Parenting with a PhD: Disciplining a Spirited Child

Parent Question: When you have an older child who is pretty independent and high-spirited, how do you discipline her and get her to bend without breaking that spirit and independence?

Parenting with a PhD Response: “Bending without breaking” is a great way to describe the challenge you face. On the one hand, you want to raise a child who knows she has a voice and isn’t afraid to use it. On the other ha

nd, Little Miss Independent can’t think she’s running things or the entire household is in for trouble. Here are some techniques you can try to nurture her spirit while still keeping her behavior in check.

  • Pick Your Battles. I don’t love this analogy because it implies that you and your daughter are at war – you’re not. But, it is helpful for remembering that you don’t have to attack every single issue that arises. There will be times where you let your child find for herself that something wasn’t a good idea like going outside in 25 degree weather without a coat. Other times, you could make a simple suggestion like, “You might want to leave your new book in the car so it doesn’t get lost at the zoo,” and leave it at that. This method will be most effective if you let your daughter experience the natural consequences that follow her decisions and don’t rush to fix the problem. Yes, she might be cold but it’s not going to kill her. This technique works especially well with older, independent children because it demonstrates for them the impact thei r choices have on themselves and others. In turn, this knowledge leads to a better understanding of when they can handle things and when they need to seek help. In addition, letting your daughter experience natural consequences instead of imposing them (i.e., punishment) makes it less likely that she will blame you or others when things go badly, which is a bonus for your relationship with her. A warning: if you choose this approach, you need to make sure ahead of time that the potential consequence (e.g., losing the book) is acceptable to you. If not, you’ll have to…
  • Take Command. There are times when a specific direction will be necessary but this can be accomplished in a way that shows respect for your daughter’s feelings and opinions. State commands positively by telling her what to do instead of what not to do. Older, independent children are more likely to feel like a willing partici pant, which leads to better compliance, when they are first given a reason for the command. Explaining beforehand makes it less likely that she will forget what you asked her to do and more probable that she’ll want to cooperate. Play to her desire to help and express her opinion when you give the explanation. Consider something like this, “It’s almost time for dinner and I can’t decide which side dish we should have. Please come inside and help me make the best choice.” You’re asking her to stop playing and come in the house, which she won’t want to do, but you’re giving her good reason to do it and sh owing her that you value her opinion.
  • Cede Power. As your child becomes older and more independent, it’s natural that she will want to start making more of her own decisions. Although it means giving up some control, allowing your child some of her own choices now will better prepare her for transitioning to adolescence and adulthood. This is the best time for her to mak e mistakes because she has you as a safety net. Consider offering her a limited number of choices in non-crucial situations and make it clear that any alternative is acceptable. From simple choices like what to wear to more complex decisions like how to handle a problem with a friend, provide guidance when she asks but avoid I-told-you-so’s when a choice doesn’t go as p lanned. Do use situations that end badly as a chance to review and regroup to help your daughter make a better decision next time.
  • Teach Defensive Strategies. Parents hate to hear this but there is a time and place f or complaining. Teach your daughter how to defend herself when she thinks a rule or consequence is unfair. Talk about situations when expressing displeasure would be appropriate vs. inappropriate. Discuss the right timing and tone of voice she should use. For example, it might be o.k. for your daughter to complain about having to go out to eat someplace she hates; ho wever, she needs to do so calmly and in the car, not at the top of her lungs inside the restaurant. Consider using the 3 F’s Formula: Fact, Feeling, and Fair Request. She should first state a fact: “We’ve been to this restaurant every Friday for a month.” Then, tell her feeling: “I’m frustrated that we’re eating there again but we haven’t gone to my favorite restaurant in a long time.” Last comes the fair request asking for what she’d like you to do differently: “Can we go where I want to go instead?” When your daughter has learned and practiced this technique, give her gentle reminders to use it when she ha s a complaint. Reinforce her efforts to complain appropriately, even when they don’t go perfectly. Try to give validation to the feelings she’s having even if you can’t agree to the fair request. Try something like, “I can see that you’re upset and I’m sorry about that. Your favorite restaurant is too expensive for a regular Friday night. Let’s decide on a place that’s more affordable and that everyone likes.”

It’s clear from your question that you’re committed to raising a daughter who both feels respected and shows respect, which will serve your relationship well when she makes most of her decisions far from your watchful eye. By giving her leeway to make some of her own choices – good or bad – and then discussing the outcomes with her afterwards, you are preparing her to stand up to peer pressure, think ahead to the consequences of her behavior, and place high value on her opinions and talents. It’s not as simple an approach as requiring her to comply without questioning but is likely to have much b

etter results, both for her well-being and for your relationship with her.

About this column: Send your parenting- and kid-related questions my way via email at: and I’ll tell you what I can: Please be aware that email is not a secure method of transmitting personal information so it’s best to keep your questions general. If your question is featured, your name and email will not be published. Su

bmitting a question does not constitute a professional relationship in any way and this column is not meant to substitute for face-to-face therapy. If you feel  you’re doing the best you can and still need help, it may be time to bring in a professional. Start by talking with your child’s pediatrician to get a referral.

Kristen S. Berthiaume, Ph.D.

Licensed Psychologist

Kristen Berthiaume is a clinical psychologist with Grayson and Associates.  She obtained her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Kentucky. She completed a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a post- doctoral fellowship in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) Program at Duke University Medical Center.

She specializes in providing assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families dealing with the following issues:
learning disorders

social skill deficits
organizational problems
behavioral difficulties

She generally focuses on behavioral and cognitive- behavioral techniques, but maintains a flexible approach to therapy. Her other day job is as mom to her four-year-old daughter and 20-month-old son.

2 thoughts on “Parenting with a PhD: Disciplining a Spirited Child

  1. Great information Kristen! I have an almost 5-year-old daughter who we have always reffered to as “spirited!” I love that she is so independant, except when she wants to be the boss-which lately seems to be always! These are some great tips that I’m definitely going to try and implement.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *