A different perspective on dealing with "difficult" kids

Oct 09, 2023

Are you raising a “difficult”  or an “easy” child?  As parents, we tend to put our kids into one bucket or another based on how easy or difficult they are for us to parent.  If they listen well, are flexible, and go with the flow, then we label them as “easy”.  But if they are more opinionated about what they want and don’t bend easily to how others think they should be acting, then we can label them as “difficult”.  

Raising “difficult” children can cause extra stress for parents, marriages, families, and siblings.  I know because I grew up in a family with a “difficult” child.  I remember being mad at how family outings would be ruined and plans changed because of my sibling.  I remember being angry with my parents, thinking they just catered to my sibling, walking on eggshells so as not to rock the boat.

As a parent and a coach, I can see a lifetime of ramifications this situation can have for both the child and the family, so it’s a topic I bring up often to help parents better understand what is going on with their “difficult” kids.

First, I always encourage parents to lose the label “difficult”.  When we think our kids are being difficult, we can dig in our heels as parents and end up at odds with our kids — or we can find ourselves accommodating our child because it’s easier than the drama.  Either isn’t good for you, your family, or your child.

I help parents understand that children’s brains are still under construction when they are young.  What this means is that most times — when children aren’t behaving as we would expect them to — it’s not by choice.  It’s just that their brains literally have not fully developed that skill yet, and different kids develop at different rates.

Given this information, I invite you to consider that your child’s behavior is a form of communication and an indication of their skill levels:  
Their ability to tolerate and appropriately communicate their frustration is a skill.  
Their ability to self-soothe when they are anxious or upset is a skill.  
Their ability to be flexible when they don’t get their way or there is a change in plans is a skill.  Their ability to focus and manage time is a skill.  
Their ability to consider how their behavior will affect others and the consequences of their actions is a skill.  

So when your child throws a fit because you didn’t make what they wanted for breakfast, consider that they haven’t learned how to communicate frustration yet. When they meltdown at drop-off for a new daycare or classroom, they haven’t learned to self-soothe when they are anxious yet. When they get angry that you aren’t taking them to the park because you have an emergency work call that you need to take, they might not have learned how to be flexible or tolerate frustration yet.  When they are consistently late getting ready for school in the morning they may not have learned how to focus or manage time yet.

When our children haven’t developed these skills, they struggle, they get frustrated, and they act out.  When our kids act out, we can also struggle and get frustrated — the problem is that when we are frustrated, we can’t parent calmly and effectively.  

As a parent, you can’t help your child manage their own emotions if you don’t know how to manage your own.

Most kids inherently want to behave and do well — they want to earn our approval and praise.  Imagine how frustrating it must be to want to behave a certain way, and not be able to.  Looking back, I now know that it wasn’t that my sibling was choosing to be “difficult”.  My sibling was struggling and it was a struggle that had ramifications that went on for a number of years.

So now when I first start working with parents who have a “difficult” child, I start by helping them understand how a child’s brain develops.  Just understanding that your child isn’t choosing their behavior, but that they may not have developed those skills yet, can help to lower your frustration.

You can have a great parenting toolbox of tools and strategies to use in challenging parenting situations, but they won’t be effective unless you manage your own frustration and stay more neutral about your child’s behavior so YOU can be effective.  

I will be sharing my Parent From Neutral concept and tools in Boxford on October 19th.  Learn how to take frustration and stress out of your parenting process so you can be more effective and teach these tools to your kids. This workshop is free and open to the public.  You can learn more and sign up here.

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