This is an excellent book written by an educational psychologist.

James and I have been at logger heads lately…which means lot of yelling, slamming of doors, talking back, attitude, taking away of privileges, things, swearing (on my part) and just general mayhem. Every six months, like clockwork, around his birthday and halfway point to his birthday, he goes through changes. Some good, some bad… but always accompanied by attitude changes, testing, and lots of yelling. If you don’t know about the ‘spirals’ check out Louise Bates Ames of the Gesell Institute and the series of books they put out about what to expect as your child ages.

So, someone suggested I reread Spirited Child and read Setting Limits because I needed a big, big refresher course on handling my oh so spirited kid. Sometimes I forget about his temperament (big mistake) and go back to the methods my parents (strict mom and military dad) used while bringing me up. I thought I was a pretty compliant kid growing up, but now find I have turned in to a pretty spirited, strong willed adult. So, combine a strong willed adult with a strong willed, spirited child and what do you have. We are so much alike.

The book provides ways for understanding and emphasizing with your child, without giving in; how to hold your ground without threatening; how to remove the power struggles between you and your child and give clear, firm messages that your child understands and respects.

Some basic facts about strong willed children: (excerpted from book)

1) Strong willed children are normal with well-defined temperament traits. They are not brain-damaged, emotionally disturbed or defective. Their behavior may seem extreme to other people, but it isn’t abnormal.

2) Strong willed children are not all alike. Each one has unique traits and qualities.

3) Strong willed children are hard to understand. Our individual temperament shapes the way we think, learn, and behave. When others think and behave as we do, we can readily identify with them and understand their experience. When others think, learn and behave very differently from us, however, it is not easy to understand them or to identify with their behavior. The behavior makes no sense from our perspective. Strong willed children are hard to understand for exactly this reason.

4) Strong Willed Children require a lot of guidance and discipline. Children who test us frequently require frequent discipline. When you accept this statement as a fact of life rather than a source of annoyance, your attitude and perspective change. His job is to test and your job is to guide him in the right direction.

5) Strong willed children do not respond to discipline methods that seem to work with other children. Parents often feel confused when their best guidance efforts work with one child, but not with another. The issue is less confusing when we consider the individual temperaments involved. Compliant children will cooperate with most discipline approaches, even ineffective ones, because their underlying desire is to cooperate. They permit parents a wide margin for ineffectiveness. Strong willed children, on the other hand, do not respond to ineffective discipline. They require clear, firm, and consistent guidance.

6) Strong willed children learn differently from their peers. Strong willed children do most of their learning “the hard way”. That is, they often need to experience the consequences of their own choices and behavior before they can learn the lesson we’re trying to teach.

7) Strong willed children bring out extreme reactions in others.

8) With proper guidance, strong willed children can develop into dynamic, cooperative, and responsible individuals. How are you going to deal with it? Your options are clear: you can fight and try to control it or you can give in and let it control you. Or you can accept your child’s strong will as a fact of life, make peace with it, and learn better ways to guide him or her down a healthy path.

All children have their own unique temperaments or inborn style of behaving. Temperament is not rigid in the sense that it’s fixed in cement. It can be shaped and molded with the proper guidance. Your temperament determines how you look at and deal with the world. The nine temperament traits are:

1) Persistence
2) Intensity
3) Regularity
4) Distractibility
5) Energy and Activity Level
6) Sensitivity
7) Adaptability
8) Reactivity
9) Mood

For each trait, figure out on a scale from 1 (easy to manage) to 10 (difficult to manage) where your child falls for each trait and you will have a good picture of your child’s temperament. Plus throw in whether they are an introvert and extrovert, and you will get a pretty good picture of your or your children’s temperament.

James has a high rating for persistence, intensity, sensitivity, adaptability, and reactivity. He falls in the middle on the scale for introvert versus extrovert. I rate high for persistence, intensity, sensitivity and reactivity. I am an introvert. Go figure…we are two peas in a pod. Father is pretty mellow on the rating scale for an extrovert)except for rating high in persistence.
So, once you know what your child’s temperament is, how do you establish clear, firm and respectful boundaries?

What happens when your limits are too soft? Soft limits are rules in theory, not in practice. They invite testing because they carry a mixed message. The words seem to say stop, but the action message says that stopping is neither expected nor required. From a training perspective, soft limits are ineffective because they don’t give children the information they need to connect the dots and make the cause and effect connection between what we say and what we do. The signals simply fail to get the message across. Soft limits come in a variety of forms including ineffective verbal messages (using wish, hope, should), repeated reminders, warnings and 2nd changes, reasoning and explaining, speeches, lectures and sermons, unclear directions, ineffective role modeling, pleading, begging, cajoling, bargaining and negotiating, arguing and debating, bribes and special rewards.

Firm limits send clear signals to children about rules and expectations. Children understand that we mean what we say because they experience what they hear. Words are consistent with actions. They learn to regard our words seriously, test less and cooperate more often for the asking. The result – better communication, less testing, and few power struggles.

Basically, start with a clear, firm message in your normal voice and focus on your child’s behavior, be specific and direct, and include what the consequences will be for noncompliance. Particularly, don’t be drawn into arguments or discussions with your child. Apply the consequences for non compliance when your rules are not followed. Consequences are important because it teaches your strong willed child to take you seriously. Consequences should be natural consequences, which follow naturally from an situation, such as if he breaks a toy, then he doesn’t get to play with it anymore. Logical consequences such as if your child refuses to wear a helmet to ride his bike, the use of the bike gets taken away for the day.

There are many examples in the book about different situations with effective consequences for certain situations: such as when a child continually forgets his or her homework or lunch money, procrastinates, doesn’t cooperate, makes a mess or won’t do chores. So, I decided to start implementing the techniques in the book and I have to say things have been calmer lately. So, whether you have a strong willed, spirited, difficult child or not, I would really recommend you read the book. It is well done and has many useful techniques. It is an easy read and I read it twice in a two day period of time.

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