stubborn childMany parents I work with describe at least one of their children with some of the following characteristics: Stubborn, defiant, won’t take no for an answer, doesn’t listen, ignores me, has to have it her way, bossy. They “have tried everything and nothing seems to work”. They are exhausted and drained from the trying.

That’s because we have been sold a bill of goods for generations convincing us our children should do what we say. Sure, that’s convenient. But at what cost? Personally it was years of therapy for me.

Most of us parents want to raise our children to be respectful and responsible. But we are conditioned to define respectful as compliant to our directions thereby misinterpreting the actual meaning of respect. Children who won’t take no for an answer and will not be told what to do are not showing disrespect. They are telling us that they cannot comply with what seems to them unfair and illogical.

These are children who have a different inner core with a strong sense of right and wrong. The frustrating part is that their right and wrong is at the same developmental stage they are. The “right” of a three year old does not usually fit with the “right” of her parent. But her parent will get far more cooperation when the three-year-old’s “right” is acknowledged — not agreed with or given in to — simply understood and accepted.

Children who are more easy-going and laid-back have little problem doing what they are told, so they look like the good girls and boys. Comparing themselves to these kids, the “stubborn” kids learn that they are bad or wrong when their behavior incites frustration, impatience, and anger.

It is our job to understand the “spirited” kids of the world and see that their needs are different. They are not being defiant to get us, to be bad or mean, to try to take control. Their resistance is telling us that they can’t, not that they won’t.

I recently read an article about the healing power of donkeys for special needs children. It was written by a donkey-aficionado and the father of a twelve-year-old autistic boy. The father learned how to be a better parent through his work with donkeys.

What he learned are the basic tenets of Connective Parenting:

#1 – The only thing you need to do is the thing you’re doing.

Stop living in the past or the future with fears and expectations and be present to what is happening right now. This is the only way strong relationships are built. No matter how frustrating or horrific the behavior, stay with what is needed from you right now — and that is connection with a hurting child.

#2 – Lead from the rear

This father’s meaning is that you are asking a very stubborn animal to do what doesn’t come naturally when you direct him to do what you want. So you need to be creative, see the situation from his point of view and help him find his own way to do what you want. It helps to understand that what you are asking doesn’t come naturally.

#3 – You don’t train them. They train you.

Our children know mysteries of life, love, and relationship that we do not because we are only one person. It behooves us to learn what each of them has to teach us rather than thinking we have to teach them a thing or two!

We are so attached to being right that we miss the wonder of what could be if we allow our children some autonomy. Instead of adhering to the age-old philosophy that we know best and our children have to learn or else they will become derelicts of society, we would be better off to set our minds on our relationships with our children and insure they are top-notch.

Our judgments — stubborn, defiant, bull-headed, disrespectful — need to be reframed to determined, persistent, creative, and knowing one’s own mind. Yes, that can lead to frustration and annoyance especially when we are tired and just want things to go smoothly for once. But your ideas of what you want isn’t necessarily the right and only way.

Your persistent child needs to find a way that makes sense to him. When you tell him he has to do something just because you say so, that feels unfair. He won’t let you get away with that. But if you say “I want this and you want that. We need to find a solution that works for both of us”, that makes sense, and he will engage his creativity to find a way. And that is relationship at it’s best.