Parenting the Challenging Child in the “Noughties” by Bridget Wren

 “Temperament is indicated by behaviour that clusters into three categories: easy, slow to warm up, and difficult.  No category makes a child good or bad.  They merely describe s child’s response patterns.”   

[Strategies for Parenting Children with Difficult Temperament. Karen Stephens.]

Most parents are loving and have the best intentions. Some days are good, some days are amazing, and some days are simply dreadful!  I imagine that every parent feels overwhelmed at some point/s along the parenting way, and that’s okay!  The old saying, “Children are not born with manuals” remains true.  We do the best we can with the information we have at any given time.  We succeed and we also we fall, but we get up again and learn from our mistakes…..well, most of the time!

What is your child’s response pattern?  Are you finding it challenging to be a parent?  Most parents do at some point in their parenting journeys.  However, there are some parents who face bigger challenges because of the “difficult temperaments” of their children.  Some children are challenging because of underlying factors such as mental health issues caused possibly by chemical imbalances, minimal brain dysfunction, having neuro-diverse brains, abuse, divorce etc., and these children and parents need assistance and intervention from relevant health practitioners, and such intervention is vital.

My aim in writing this article is to remind parents of challenging children, who do not necessarily fit into the above-mentioned categories, of a few fundamental principles to help them in their parenting journeys.  These are based on my own experience as a mother, NILD Educational Therapist and as a teacher.  This is not an exhaustive list, but my priority list of four parenting fundamentals which can potentially help all parents.  

The challenging child is very similar to other children, for the most part behaving similarly, with only about a 10% difference in behaviour; however, those who work with or parent a challenging child agree that the 10% difference in behaviour is very stressful and extremely trying.  It keeps their lives in turmoil.

Whilst it is true that all children can be challenging, the difference is in the intensity and frequency. The challenging child may challenge the parent’s authority daily or even hourly, whilst the compliant child may only display these behaviours on occasion.

1. Establish clear rules with consequences.

When laying down rules, make sure that you are calm and not mid-battle! You don’t want your child to associate your anger with the rules and oppose them.  Know that your child will probably be unhappy with whatever suggestions are made at the “family meeting” for setting rules, or for problem-solving. You can include your child in some rule-setting; however, the goal is not unanimity.   What is crucial, though, is that both parents must agree and support each other in enforcing the rule/s.

Rules need to be clear because challenging children often don’t read cues; they don’t necessarily pick up on the cues given by those around them that their behaviour is getting out of hand.  On the contrary, they are usually very surprised by the reaction of others to their behaviour.  Who me? Couldn’t be!

The more challenging, the more consistency is needed!

Consistency in rule-enforcement is aided by clear rule-setting.  This helps parents to enforce the rules, regardless of their own mood – tired, upset, angry or happy.  Inconsistent rule-enforcement reinforces the notion that consequences to a child’s actions are dependent upon the parent’s mood, rather than his/her own behaviour.  (Remember that using anger to set/enforce rules destroys the relationship). Most children “test” inconsistently enforced rules in the hope that there will be no consequences, and this is even more true of the challenging child.  The result?  Exhausted parents who subsequently expend more time and energy trying to enforce rules that those parents who are consistent in their enforcement, don’t need to do.

The challenging child wants control.

Avoid control battles.   This is a strength for the challenging child – he/she wants to be in a control battle!  Tell your child what you are going to do, not what he/she must do.  For example, rather than saying, “Hurry up and get dressed because I need to get to the shops,” say, “I am leaving for the shops in 10 minutes.  If you are dressed you can join me, or else stay at home with Dad.”  Then LEAVE the child with Dad.  Mean what you say and say what you mean.

Another good way to deal with control-battles is to give choices.  “You can either empty the rubbish after lunch, or when your homework is finished.”  You give the choices.  This is not the time for negotiation.  Giving little choices to your child helps him/her to have a sense of control that is manageable. Encourage self-discipline. Teach your child how to calm him/herself down.  Encourage responsibility.  Children NEED to do chores.

Boundaries! Clear rules and consequences help the child to feel safe and to have a sense of control because life is therefore predictable.  

Beware of giving a million warnings because you are too “peace-loving” or afraid of a temper-tantrum.  A temper-tantrum is often the result of a child not getting his/her own way.  Multiple warnings also train children not to listen the first time you speak.

(Please note, I am not referring to melt-downs because of anxiety, sensory overload etc.  These may need to be addressed differently).

When we give into temper-tantrums, we send the message that they work.

The challenge facing divorced/separated parents is to try and remain consistent in rule-setting and consequences, by being on the same page, because, so often many divorced/separated parents use their children as “pawns” because of anger, guilt, hurt etc.  Remember that “hurt people hurt people” and the ones getting hurt the most, are the children.

Parents:  turn towards each other, not against each other!

2. Love unconditionally

How often do we withdraw our love from our children (or spouses) to manipulate their behaviour?  This might work for a while, but it is counter-productive.  Be aware of guilt trips as well. This is manipulation.

Conditional/inconsistent love negatively impacts self-worth.  The child is left with the feeling that he/she is never going to be good enough, so why bother?

Conditional love encourages manipulation. It is a very good “tool” for teaching a child to become manipulative him/herself.  It mostly creates insecure children who perform for approval which could impact them for the rest of their lives.

Think about peer pressure.  The children of the “noughties” are facing immense pressures.  Yes, sex, drugs and Rock ‘n Roll have been around forever, but the intensity and scope of the pressures facing our children today far outweigh anything my parents or grandparents faced, that’s for sure.  And the scary thing about this all is that the children are being pressured are far younger than ever before.  Insecure children and teenagers are therefore ill equipped to deal with peer pressure.  Imagine your daughter at 13 wanting to please her boyfriend – to perform for his approval?

Some challenging children are so strong-willed that it appears that they couldn’t care less about pleasing their parents, so withdrawing love doesn’t work anyway.

If your child is difficult, rather spend more time trying to fathom out how to love him/her just the way he/she is, rather than trying to change him/her into being more loveable.  Sadly, our children so often need love the most when we really don’t feel like giving it because we are angry, disappointed etc.

3. Treat your child with respect

How often do you meet adult “strangers” and you introduce yourself and your spouse to them, and not include introducing your young children as well?  I remember when my girls were little, having a friend that would always introduce her young children, by name, to new people she met.  That small act of respect towards her children impacted my life all those years ago.

In today’s world, our cell phones are being used to model disrespect to our children. How disrespectful is it to keep looking at your phone when your child is trying to talk to you?  What message are you sending and modelling?

Challenging children can be extremely disrespectful and the way you deal with that behaviour is important.  Realistically, it is difficult to respond to someone respectfully when he/she is being disrespectful; sadly, even more so with our own children and families. Challenging children know exactly which buttons to press!  The problem is that challenging children are usually very sensitive and easily hurt, and the more hurt they feel, the more they will fight back.  The result?  A vicious cycle.

Validate your child’s emotions.  They are real.  They ARE a big deal. Correct his/her behaviour, not the emotions.  For example, “I know you are feeling angry and I can understand why you feel angry.” Explain why the response to the emotions (behaviour) was inappropriate and then let your child face the consequences.

4. Take care of yourself 

Challenging children are exhausting. There are some good words of wisdom that still hold true today:

  • You cannot give from an empty vessel.
  • Children need to understand their place in the family.  Dad and Mom need time alone; they need date nights.
  • The best gift a dad can give his children, is to love their mother, overtly.
  • The best gift a mom can give her children is to respect their father, overtly.
  • Forgive yourself!

Take care of yourself both on the inside AND the outside!