Methods of Disciplining a Strong Willed Child

According to Robert MacKenzie, author of “Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child,” strong-willed children are as much a product of nature as they are of nurture 1. MacKenzie believes that learned behaviors such as backtalk, tantrums and obstinacy can be controlled and even eliminated when parents carefully and calmly respond and direct their children with consistent, clear and firm language, attitudes and behaviors.

Time Out

Placing a child in “time out” involves having them stay in a predetermined and agreed upon area in which they will sit or stand silently for a given amount of time. Some child care experts such as Jo Frost, star of the reality TV show “Supernanny,” recommend the child stay in “time out” for a duration of minutes equivalent to their age (three years old is three minutes). During time out, children should be given a clear question to direct their silent reflection as they literally take time out of their activities. Typically, this question should direct them to consider their behavior and attitude, as well as how they can and should improve both. For example, you might ask them to come up with an answer to the question, “Why are you in time out, and how can you avoid time out in the future?”

Clear, Firm Messages

According to MacKenzie, the first and best way to avoid conflicts with a strong-willed child is to deliver clear, firm instructions and establish clear, firm boundaries on behavior 1. For example, rather than asking a strong-willed child, “would you please stop hitting your sister,” you should instruct your child to “stop hitting your sister, please.” By opening with the actionable verb, there is no chance for a child to misinterpret the true meaning of your instruction, as they might with the question by simply responding with “no.” Similarly, MacKenzie and Frost both recommend establishing a set of behavioral guidelines to be agreed upon by both you and your child and posted clearly somewhere in your house.

Limited Choices

MacKenzie believes that children often wish to demonstrate their independence by refusing parental requests. In doing so, children are able to maintain the idea that they are in control of their decisions. An easy way to counteract this behavior is to offer your child an opportunity to choose what to do should they refuse to follow a clear, firm directive. For example, if a child ignores the directive to “stop hitting your sister, please,” then one might respond with, “you can choose to stop hitting your sister or you can choose to spend the next eight minutes in time-out.” Upon weighing the option, children are likely to pick the choice which causes them the least distress, in this case to stop hitting his or her sister.


Though judicious use of time outs, firm instructions and limited choices can help to govern a lot of a strong-willed child’s bad behavior, MacKenzie also recommends systematic disengagement from behavior your child exhibits that could be considered “attention-seeking.” Fits, tantrums, crying, screaming and pouting are all behaviors that MacKenzie believes carry the undertone of “pay attention to me.” When parents respond to these behavior with attention, the children learn the effectiveness of throwing a fit, having a tantrum, crying, screaming or pouting. In response to such attention-seeking behavior, MacKenzie recommends parents simply ignore their child as a way to remain disengaged from his or her manipulation. Disengaged ignoring can also be employed when children talk back or contradict a parent.