Why Your Child Rebels & How To Nurture Your Child’s Healthy Will
Children can be stubborn, willful, and infuriating.
But maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.
Whose needs are more important? Yours or your child’s?
Have you ever been dominated and controlled by another person? How did it make you feel? Did you want to push away from them or run away to escape their control?
This is a common feeling that many children have every day — because their parents are insensitive to their needs for independent self-expression.
Children are complete human beings, with a full spectrum of human needs: safety and security, love and connection, boundaries and independence.
Every child has their own unique temperament and personality, shaping their response to parents, family members and their environment. All children share the need to express their own will. Will is the faculty that enables an individual to make their own decisions and act in accordance with their internal needs and desires. Parents can either suppress their child’s natural will — or empower it.
During most of our western culture’s history, willfulness in children has been associated with obstinacy — a refusal to bend and comply with the wishes of a superior. We assume that our children should obey our commands, demands and instructions — maintaining a positive and cheery cooperation all the while.
Some children do have a compliant temperament and will happily cooperate with requests and commands. This is a successful strategy for getting along in the world, so these children often grow up to be productive workers and rule-followers. The downside of this strategy is that they could grow up to be sheep-like and uncreative, requiring instructions from others to function, rather than feeling free to think for themselves.
Other children are naturally independent, with a strong need to express their own will. They test any boundaries set for them, including those set by their parents. These children can grow up to be rule-breakers, creative thinkers and innovators. If their strong will is suppressed, they could push against that suppression and become rebels, even outlaws. If their will is crushed by suppressive parents, they could end up depressed, anxious or ineffective in their life. A thwarted free will can significantly impact the child’s self-worth.
During earlier stages of human society, compliance was a positive and necessary trait — it ensured the tribe’s ways and traditions. Compliance with tribal norms held people together strongly, and enabled the tribe to deal effectively with external threats. If you didn’t go along with the beliefs, morals, and expected behaviors of the tribe, you could be ostracized or ejected from the community, which was often a death sentence.
In an environment of no change or slow change, stability is the key to survival. In today’s culture of rapid change, flexibility and creativity are the keys to thriving, and compliance can become a detriment. Adults who trust their own instincts and express their own will are generally more confident and flexible. They’re able to adjust to changing circumstances and can thrive in an unpredictable environment.
Regardless of temperament, all children need to learn two skills: 1) to express their will, and 2) to self-manage their will. Maturity is the ability to balance one’s own desires with the needs and preferences of others.
Raising children to maturity is one of the hardest jobs on the planet. You can be proud of your parenting skills if your children become independent, yet also able to care for others and respect others’ free will choices. Our great opportunity as parents is the power to influence our children and inspire them to express their will in positive ways. This benefits everyone.
Regardless of their age, your children have their own will. If you impose your will on them without respecting theirs, they will most likely push back against you in order to express their needs, desires and preferences. For young children, and especially for teens, becoming “willful” is an important developmental stage. Your child’s self-confidence will be determined by how you interact with them when they express their choices. You can help them do this so that they learn to do so with both self-respect and respect for others.
There will always be differences between your child’s needs and your own. They are a different person with different desires and interests. This is natural and appropriate. However, it can cause great consternation to parents, especially when it looks like the child may harm himself, or if he is disrespecting the parents. Respect is a skill that needs to be learned, and can be taught as part of empowering a child’s free will to be positively expressed.
Oneness and Separateness
Every human being (adults as well as children) has two important and primary needs that deserve respect: 1) connection and 2) independence. In children, there is a natural arc of development that looks like the pulse of an ocean wave at the beach — a back-and-forth flow between the two extremes of completely connected and completely independent.
In the womb, a baby is 100 percent connected and dependent upon its mother for everything. Once born, it must stay very close to its mother (or primary caregiver) to feel safe. Independence, or being alone, at this stage would be dangerous. Most mammals, left alone outside the protection of family, face certain death.
As a baby grows and develops, she develops a need for independent action. This is most obvious at the crawling stage. She will crawl away from her mother (or caregiver), then turn around to check to see whether Mom is watching, still connected. The mother’s response informs the baby whether it’s safe to explore further. This bond is called Secure Attachment. The mother’s top priority is to keep her child safe and nourished, while also honoring the child’s need to explore the world on its own.
Some children seem to be designed for independence. They may crawl away without looking back, continuing to crawl until they are stopped — but this is an exception. Most children move away from the mother a short distance, then return, then move away, then return, over and over. Each foray into the world goes a little further away from the source of safety and nurturance. Trust of self and trust of the world are developed based on the messages the child receives from their primary caregivers (ideally, both parents). Parents can guide the child to experiment with their will in a safe way, empowering the child to trust their own instincts as they explore the world.
True independence occurs in small steps over a long period of time. By the walking toddler stage, the forays become longer still. Shy and insecure children stay close longer, often clinging to the parent. This can easily frustrate the parents, who feel overwhelmed by this level of attachment. Most parents know that too much clinging can delay the child’s ability to be self-managing.
A wise parent cares about and respects the child’s dual needs for BOTH independence AND connectedness. They will also respect their OWN need for independence and connection. Wise parents ensure that their own needs are fulfilled, independent from the child. They cultivate a life outside the home and childcare duties, while making sure the child is well cared for by someone they trust. The development of healthy independence is a back-and-forth dance. Every child is unique in his or her maturation pace. A parent’s role is to consciously and productively support the child’s growth and development in their experiments with personal will, as best they can.
The best container for a child’s healthy development maturation is Secure Attachment, which we have written about extensively. When a child feels secure, knowing that their parent has made their needs a high priority, the process of growth evolves naturally. Secure children become independent naturally. They know they can return to their parents for love and support whenever they need it. They don’t have to deal with insecurity as the core feeling in their lives, and they don’t have to rebel against domination or control. The road toward maturity is an easier walk with this kind of support.
The opposite condition is called Insecure Attachment. When one or both parents are absent, or indifferent to their child’s needs, or use domination and control to manage their child’s behavior, the child often feels more insecurity. This causes the child to construct a set of behavioral strategies in response to those uncomfortable feelings.
Our Response to Disempowerment
No one wants to feel disempowered. When someone uses their power to dominate or control us, there are four common responses to the situation: 1) withdrawal, 2) rebellion, 3) cooperation or 4) manipulation. When you feel disempowered by someone else, it’s likely you respond in one of these ways.
Children feel disempowered whenever their needs are not respected as equal to others. This includes those times when you’re being a “good parent” and telling them what to do or what not to do, what to wear, where to go or not go or how to act or not act. It’s our job to guide our young, and it matters how you do it.
Here is a critical key: If you honor and celebrate how your child is different, and the fact that they have their own needs, it’s more likely that he or she won’t rebel later in order to differentiate from you.
Whose Needs Are More Important?
Infants have no words to protest their parents’ insistence that they do what the parent feels is best. Nature gave us the ability to cry when we’re upset, or when our needs are not met. Infants (like adults) get upset when they don’t feel cared for — when they need a particular kind of attention to their needs, and they get something else instead.
Sometimes a child’s cry means, “I don’t like what you’re imposing on me.” Or, “I have different needs than you do.” Infants have preferences about what they want to eat, when they want to sleep and how they want to be touched.
Wise parents care about the impact of their actions on their baby. They observe the child’s ever-changing needs, and respond to them with flexibility: more connectedness in one moment, and more independence the next. A parent can learn to respect and honor the child’s will, even when the parents’ needs are different.
When a child is treated with respect for being a whole and complete human, they will grow up understanding that their needs do not always win out. They become flexible, learning to respect and adjust to others’ needs.
When a child who is engaged in some activity gets picked up suddenly and taken away from whatever they were focused on, he or she will often protest by crying or acting out. When the parent shows no sensitivity to the impact of their actions on the child, this protest is reasonable. You have needs, and so does your child. Just because you are the parent, your needs don’t always come first. If you consider your children’s needs as important as your own, your child will eventually learn that mutual respect for others’ needs is a vital element of healthy, loving relationships.
A wise parent may say, “I understand you don’t want to leave your play time right now. You’d rather stay. However, we do need to go, and since Mommy is leaving, you have to leave with me. It’s okay to be unhappy — I know it feels bad. And yet, here we go…” With this attitude of respect, even toddlers can learn to become more flexible. This is not always a choice under all circumstances with challenging time schedules or multiple children (and overwhelming responsibilities), but it is the ideal option to go for when the parent is able to do so.
When parents attempt to overrule the child’s will, with domination as the primary bonding pattern, the child is more likely to rebel against the control. The more a parent can honor the child’s independence and empower the child’s uniqueness, the less the child will need to rebel, and the more they can trust the goodness of their innate creative will.
Children are naturally self-absorbed. Growing up includes learning that others exist and that others’ needs are just as important. Over time, as parents learn to role model secure bonding behavior, a child will learn to self-manage their needs more and more.
If you see your child as worthy of your respect, this will serve you both well as your child grows into their teen years. It’s never to late to start! Even rebellious teens can respond well to respect for their independent nature, including the way each parent places limits or makes requests. Secure love practices are not just for infants. Teens thrive when they can be independent, and also have a secure home base when needed. This is what love is, and what love does.
To learn more about how early childhood patterns impact your relationships, take our Free LoveStyle Profile, which is designed for adult partners, but is directly relevant to the bonding patterns you have with your children.
BobPosted at 16:15h, 26 February
Thanks Lion. A wonderfully concise, useful and important article!
JenniferPosted at 17:24h, 26 February
Love this article Lion!
mark schillingerPosted at 01:48h, 27 February
I totally appreciate your approach to child rearing and how elegantly you can articulate it.
Liziane ManicaPosted at 21:01h, 24 December
Dear Lion, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and your family on this Christmas day here in Japan!
I most of all want to show my appreciation for all the amazing wisdom that you so generously share with all of us. I have found you through Lifebook and needless to say love everything you say and write. However, I have so much to learn, evolve and grow. I am trying to find the courage to burn bridges to force me to move, leave the comfort zone, start new experiences. 22 years here is not an easy thing. I haven’t been able to read everything you send as life gets in the way. A big thank you for everything!! Best wishes
Steve TennantPosted at 15:41h, 27 April
Great article, Lion!
Len RobinsonPosted at 16:27h, 09 November
Thank you for outlining how inadequately societies prepare age bearing people for their role as parents. The question becomes, how might this be supplanted with a proactive approach? One factor has been our so called education system where “teachers” have been telling students, “you are much smarter than your parents with this knowledge” which abandons the function of life skills. Another would be the desire of greed based and manipulative business to gain control over people, which is highly evident today.