Dealing with a “difficult” child can leave you feeling isolated and miserable, but there is good news: what you view as difficult behavior and as a weakness today can be a strength that will ensure your child’s success and happiness in the future.
The bad news is that helping your child transform “weaknesses” into “strengths” often requires hard work and involves a fair amount of despair and occasional feelings of hopelessness.
This article will look at:
- The possible causes behind your child’s difficult behavior
- How to connect with “difficult children”
- How to discipline a “difficult child”
Dealing with a “strong-willed” or “challenging” kid is hard for any parent. You know the kind of kid I’m talking about – the kid:
- Who screams for hours over the slightest thing
- Who is overly fussy
- Who lies
- Who’s mean
- Who throws things
- Who never keeps still
- Who makes you feel like you’re walking on eggshells all the time
- Who hits and bites
- Who’ll argue about everything
- Whose tantrums are never far off
- Whose teachers are always sending you messages because they are impossible to manage in class
- Who’s extremely high-need and makes you feel that their needs come before any one else’s in the family
“Difficult” children drain your energy and leave you wondering how you’ll get through each day.
It is important to understand that your child is not the way they are because of something you’ve done. In other words, their behavior is not your fault. That’s why despite parenting all your kids the same, it is not uncommon to have an “easy kid” followed by an extremely challenging one.
Your child acts in a certain way because of their personality, not because of what you do.
If you have several kids, you’ve probably already noticed minor or major differences in their personality. One of your kids might be the “attention seeker” who thrives on being watched, and the other one may be a “silent observer” who is attentive to everything and everyone around them.
Like everyone else, children’s temperament affects their behavior, right from the toddler years. In other words, some children are more challenging than others; that’s just the way it is.
In this post, you’ll learn everything that you need to know to make parenting a “difficult” child a bit easier.
Characteristics of “difficult” children
If you have a “spirited” child, you are not alone. Many parents struggle with their children’s behavior and even when some appear to have “easy children”, they may struggle with some components of their child’s behavior.
For instance, a child who often appears calm and controlled in public may be over-sensitive at home, and many parents may find that behavior difficult to deal with.
Different parents struggle with different behaviors. That said, spirited children often share several common characteristics:
1) Demanding – These children are more demanding than other children. This may be because they require more attention with discipline issues, because they are emotionally demanding, or because their behavior (arguing, wanting their needs met immediately, stubborn) requires intensive parenting.
2) Intense – A “difficult” child lives everything intensely – they have intense tantrums, play intensely and utterly, and privilege intense relationships. They behave like their needs matter more than others’ needs and protest if they feel that those needs are not being met.
3) Restless – Restlessness is a common characteristic among these children. They always have to be doing something or to need something more to relax. These kids are often busy.
4) Difficult to please – These children often appear difficult to please and can make you feel like whatever you do is never enough. Dealing with them can be frustrating because it can make you feel like you are failing as a parent.
5) Unpredictable – It can be difficult to parent a strong-willed child because it is not always easy to determine how they will behave. Also, something that worked with them yesterday might fail today, meaning that you have to constantly rethink your parenting strategy.
6) Over-sensitive – Some children are over-sensitive, meaning that you feel like you always have to mind what you say or do to avoid emotional outbursts. These children can be extremely happy one minute and in tears the next, putting you on an emotional roller coaster that leaves you feeling worn out.
The easiest way to deal with your child’s difficult behavior is to focus on the triggers behind that behavior. We now know that certain factors affect children’s behavior and that reducing their impact can improve your child’s behavior.
Here are a few things that can make your child’s behavior worse.
8 things that make your spirited child’s behavior worse
1) Insufficient or poor sleep: Ensuring that your child is getting as much rest as they need can reduce negative behavior.
2) Absence of a routine: Knowing exactly what is expected of them can help improve their behavior.
3) Fatigue has a negative impact on everyone, big or small. There are higher chances that a tired child will act out more often and more intensely.
4) Have you heard about the “hangry” child? That’s the child who has meltdowns when they are hungry. Ensuring regular mealtimes can help reduce your child’s negative behavior.
5) Difficulty dealing with big emotions: A child who is yet to learn to express their emotions in a socially appropriate manner is likely to act out when they are in emotion-provoking situations.
6) Insufficient exercise can make your child’s behavior worse. Ensure that they are getting enough time to get out and play as often as possible.
7) Overstimulation has a negative impact on many children’s behavior. This means that it is important to avoid too many activities, too much noise or too many lights.
8) Nutrition: limiting diets high in sugar or artificial dyes can help with a “difficult” child’s behavior. Allergies can also affect how you child behaves.
Here are several posts with more information about the factors that influence your child’s behavior
Parenting a “difficult” child: Why you need to change how you view your child’s behavior
Parenting a “difficult” child is tough and can be both frustrating and demanding. But although the qualities portrayed by spirited children are hard to deal with in the childhood years, they are the exact same qualities that are used to describe happy and successful adults:
- A stubborn child can grow into a determined adult who will tirelessly work toward their goals
- Your over-sensitive son can become a loving adult who things about how their behavior will affect others before he takes action.
- Your intense daughter can become a creative who will pour herself into producing amazing content
The trick to parenting a “difficult” child is to help them understand that their needs are valid, but that others’ needs are valid too. It is important to help them develop their personality while keeping in mind that their behavior affects other people.
For example, an attention-seeker can be taught to stop relying on external validation or to learn about the difference between being a good friend and being a controlling one.
Parenting a “difficult” child therefore means finding a balance between helping your child thrive in spite of, and because of, their personality, and ensuring that they find their rightful place within your family.
Here are a few tips to help.
7 effective ways to handle your strong-willed child
1) Stop referring to your child as a “difficult child”
Although I have used the words “difficult child” throughout this article, labeling your child instead of their behavior influences how you view them and how you react to their behavior. It is not your child who is difficult, it is their behavior that is.
Labeling your child can make their behavior permanent because it can lead them to believe that that behavior is innate and therefore something that cannot be changed. When you focus on the behavior and differentiate it from your child, you show them that they can change that behavior.
Focusing on your child’s behavior will also makes it easier for you to understand the steps you need to take to change it.
2) Stop excusing your child’s difficult behavior
Psychologists use the term “family accommodation” to refer to all behaviors that a family does to avoid situations that may trigger anxiety in a family member struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Although the case may be different here, “accommodating” your child’s difficult behavior by treating them as “different” or “requiring particular attention” leads to entitlement, fractures families, and makes their behavior worse.
It is important to be clear about the specific behavior that you will not tolerate and to set limits that work. There also need to be appropriate consequences when those limits are not respected.
3) Find out what triggers your child’s behavior
The easiest way to deal with difficult behavior in your child is to find out the reasons behind that behavior.
Some children have a really hard time with transitions, others thrive on routines and become destabilized as soon as those routines change, and others need considerable reassurance to feel safe.
Knowing what triggers your child’s difficult behavior will make it easier to act before things get out of control.
- talking about transitions before they happen and letting your child ask as many questions as possible can make it easier for them to accept change;
- setting up a routine for a child who thrives on stability can help reduce difficult behavior
- talking to your anxious child about anxiety provoking situations and helping them put their anxiety into words can give them the reassurance they crave
Focusing on what could be driving your child’s behavior is the easiest way to respond to it appropriately.
4) Turn your child’s “weaknesses” into “strengths”
Choosing to see our son as “someone who knows his mind” instead of “someone argumentative” changed how we viewed him and how we viewed his behavior.
Your child’s weaknesses are often also strengths, and choosing to see them as such can change how you react to that behavior.
But that does not mean accepting disrespect or bad behavior. It simply means transforming what you view as weaknesses into strengths. For example:
- An “outspoken” child can learn to always express their opinion, but without hurting others
- A “stubborn” child can learn to work persistently toward their dreams, while taking other’s viewpoints into account
- A “hyperactive” child can learn to channel their energy into creative work
- A “bossy” child can learn to become a good leader who listens to others’ opinions but chooses their own path
- An “over-sensitive” child can become an empathetic and loving person who also knows how to express their feelings
Instead of resenting your child’s “weaknesses”, help them turn those weaknesses into strengths
5) Find the right discipline strategy to deal with your child’s behavior
If you have a child with difficult behavior, you know by now that discipline strategies that work today may not work tomorrow. That is why it is important to arm yourself with different positive discipline techniques that you can apply to different situations.
There is no such thing as the “best discipline strategy” – actually there is: whatever feels right for you and your family is the best discipline strategy that you can choose. That said, it is important to learn about different effective strategies and to apply those to your family context.
Resources such as The Discipline Bundle can walk you through different positive discipline strategies and help you adapt them to your family’s needs.
6) Take care of yourself
If you are dealing with a child with difficult behavior, self-care is a necessity, not a luxury. When you’re stressed, angry and in despair, you are more likely to yell or react to your child’s behavior in ways that you might later regret.
Taking care of others begins with taking care of yourself. Find time each day – even 10 minutes a day – to do something just for you: read, take a walk, call a friend, work out…
7) Get help
If you are feeling overwhelmed with your child’s difficult behavior, get help! That may mean talking to a friend about it, talking to your family physician, talking to your family, seeing a psychologist or even taking a course to learn how to better deal with that behavior.
If you yell too often or too frequently, some courses can help you learn to communicate better to get the behavior you want. There are also courses to help if you are struggling with your child’s explosive anger.
Connecting with a “difficult child”
Many research studies have found that connection can radically change your child’s difficult behavior. They say that feelings of disconnection can be the reason behind specific inappropriate behavior.
If you are struggling with your child’s behavior, creating opportunities to connect can radically change that behavior. Set aside at least 10 minutes a day to do something together – read, walk, play a videogame, prepare dinner, and so on.
Here is a free 30-day challenge with simple activities to help you connect with your child.
Dealing with a “difficult child” is draining and can make you doubt yourself. But remember that what you view as difficulties today can be strengths tomorrow – keep experimenting with different strategies to help your child transform those “weaknesses” into strengths
References and further reading