Koemba Blog

Setting Limits with a Strong Willed Child

Jane breaks off our conversation mid-sentence. She dashes across the room to her toddler who is wrenching a doll from a child half her own size. It’s hard to set limits with a strong willed child!

‘Mary, Suzie is playing with the doll now. Wait your turn.’

Jane remains calm yet firm as she holds a limit with her child. Mary cries her protest. Jane consoles her and, as her tears subside, she redirects her attention to another toy.  Every parent of a young child identifies with the challenge of holding helpful boundaries, especially with a strong willed child, so that little ones learn how to handle social interactions. What we sometimes overlook is how we, as parents, cross boundaries with our children in a way that is hurtful, and possibly even harmful to their emotional well-being and our relationship with them. Think about this situation:

The hostess bends towards Linda’s five year old. The lady holds a plate with a tantalising array of cookies. Little chocolate balls, squares of shortbread, star-shaped biscuits glittering with tens and thousands, tiny coconut rolls with cherries on top. The child reaches out his hand but before he can choose a cookie, his mother reaches forward, takes a plain shortbread and passes it to him. The child pulls back in protest. He wants to choose his own. ‘Take it,’ hisses his mother.

The child plonks himself on the chair, head down, bottom lip thrusting forward, arms folded.

‘Behave yourself,’ admonishes his mother.

Her son is not ‘misbehaving’. He’s protesting at the way she has infringed his boundary. Linda seems unaware that her behaviour as a parent hasn’t been helpful here. Imagine how you would feel if you were offered a delicious choice of cookies, then someone picked up the plainest biscuit on the plate and insisted that’s the one you were to eat. How would you react!

As parents, we often think that we ‘know best’. When they protest we label them as ‘strong willed’ or ‘defiant’. We try to tell our children what they ‘should’ do or think. We attempt to assert power over the child’s internal processing.

Our parenting would be more helpful if we  rather than gently guide and support our children to find their own unique path. When we see a situation from the child’s perspective, we recognise that sometimes their ‘bad behaviour’ is a protest because we infringe their boundaries; we try to take control of that which is not ours to rightfully control.

We infringe our children’s boundaries when we impose our will on what can be a child’s decision. Every child is a unique person who intuitively senses his need to find his own path in life. He learns by what is modeled to him, but he’s likely to resist that which is imposed.

‘The more you insist the more I resist.’

The more you insist the more I resist!

Sometimes our behaviour to our children is hurtful rather than helpful. When we exert control over our children, rather than supporting them to develop co-operative behaviour, we are breaching the boundaries of our relationship. We as parents need to learn the art of self-containment – of not taking control of that which is not ours to decide. In any relationship, whether parent-child, adult to adult, or even country to country, issues of damaged boundaries are invariably linked to power being wielded inappropriately.

A helpful analogy in this regard is one’s own skin – a flexible membrane that both protects one from infection and damage and contains that which is within. Without the boundary of our skin there would not be adequate containment for us or for others. It is interesting to note that when we cross the boundaries of appropriate social conduct, our metaphors of speech relate closely to that of breaking the boundary of skin; we refer to a person “being abrasive”, of “feeling wounded” or “scarred”.

As parents we need to be aware that our everyday interactions can cause ‘relationship eczema’ – ‘an itch that rashes’. Small infringements of our children’s boundaries can overtime spread into a painful, inflammatory condition. I know this through my own parenting journey. It was when my second son was already a teen that I realised that it would be more helpful, rather than trying to control my child, to notice and adjust my own way of interacting.

Let’s re-run the situation with Linda. The lady offers her child the cookies. Maybe his fingers stretch out to grab a handful. Linda can gently say,

‘Choose one. When that’s finished you may have another.’

Her child might surprise her with his cooperative behaviour.

It is possible that her child might live up to her expectations of, ‘He’ll just grab’, because if he’s experienced many situations where his boundaries have been infringed, he might not now contain himself.

The answer isn’t to impose control over your child, but rather for you as parent to learn the art of Mindful Parenting; to respect the boundaries of the child (and of oneself) within the dance of relationship. But how? A starting point is to work with a Parent Coach or sign up for a Parenting Course.

It’s never too late to begin the work of respecting boundaries in our interactions. It matters not only for our parenting but for the well-being of every relationship. Our children can be our best teachers because they are so much more forthright in their behaviour than we tend to be in our adult-to adult interactions. Our children let us know through their behaviour when we haven’t contained ourselves adequately.

Imagine the ‘skin’ of your relationship. Is it smooth, flexible and healthy? Or is it angry, inflamed, easily-punctured and infected? The good news is that we as parents can be the healing balm that’s needed.


What do you think? We’d love to hear your stories and questions about dealing with a strong -willed child. Please share in the Comments box below because other parents are also struggling with the same challenges.

How to Set Boundaries with a Strong Willed Child


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Fri 4 Nov 7:30 – 9 pm  ‘Meeting Your Child’s Deepest Emotional Needs’

Sat 5 Nov ‘Responding to Children’s Challenging Behaviour’ 

Moville Methodist Hall 

Open to all parents of children aged 3 to 12 years

(grandparents and other child-carers also welcome)





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Want to know more. Pop across to the webpage to enjoy a Preview section (no sign in required to view this).

What I wish I'd known when my kids were youngImagine – significantly lowering the stress level in your home, and racheting up the Happiness factor.
When things aren’t going smoothly that can seem like an impossible dream. Here’s my own story of how my vision of parenting fell apart and what happened next.

It took a near melt-down in my relationship with my then-teenage son for me to realize that being a ‘good parent’ wasn’t working. I was a qualified, experienced teacher. I thought I knew how to handle kids but my relationship with my then-teenage son was as scratchy as wire-wool on sunburnt skin. I kept trying to make him ‘be good’ but the more I insisted, the more he resisted.
I thought my parenting job was to change him, but he was a ‘stubborn child’.
But crisis forced me to think differently and do differently.
His challenging behaviour was clearly telling me my parenting style wasn’t working.
I began to realise – slowly! – that the only person I could change was myself!
But I felt overwhelmed.
How could I be anything other than what I was?
How could I do the work of being the parent my child needed to be (instead of the parent who tried to control)?
It seemed an impossible task.

Let me tell you my ‘AHA’ moment.
At that time (this is quite a few years ago!) they had discovered the wreck of the Titanic. I was listening to a radio interview where they said that if the Titanic had changed her course, just two or three degrees when she first hit chilly waters, she would have sailed safely into harbour.
Two or three degrees!
That would have felt like nothing on such a huge ship – but it would have made all the difference.
The lights went on for me.
I was doing a pretty good job as a parent. I just needed to make that 2 or 3 degree shift that would sail us back to warm waters.

It took me time. It took all of us patience. It wasn’t always easy. But we got there.
I didn’t know the term ‘Mindful Parent’ then, but I was taking the first steps on that journey.

The good news is that, to be the parent you’d love to be, it doesn’t take a 180 degree turn-around.
It’s the small shifts in the everyday interactions that are key.
And I’d love to share with you the key insights and practical tools I’ve discovered. The 2 or 3 degrees that can make all the difference in your relationships.

Why not grab a mug of coffee and take twelve minutes to watch this little video.

It’s a section from my ‘BEHAVE’  Online Parenting Course. I wish I’d known this when my kids were young.

My family experienced a lot of frustration and heartache while I slowly realised that trying to get my kid to behave wasn’t working. I’d love to save you the tears and the frustration that it cost me – not to mention any yelling, grumbling or nagging!

What I wish I'd known when my kids were young My AHA moment was many years ago. I’ve got a great relationship with my son, who now has children of his own – and I’ve made it my life’s work to discover what’s needed to create happier homes.  My crisis became my opportunity.

It took me years to figure out what it TAKES to create a happy family.

That’s why I developed the ‘BEHAVE’ Online Parenting Course to give you the key insights and the practical tools I’ve discovered to create a more enjoyable and fulfilling family life, without having to endure the long and often painful journey I experienced. If I’d learnt these core principles when my kids were young, family life would have been so much easier, and happier, for us all.

I’m not saying you’ll have a ‘perfect’ family – life isn’t perfect, but it’s meant to be fun.

I’d love to hear YOUR questions and comments: what’s the parenting challenge you’re facing?