Help, I Have a Difficult Child!

difficult child
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“I want that Lego set,” my 4-year-old son Finn says. “I have enough money for it.”

Finn has approximately $2, and I gently tell him that’s not enough for his Legos.

“But I want Legos,” he says desperately, and I hear it in his voice: the subtle crackle, the rising tone. His eyes get wide and his jaw clenches hard in his skull. It’s coming. In the toy aisle at Target, it’s coming, and it won’t stop.

“I – want – those – Legos!” he scream-cries. He dissolves into loud, hitching sobs. “I want them,” he manages between caught breaths. I tell him I’m sorry. I tell him maybe next time. I wish I could just buy them for him and shut him up, like so many parents have wished before. Because as bad as I feel for him, wheeling with all haste to the checkout line, I feel angry with him. Why can’t he control himself? Why can’t he accept “no” like my other children?

Finn is what we call a difficult child. He gets overwrought easily; his emotions hit overdrive and he’s screaming and clutching or hitting at me. He’s stubborn; when he doesn’t want to eat, baby Jesus himself couldn’t convince him of a peanut butter sandwich. He gets upset when he doesn’t get what he wants (which is often), and obeys direct commands as well as a freaking cat.

I hated him for a while when this all started. I mean, you always love your kids, but you can hate them at the same time without that love going away. All mothers of difficult children know this. As a parent who typically leans toward attachment parenting methods, I’m not proud to say it, but I spanked him. And with that, I saw why spanking is stupid: They tell you to never spank in anger. Of course I was angry at the time I spanked him, because I wouldn’t be hitting my kid otherwise. For the record, it also had no effect.

But, gradually, we found what did work. And while his obstinateness didn’t go away, it became a manageable part of our lives. I was able to enjoy my son again, no longer biding my time in anticipation of the next explosion. Other people have kids who embarrass them in public and ignore them in private. You’re not alone. And there are ways to help.

Let him know what’s going happen that day—and mean it.

This seems utterly unrelated to the tantrum he’ll throw in the Target toy aisle, but it’s important to him and gives him a surety he can count on. So often kids are dragged around with little notion of what will happen next or where they’ll be taken. Eliminating that uncertainty can cut down on the number of freak-outs and defiance. For Finn, it goes something like this: “First, we’ll go to the grocery store and then to Target. After that we’ll come home and have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Your friend will come over, and you can play ’til 4 o’clock. You can watch some TV then, and Daddy will decide what’s for dinner.” This helps ground him and ensures he’ll eat that peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Go with the tantrum.

Accept that your child will throw tantrums—in public. People will judge your parenting. Sometimes you will need to leave. Sometimes you will need to stay. All of this is OK, mama (or daddy).

Ask questions.

“Do you want to be upset alone, or with me?” Finn will generally wail, “With you!” Then I pick him up and he scream-cries in my ear for a while, but he scream-cries for less time, because he feels secure and heard. It’s not rewarding his tantrum. Instead, it’s helping him cope with his emotions. Sometimes he’s too far gone to answer, or wants to be alone, and I say something like, “I’ll ask you again when you’re calmer.” Then I let the tantrum keep going. You know your kid best; some children will run hotter and hotter until they’re comforted. Those kids need comforted immediately. One thing Finn often says is “I can’t stop!” and he means it. They need your help to reset.

Touch them.

Never underestimate the power of touch. If you have a kid who listens to you pretty much never, try going over and touching them when you make a request. This is a centering technique that helps assure they can’t ignore you.

Give them choices.

If you know shoes will be an issue, ask which pair they want to wear, the red ones or the green ones. Ask if they want to look at the toy aisle (they are going to demand the toy aisle) first or last. You can sidestep their triggers this way, and keep them from freaking out.

Cleaning hurts.

If you’re like me, the request to clean provokes a tantrum or gets ignored every single time. Make it hurt: I can’t keep what you can’t clean. If you leave your toys out, it’s a sign that you don’t want them. This will provoke the mother of all tantrums. Let it ride. Then repeat yourself. Throw away a toy or two, or act like you’re going to. Then they’ll clean. And you’ll only have to do it once. It sounds horrible, but you can’t keep cleaning up all these toys all the time. For the record, cleaning is useful if it’s broken down into parts (“Clean up the blocks,” not “Clean up your room”) and if you do it alongside them.

Difficult, stubborn children can make you crazy. But they can also be wonderful, sweet, and loving. You’ll feel as if you’re the only parent on earth who deals with this—the tantrums, the screaming, the defiance, the hitting. But you aren’t alone. A difficult child requires a lot from you, so you need to make sure you take time for yourself even more than other moms. Get away from him for a while. And do things together you both enjoy—Finn and I like to cuddle up on the couch together and watch Star Wars or Animaniacs. Keep connected as much as you can. And remember: This may always be difficult, but this part will pass.