• Gianna De Salvo

My experience of parenting a strong-willed only child

Updated: Nov 17, 2020

Most people I know with more than one child assume I have it easy having only one. Only one mouth to feed, one body to dress, one extra suitcase to pack. But the reality is that on most days, parenting a strong-willed, sensitive child leaves me feeling completely exhausted, both mentally and physically. I ride the roller-coaster of her big emotions daily and her energy levels are through the roof.

At four, developmentally my daughter is fine; in fact she hit every milestone early, scored a perfect score in her 2 year check-up and is generally quite bright. Socially she is the life of the party and will play with any child, anytime, although she is happiest when she's in control of the play. And emotionally, she is learning more about how to calm herself with my help, but it's still a work in progress.

Energy. We knew before she was born that she'd be high energy. When I went for my 20 week scan, they couldn't check her heart because she was moving around  too much. In fact, I had to go back two more times to get the results for this reason. As a baby, her legs moved non-stop when she was sitting and when she started to walk, there was no stopping her. From when she wakes up to when she finally settles down to sleep (which can be a challenge) she is constantly moving. Her favourite thing to do is to jump - on beds or couches or even in place - and when she talks she does so by walking quickly around in a circle.

Big emotions. When my daughter is happy, it is very obvious. She beams, squeals with delight and can't contain her excitement. On the other hand, when she's unhappy, she screams and wails so loudly we do wonder what the neighbours think. As a toddler, we were reluctant to take her to out too much for fear of another long, deep tantrum. I recall one Mother's Day outing when she was 2 where we had to leave mid-meal because there was nothing we could do to stop her from screaming at the top of her lungs. She feels very deeply and for perhaps longer periods than other children. At 4 she still has explosive tantrums, especially at transition times when we are moving from one activity to another. This means I often need to plan the day ahead of time; make her aware of what we are doing verbally and visually; and rely on timers to ensure ample notice is given to her before certain activities need to be stopped.

Sensitivities. My daughter can't wear certain clothes, including jeans, because they feel too 'itchy' on her skin. She gets very upset if the seams in her socks aren't lined up where they should be. We once had to take her home early from a friend's daughter's birthday party because she wouldn't stop crying due to the noise, which she is very sensitive to. She also is sensitive to smells which can put her off certain foods or places (like perfume shops). Emotionally, she can easily pick up on other people's feelings (happy or sad) which can also have a big impact on her mood.

Intensity. My daughter's intensity levels are as high her energy levels. She talks and laughs loudly, she is forever singing or talking, and when she sets her mind to do something she throws her whole self into it. She is very passionate and creative and seems to have a constant need for stimulation and challenge. When something doesn't work out how she expects it to she has very little patience and gets frustrated easily.

Perceptiveness. My daughter notices so much it amazes me. If one thing in her room is moved, she will mention it, no matter how small the item. There are so many times where I think she's not listening, but days later she will recall word for word what was said at the time, even if the conversation didn't involve her. Her memory is incredible and she can recall far more than I ever could. This means that I need to be careful what I say around her, be sure to follow through on my promises and speak to her before we make major changes to our plans or around the house so she doesn't get too upset with the changes.

Independence. It's developmentally normal for children to want to exert their independence early on, but my daughter is so fiercely independent that getting her to accept assistance, even when she's struggling, is a real challenge. She once told me at the age of 2.5 that she could look after herself and when I explained to her she wasn't old enough to do so got upset for hours. The same thing happened when I explained she was too young to drive the car. She is like a 40 year old in a 4 year old's body. She is, of course, encouraged to be independent and take some risks, but vigilance is needed to ensure her safety.

I fully accept my daughter for who she is and am now unapologetic to others when she expresses herself in public. I have been able to use my tools as a therapist and parent coach to support her and her big feelings and intensities. It does take a lot of work, however. I need to prioritise my time for self care or risk getting too emotionally triggered by her big feelings and behaviours. I also still end up pretty exhausted most evenings as her attention and play bucket never seem to get fully filled up. But I know that with the right encouragement and guidance, she can grow up to be a strong and emotionally intelligent woman. She is certainly teaching me how to be more so.

If your child falls into any of these categories, rest assured you are not alone. Latest statistics have shown that a bit over 40% of children are considered strong-willed and/or sensitive. While it takes more work to parent these types of children, in the long run, when your child is ruling the word (hopefully with compassion and emotional intelligence) your efforts will pay off.


Gianna De Salvo is a Cognitive Therapist, Parent Coach and mum to a strong-willed, sensitive only child. She is the author of the book You Can Choose to Be Joyful. She helps parents to move from fear and self-doubt in parenting to be more confident and connected with their children. She adopts a Conscious and Peaceful parenting approach and works with parents individually and in groups. She runs a private Facebook Group - Raising Your Strong Willed Only Child and her website is www.joyfulparentcoaching.com.

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