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Basic Dad: How Do I Deal with My Stubborn-Ass Kid?

Advice from a child psychologist, a stubborn kid who grew up to be a stubborn adult, and others

When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.

The Very Basic Concern

“Just one more Sesame Street, okay Daddy?”

“I’m sorry, Gremlin, it’s bedtime.”

“But I want it!”

“I know, but you have daycare in the morning and you really need your rest.”

“Please!!!”

“No, you — ”

Then comes the stomping, the crossed arms and the tears, and what was originally a pleasant evening of Elmo becomes a sleep-deprived tirade that will last for the next hour and result in her losing precious sleep time. Which, of course, will make the next morning even harder too.

This is pretty much how half of my days end, with my otherwise beautiful, sweet, three-year-old daughter refusing to go to bed. She’ll cry and whine or ask to read about 600 books before bed. Once she’s in bed, she’ll get right out and come to the living room or cry and cry because she’s misplaced one super-specific stuffed animal in her mountain of plush creatures. Ultimately, despite the fact that her bedtime is 7:30, most nights she is up until about 10, either getting in and out of bed or restlessly fighting sleep in her room.

So, yeah, my kid is pretty damn stubborn, just like I was as a kid and I am now. Sometimes I feel like I can handle it, but other times, I know that her strong will is getting to me, and I just end up in a nonsensical pissing match between man and toddler.

I also wonder how things will get when she gets older. Some people dismiss this as just the “terrible twos,” but my kid was stubborn from the get-go and there are no real signs of it slowing down. It makes me wonder what kind of teenager she’ll be, and if I’ll be equipped to handle it.

Basically: What do I do with my stubborn-ass kid?

The Expert Advice

Theresa Russo, PhD in human development and family studies: Temperament is something you’re born with, which is innate to you. As opposed to an easy-going or a slow-to-warm child, a strong-willed child can get very set in their ways and they don’t like their routine messed up. This becomes especially pronounced during their toddler years and their early teenage years. The upside of that temperament, though, is that the research says that those strong-willed children tend to have higher outcomes. They’re generally higher achieving because they stick with things and don’t give up easily. They’re also less likely to be swayed by peer pressure and tend to be higher-income-earning adults.

The trouble is trying to figure out how to deal with them, especially in those two pivotal stages. Patience is key: Some parents can manage that easier than others, as sometimes very strong-willed parents can butt heads with the child, so if you fall into that, it’s good to step back and see what buttons this is pushing for you, and separate your emotions from their emotions.

Being a little more flexible helps, but it’s all about setting boundaries and giving kids choices. Not endless choices, but having them pick between two outfits or whatever it is. It’s about helping kids to learn how to make decisions. You have to do that all the time, and be patient enough to do that consistently. It’s not about giving in, but instead just make them feel like they have a voice.

As for discipline or something you can’t compromise on, for any kid, you make it about structure and consequences. So you explain the boundary or rule, and you explain the consequences as well. It’s harder with a stubborn child, but you always want to think about how you’re reinforcing the behavior. If you end up in a power struggle, the adult has to think about what they’re doing and sometimes you have to pick your battles and not so much give in, but figure out where you can negotiate.

For a toddler, if they’re refusing to eat their food and you won’t let them leave the table until they do, you may have to negotiate on that. But if you’re in a grocery store and the kid is throwing a temper tantrum over a toy that they want, you may have to just stop shopping and remove them from the situation. With younger kids too, redirection is one of the best approaches, but a stronger-willed child may be harder to do that with because they don’t let things go. So it takes a lot of effort to redirect.

For a stubborn young teen, it’s a lot of the same toddler behaviors but now with a much larger person. The difference here is that you can have a conversation with them about rules and consequences. If they’re defiant, there has to be a consequence and you have to stick to it. It can wear on you, but what you’re doing is helping them regulate their emotions, because as they become an adult, they’ll need to learn how to do that. Also, with an older child, when things calm down, you can revisit the situation and review it.

Obviously, this is all easier in theory than in practice, but it’s important to stay calm and stay on message.

Bernadette Kovach, child psychologist and psychoanalyst: When a child is being stubborn, there’s a reason they’re being stubborn. Toddlers get stubborn because the whole world is bigger than them and they now recognize that they’re a person separate from their parents, yet they still have no say in anything. Some kids, when they’re potty training, get really anxious about peeing the bed, while other kids are anxious about their parents fighting. And all children worry that if they fall asleep, you guys are having fun without them.

If kids are given too much power they end up very stubborn, because they don’t know the boundaries and they feel unsafe. And if you never tell your child “no,” how do they learn to say no themselves? I always advise parents to say, “No, because…” Children need a because to help them understand why a rule exists. They may still throw a tantrum, but the more consistent you are, the more you will help them and that should help the tantrums.

If you get stubborn back, well, that’s a big mistake that a lot of parents make. Instead, as long as it won’t endanger them or their health, you may want to let them safely learn from an experience. Like, sometimes I’ve advised parents who have kids with a really big problem going to sleep to let the kid stay up one night. Then the parent would point out to them, “Do you see how you’re feeling right now? You’re cranky and upset, that’s you being overtired.” Then the next morning, wake them at normal time and when they’re groggy, explain that, that’s what happens when you stay up late, so maybe the next night they’ll go to bed early.

I also remember when I used to get my son to eat salad by making a salad for him, then eating his salad myself. He’d ask why I’m eating his salad, and I’d say, “Because you’re not going to eat it,” and he’d say, “Yes, I am!” and eat the salad.

Most times, if the points you’re making are age appropriate, kids will get it, and the more consistent you can be, the less that stubbornness turns into a fight of “who can out-stubborn who.”

Michelle, a stubborn kid who grew up to be a stubborn adult: When I was a kid, my parents made me play soccer. My brother wanted to play, but they made me play. One time I didn’t want to play the goalie position, but my coach made me play it. So instead of doing what I was supposed to as a goalie, I just sat down and watched all the goals go by. After three goals against my team the coach pulled me out, and I wasn’t the goalie anymore. I remember my dad saying after that, that it was the only time in his life where he actually wanted to kill me.

I guess I was stubborn, but I always viewed it more as determined. I’m very goal-driven, so if I have a goal, I will make it. Hell, I went back to school at 39 to get my RN just because it was something I’d always wanted to do. I’ve been called cocky for what I feel like is just me sticking up for myself and my abilities. Like if I know how to do something, don’t tell me to do it another way because then I’m likely not to do it at all. So I’m pretty hard-headed in that way.

I know when I was little, if I didn’t want to eat something, I didn’t eat it and my parents would send me to bed without supper. Then they’d put the meal in the fridge and I’d have it for breakfast, so they were just as stubborn as I was. Aside from that though, I was scared to buck my parents too much because I’d get my tail whipped back then.

My brother, on the other hand, he was the hellraiser. Especially when our parents were going through a divorce, he was very stubborn with my mom — they fought all the time. He was always trying to buck the system. I think we’re a lot alike in that way, but he was way more stubborn than I was.

Daniel (Michelle’s Brother): She said I was stubborn? I don’t think so. Did she tell you about the soccer story?

She was always like that: When her mind was set on something, she was going to do it no matter what. I guess that’s part of the reason why she’s been so successful through several careers. And what she went through going back to school as an adult? I couldn’t do that. I didn’t want to go to school when I was supposed to! And now she’s talking about doing it again to get her master’s.

Our parents were pretty stubborn, too. My dad was a stubborn guy, but my mama, she’s probably more stubborn than he was. If you piss her off, she’ll hold a grudge ’til the day she dies. I guess that’s where Michelle gets it, but I think that’s also where she gets her work ethic from. Both of us have that for sure — I got lucky where I was able to find the job I wanted as a steel worker at 16 and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Work is certainly a place where I’m set in my ways, and I don’t like to change up the way I do things. I’ll listen to you, but it’ll have to be a really great idea to change up what I’m doing, and I mean a really great idea.

You know, now that I think about it, I guess I am pretty stubborn too. But I’m still not as stubborn as Michelle is.