Timeout with Dr. Michael Weiss: How to win over even the most stubborn child

Estimated Reading Time 5 Minutes
Five-year-old William can really push his parents’ buttons. He’s one of those kids who always seems to be “up to something,” whether it’s riding his bike out of bounds and into the street, picking fights with his sister or other kids, or actively defying his parents’ wishes. As his mother, Jenny, will tell you, “it’s always something!”
Yeah, William has a lot of issues. But when I got involved in working with him, I quickly realized that William’s greatest asset – aside from being adorable – was his steely resolve. When anyone told him what to do, William would dig in his heels and stand his ground.
This wasn’t some of the time. Rather, it was a matter of routine. He wasn’t loud, and he didn’t cry much. Or if he did cry, he’d try to hide it from his parents or me or anyone else nearby. Most of the time William would just look away and try to keep going on with what he was doing. 
Some kids have a really hard time backing down. It’s part of their basic character and temperament. If channelled well, it is the reason that they will be one of our future leaders. They will also be less influenced by peers, that is, unless they want to be. But, they aren’t going to be easily told what to do by others at any point in their lives.
Many kids who are this stubborn are often quite shy, or at least uncertain about how to deal with the conflict. This seems impossible to believe for most parents who witness their child standing their ground like an overly confident bulldog. However, for many kids, it’s hard to know how to reverse course.
William’s mom nodded as I described this to her. “I can ask him in the every way imaginable to stop doing something, and you can see he’s really upset. He actually hates the attention and I can see he doesn’t know how to get out of it.”
Sure enough, William will often have a smouldering set of uncomfortable emotions stirring that make him feel bad about the situation. Some kids just simply freeze in these moments, unable to change their behaviour. 

Pick your battles

That old chestnut must go down as one of the most overused clichés in the history of parenting. But, this is a critical theme in succeeding with a stubborn child. If you try to take on every single event in which a stubborn child will flex their steel will, you are going to come up short. Focus your efforts on a few key points at any one time. 

Reward, Ignore and Penalize (R.I.P.)

Once you have zoomed in on a behaviour that is important to change, you are ready to challenge a small amount of stubbornness. With William, the priority behaviour was his proclivity to ride his bike out into the street. Though just five, he was a remarkably skilled rider, already more than a year without training wheels.

The street was edged with wide and well kept sidewalks and all of the other kids knew to stay off of the street. Not William. Though it was not a major street, there was enough traffic to make it considerably dangerous for him and drivers. If he was going to have the privilege of riding his bike alone, it was clear he was going to have to show his parents he could follow the rules.
The “therapy” needed in this situation was pretty straightforward. Jenny committed to being out in front of the house while William was on his bike, and we made sure that the only time that William could have his bike was when Jenny had the time to go out to supervise; no other access to the bike was allowed. At least, not at first.
I joined them for the first few sessions and told William, “every time you ride your bike out in the street, I’m going to take it for a few seconds. That’s the only way we can make sure that you are learning how to be safe on your own.”
If you have ever seen me work with kids you know that I will sometimes show a little sweat on my brow. OK, this time I looked like I had just run a marathon. But, I persisted. Every time that darned bike hit the street, I hunted him down and held on to the bike. I didn’t even require him to get off. I just caught up with him and grabbed the bike for 10 seconds to interrupt his ride. I needed William to have lots of opportunities to get rewarded for “getting it right”. So, I wasn’t going to just take it away for a long time.
At first, he thought that this was pretty funny. But, after five or six repetitions, the game was getting old, and now he was digging in his heels.
That’s when the “other” behaviours started to come out – like muttering a few well chosen swear words under his breath – which I just ignored. My expression and manner of relating to him didn’t change. I only reacted to the bike being in the
street and nothing more. Well not entirely. I jumped up and down and shouted rewarding cheers at William every time he stayed on the sidewalk. I chased after him in fun when he gave me a daring look from the driveway, while
stopping himself from going in the road.
To the swearing? Nothing. No reaction. I wasn’t on a potty mouth mission. I was focused on his not getting taken out by a nearby bus. The fact is, once he saw that I would persist longer than he would in demanding that he stay out of the street, he came around.
Oh, by the way, the swearing stopped too, precisely because I behaved as if I didn’t even hear it. His provocative language didn’t push my buttons. After I demonstrated this to Jenny, she looked at me with some surprise and suspicion. “That’s it? Just keep grabbing the bike?” Of course, there was a bit more to it than that, but “yes,” I said. “Just persist.” Jenny emailed me a week later, exclaiming, “It works, it works!”


What Jenny and I did with William was straightforward. We picked
our battle only worrying about the bike in the road at selected times.
We used specific R.I.P.:
• Rewarded William with shouts of praise and uninterrupted bike riding for staying on the sidewalk.
• Ignored all of the other behaviours with a laser beam focus on only one behaviour at a time. 

Penalized William by interrupting his bike riding every time the wheels
hit the street. We guaranteed that all bike riding would be supervised
until he could show us that he was safe.
of greatest importance, Jenny found her own steely resolve. If it was
going to be a test of who could be more stubborn, Jenny was going to
come out on top. But, she picked her battle. Kids who have a great
skill and temperament at standing their ground need to be given a lot of
latitude in what they get challenged on. As far as I’m concerned, I’m
not biting off more than I can chew. Why bother? I’m going to lose if I
try to influence too much of a child’s behaviour at once.
kids realize when a parent is getting serious and is mobilized
to influence a single behaviour. Pick wisely, be determined and make
sure your child understands why it’s important that he or she listens to
you on that particular behaviour. If you do, you will like where this
slow, but steady approach takes you in your relationship with
your child.


“Meadow is a beautiful, intelligent and very spirited little girl. She had her first
before she was one year old, along with her first time out! We have
tried traditional responses with limited success. One day in frustration
I began singing instructions and to my amazement she began singing back
while following them! This still works. Mind you, I save this approach
for the really
challenging situations!”
34% of parents say their kids become stubborn when they want something they can’t have.
out what exactly they are standing for, and why they are so passionate
about not giving in. If the reasons are sufficient and there is thought
behind it then they win, if not, then I explain my reasoning and I win.”
21.3% of parents say their kids become stubborn at bedtime.
my child refuses to give in I like to remind her how I would love to be
a happy fun mom but since she chose whatever behaviour or attitude now
there has to be a consequence and that’s disappointing. Choose your
behaviour, kiddo, and I’ll choose mine.”
12.6% of parents say their kids become stubborn when it’s time to eat.
means ‘no’, not to argue about the situation or debate! We are careful
to offer an explanation as to why the answer is no. If our child
continues to argue, demand, or We asked you about what leads your
kids to stubborn behaviour and how your family works through the tears
and tantrums.
Michael J. Weiss, PhD., is a
clinical psychologist specializing in helping families and schools
manage developmental differences in children.

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