Parenting is one of those unique jobs that seem almost impossible to master while you’re doing them. There is no tried-and-true set of instructions, and the experience is different not only for every person who steps into the role, but also with each child, depending on their temperament and their needs. It’s possible to feel completely confident in your parenting ability with one child, and then like a complete amateur with the next. The good news is that those feelings are perfectly normal; parenting is an ongoing lesson in humility, patience, and perseverance.
Some children are more challenging to raise than others, but with the right perspective and understanding, you can parent strong-willed children with a grace and confidence that will benefit you both.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- Why are some children more difficult to parent?
- Characteristics of a challenging child
- Disciplining a challenging child
- How to stay calm as a parent
- When to seek professional help
Why are some children more difficult to parent?
You may feel a pang of guilt when wondering why parenting your child is so difficult, but the fact that your child is more challenging to raise is not an indictment of their character or your capability. Science has shown us that some children are inherently harder to raise. Harvard University psychologist James Kagan, Ph.D., has conducted research that indicated that infants with a more reactive temperament, meaning they were harder to soothe or were overstimulated by lights or noise, were more challenging to parent as adolescents than babies who had a calmer disposition.
Don’t despair as you gaze at your fussy newborn, though. The competing forces of nature and nurture are always at play; but good coping skills, consistent discipline, and positive parenting can certainly help shape behavior.
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Characteristics of a challenging child
A child’s behavior changes as they reach different developmental stages, face new challenges, or struggle to communicate their thoughts, feelings, concerns, or needs. The reasons some children are more challenging to raise than others involve temperament, developmental differences, mental health, and other variables. Children who may seem challenging often share some of the following characteristics:
- Reluctant or uncomfortable with new situations or changes
- Easily overstimulated
- Has difficulty with empathy
- Lacks patience
- Resistant to following rules or instructions
- Argumentative or opinionated
- Prone to tantrums
- Demanding or controlling personality
It can help to work on recognizing the potential benefits of these characteristics when possible. Although they can be frustrating to deal with as a parent, with appropriate guidance, many of these so-called difficult traits can help transform your child into an independent, empowered person. For example, many people who are resistant to following rules or instructions are also amazingly creative.
Disciplining a challenging child
Discipline can be difficult with a challenging child, due to the fine balance between the need to reshape their behavior and the importance of protecting their self-esteem. No child should feel that they are “difficult” — they should feel loved, supported, and encouraged to succeed.
Try to remember that your child’s behavior is usually not a calculated effort to give you a hard time; it’s usually a reactive response to a dysregulating trigger, or an inability to communicate effectively. That being said, discipline and consistency are essential for both parent and child. A few discipline strategies to consider:
Watch for triggers
Do your best to avoid situations that are likely to lead to a meltdown. Make sure your child isn’t overly tired or hungry, is appropriately dressed for the temperature, and is fully aware of the expectations for an event or outing. If you sense growing impatience or discomfort in your child, try to distract them with a change of scenery or by offering a snack or drink. Situational awareness can be a parent’s best friend when it comes to avoiding meltdowns.
Communication is key to any good relationship, and it can help prevent some challenging behaviors. Make sure your child understands the rules, and keep them in the loop when it comes to schedule changes or specific expectations for an outing. Don’t forget that listening is an important part of communication — many meltdowns stem from the frustration of feeling unheard. Acknowledge that you understand how they are feeling and what you are willing to do to help. It can also be helpful to offer choices. If “Let’s clean your room.” is likely to turn into a battle, instead try asking your child if they’d like to pick up their books first or pick up their toys first.
Choose your battles
Unfortunately, some children enjoy conflict or are motivated by their ability to instigate an emotional reaction. Redirect undesirable behavior when possible, and make an effort to temper your own body language or noise level. Behavior that is dangerous or mean should be non-negotiable and worthy of a time-out or other consequence, but a simple reminder may suffice for other undesirable behaviors. Avoid needless power struggles, and save your energy for the truly unacceptable issues.
Make the connection between cause and effect more clear, with consistent and reasonable punishments. Although consequences may vary depending on the severity of a situation, a child should be able to have a general idea of what to expect from caregivers as a result of misbehaving, whether that’s a time-out or a loss of privileges. Make a point of praising and rewarding desirable behavior as often as possible.
How to stay calm as a parent
Although it’s important to manage the moods and behavior of your challenging child, it’s absolutely essential to take care of yourself as well. Feeling worn out or frazzled can lead to a lack of patience and an impulsive response or reaction.
The advice to prioritize self-care can seem as helpful as unicorn riding lessons when you’re an overburdened parent, but self-care doesn’t have to involve weekend vacations or spa days, or other impractical indulgences. Take a bath, listen to a podcast, or commit to some deep breaths with a 5-minute guided meditation via YouTube or a mindfulness app each day. Have something to look forward to, a pleasure that is uniquely yours, and create a routine around that even on days when it’s challenging to carve out the time or energy to do so.
When to seek professional help
Children go through so many different behavioral stages that it can be hard to know whether a behavior is developmentally appropriate or is a sign of a bigger issue. Some behavior may be indicative of ADHD, autism, oppositional defiant disorder, or other diagnoses that benefit from early intervention. If you have doubts or aren’t sure how to handle your challenging child, don’t hesitate to ask your pediatrician and your child’s teacher or daycare provider for their insight or advice. Sometimes an objective opinion can provide a helpful perspective.