When Strong-Willed Toddlers Become Teenagers

Do you have a tenacious toddler? I did too. The kind who wanted to push her own stroller and water the plants and feed the dog all by herself.

Some other signs your child may fit in the strong-willed category: she will say “I do” and “by myself” a lot. She will look at the outfit you’ve suggested, go to her drawer, and pick out something far more dramatic. She will fold her arms and stomp her foot. She will be overly fond of the words “why” and “no.”

I will not leave until the bucket is filled.
She will not leave until the bucket is filled. Really.

For many children, this is a phase. But for some of them, this strong-willed thing is forever. You may be a perfectly good parent but she has her own set of superpowers. Determination. Persistence. An unwavering spirit. The ability to wait people out or wear them down.

You will see this determination in everything she does.

She’ll furrow her little brow and keep trying those puzzle pieces until she finds a match. She will run and fall and get back up again. She will master and love running, especially when she is chasing the dog down the street after demonstrating what a good gate opener she is. (The dog will love this child.) She will love running so much that she really will not want to nap, so there’s that. The dog, meanwhile, will collapse exhausted. You will envy the dog as the battle of the nap commences.

Scheming with her partner in crime. She wore those boots everywhere.
Scheming with her partner in crime.

It’s hard sometimes, these face-offs with strong-willed children. You will see the docile child at the park who does exactly as she is told and think (as yours begins to fight leaving), “That looks easy.”

There’s a flip side though. That tenacious toddler, the one that keeps on chugging, no matter what? The one who won’t back down, who takes a stand from the minute she figures out she can? She’s got grit. And that’s a good thing.

Mine just turned fifteen and she’s still tenacious. For all of you with the toddler version, here’s have to look forward to.

Anna workout
Rocking her princess/flashdance workout attire.

She will continue to choose her own outfits and activities. She will also want to direct her siblings. They won’t always enjoy this.

The years will fly by and she will remain ever resolute. She will offer up strong opinions. She will learn to skate and ski the same way she learned to run: trying, falling, getting back up again. She will not stop until she’s succeeded.

When she wants new furniture and you put her off, she will sand and paint her dresser NOW. It will look great.

She will be fiercely loyal to her friends and she will call them out when there’s a problem; she will stand up for the wronged. She will march resolutely into a counselor’s office when there’s an issue at school.

She will do these things by herself.

She will become a teenager. She will want things and you will say “we’re not paying for that” so she’ll go find jobs — babysitting, refereeing soccer, assisting with a kids’ art class — and she will save and buy her own things with her own money. She will hold her ground when you try to steer her to activities. She will question the news, politicians, the way history is written and Oscar winners are selected. She will want explanations and solutions when she spots injustice.

You’ll be proud of her.

She will live in an older house that has its shares of mishaps. The week of her fifteenth birthday she will find her mother frantically catching the hot water heater’s leaking stream in dixie cups. She will roll her eyes and find a large bowl that makes far more sense than paper cups and help figure out what valve to shut off. She will pull soggy boxes out of the way and she will find the wet vac box and attempt to assemble it. She will tell her mother to stop swearing so much.

And then, when it’s under control, she will go upstair and make fudge, because she never has and she planned to make it tonight and nothing’s changing that. When it turns out kind of runny, she will call it fudge sauce and spoon it over ice cream and make bowls for everyone.

You will marvel at this child. And yes, you will also argue and butt heads because, well–teenagers. Strong-willed ones at that.

I know this much is true: I am grateful for my tenacious child every day. (NOTE: I’m also grateful for my husband, who will do an amazing job teaching her how to drive. Gulp. I’m not quite as tenacious as my girl.)

I’m trying though. It’s an unexpected delight of parenting: realizing that sometimes your kids are as much an example for you as you are for them. So take heart, parents of determined toddlers. They’ll do you proud. And you’ll get that nap someday.

mountains and Anna
I can’t wait to see what mountains she’ll climb next.


Author: Kristin O'Keefe

Kristin O’Keefe has bartended in Scotland, written speeches for college presidents, and led communications & marketing for an economic development organization. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney's, Barrelhouse, Your Teen, Grown and Flown, and Scary Mommy. Find her on Twitter @_KristinOKeefe and Facebook at Kristin O'Keefe, writer.

12 thoughts on “When Strong-Willed Toddlers Become Teenagers

  1. Grandpa Ron & Grandma Terry says:

    Awesome Kristin !! Well done !! Loved reading about our beautiful , smart, lovely, creative Granddaughter!! We too are excited to see what mountains she will climb next!! You and Emmett are wonderful parents and doing a great job being exceptional parents!! We are so proud!’

  2. Marico Sayoc says:

    Beautiful. I am just sorry I can’t see for myself what an awesome teenager she has become.

  3. mom says:

    What a lovely tribute to an equally lovely teenager. Makes me proud of you both.

  4. Molly Murphy O'Keefe says:

    Oooh how we love this girl! She’s got grit, wit and plenty of charm. We can’t wait to see her (and all of you) so we can celebrate our 15 year olds in high style!

    A beautifully written piece, for two beautiful O’Keefe girls.

    1. Kristin O'Keefe says:

      Thank you Molly, for both the kind words and visit– we can’t wait! You know how much my girl adores her aunts and cousins. We’ll celebrate in style.

  5. Brett says:

    What a lovely testament to strong-willed toddlers and the people they grow up to become. My own strong-willed toddler is now 10, but when he was younger I would share stories of his antics with my colleagues in the Pentagon. One woman in particular would tell me repeatedly that his iron-clad will would make him a great leader one day. I was too tired at the time to argue.

    When told he couldn’t give money to every homeless person we passed on the street, my son made a map with all the places homeless people could go to get services and handed it out. When my wife volunteers in his school, she marvels at how the other kids want my son to see what they are doing to get his stamp of approval.

    Here’s to the strong-willed toddler, and to the people who raise them! Thanks for the beautiful words and the memories they provoked.

    1. Kristin O'Keefe says:

      Thanks Brett. I’ve received several notes from other parents of tenacious toddlers–stories of exhaustion but also pride in these little people who have such firm senses of self and rightness. Yours are great examples that our strong-willed kids are indeed problem solvers and leaders; that they don’t shy away from the difficult (though they can get impatient when others don’t follow right away!). Let’s just hope they make good decisions about us in our old age, as I’m not sure how much say we’ll have 🙂

  6. Jenny Gaylin says:

    Glorious! Made me tear up. Aren’t we so lucky.


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