s long as there have been children, there have been difficult children. These young people have been called various names over various decades: difficult, challenging, highly sensitive, spirited. Some have received professional diagnoses such as ADHD, bipolar, oppositional defiant disorder, autistic spectrum, and anxious. 

Whatever the categorization, parents often find themselves in over their heads with this kind of youngster. Their normally adequate parenting skills just don’t work; their nerves are frayed, their patience depleted. They don’t know how to protect the child, his siblings, or themselves from the fallout of his or her behavior.


“A Nightmare in Motion”

“Our nine-year-old Racheli is, to put it mildly, a nightmare in motion. She argues nonstop. She’s negative in general but especially when asked to do something or to try something new. She’s extremely strong-willed. She cries at the drop of a hat because everything bothers her and she’s so sensitive. 

But when it comes to others, she mows over them without even thinking about their feelings. She’s constantly teasing the younger ones, bullying even the older ones, and bothering everyone. No one can relax unless she isn’t home. As her mother, I feel terribly guilty for also feeling that way.”

The child herself cannot help her condition; she is the product of genes and learning. Free will — the ability to choose to harness her impulses — will kick in eventually, but even adults find it excruciatingly difficult to curb their adrenalin-fueled behaviors. 

For now, the parents have to help the child establish some modicum of self-control and socially appropriate behavior. But how?


Strategies that Might Help

There’s no magic way to turn a difficult child into an easy one. Keep your goals modest. Aim to help your child calm down after an upset within ten minutes rather than an hour, or to teach him to express frustration by speaking instead of throwing things around. 

Remember that the process of retraining is slow. Recognize and applaud your own strength as you model self-control day after day, month after month, and year after year. You’re only human and in the face of a child’s destructive actions, you’ll inevitably sometimes lose it; it’s far easier to dissolve into a tirade than to continue speaking quietly and firmly during the difficult child’s disruptive behavior episodes. Picking yourself up quickly, apologizing, and then starting again shows the child what she needs to do when she falls into an old, unhealthy pattern.

Praise, acknowledgment, and good-feeling interactions are the most important tools in parenting. But while it’s easy to employ positivity with well-behaved, cooperative children, it can seem almost impossible to find something nice to say to a difficult child. He or she may go from one problem behavior to the next, with hardly a moment to breath between episodes. 

The trick is to focus on more general positivity: hum happy tunes when the child is around, talk about the beautiful weather, offer treats, jokes, hugs — for no reason. Even speaking lovingly to your spouse can be experienced positively by a child. Being happy, smiling, and acting kindly in general help set the stage for a safe and loving environment that facilitates learning and growth. 

Connect emotionally with your harder-to-like child. Show understanding and compassion by regularly naming and accepting feelings.

Refrain from constantly correcting the behavior of a difficult child. The endless criticism, negative feedback, threats, and punishments only worsen behavior. Instead, ask the child to do what you want her to do (“Please tell me quietly what you want”). Then praise her generously (“That was excellent! You used quiet words to tell me what you want”), and reward her efforts (“And since you asked so nicely, I’ll let you stay up longer to finish your puzzle”). Refrain from mentioning anything negative along the way (“You used quiet words instead of yelling and stamping your feet”). Stick to the positive (“You used quiet words”).


Alternative Strategies

Often, faster progress can be made when parents use other strategies as well, including physical interventions such as dietary changes, herbal medicine, alternative treatments, and psychotropic medications; and professional psychological interventions aimed at cognitive, behavioral, and emotional change. 

Raising a difficult child is, by definition, difficult. However, when parents follow these strategies, they can make life far easier both for themselves and their child. 

(Originally featured in Family First Issue 617)