My beautiful, bright, brilliant older son was intense from the moment he drew his first breath. He was literally born with his hand in a fist by his head (it’s called a “nuchal hand”) and in his first few weeks of life, he would sometimes shake that little fist in indignant anger while he slept.
We laughed about it at the time, saying “What is he so angry about?” But we’d soon learn that the list was very long. Our son didn’t like to be strapped into a swaddle—oh, how he’d fight his way out. He didn’t like baby carriers for the same reason. He tried to stand up and climb out of his Baby Bjorn when he was just a few months old.
Of course, he hated sleep. H-A-T-E-D and detested sleeping. He was difficult to get to fall asleep, and he fought every damn nap we ever tried to give him until we flat out gave up soon after he turned two (even though he still desperately needed those naps). He still hates falling asleep to this day, and he’s almost 13.
When you’re the parent of a difficult child, it becomes very easy to blame yourself for all the shit they throw at you. It doesn’t help, either, that everyone around you is subtly (and not so subtly!) blaming you for your kid’s challenging behavior.
I’ll never forget the day our son, about three years old at the time, lay on the sidewalk in front of our apartment crying for ten minutes because it was time to go home. Our neighbors, sitting on lawn chairs sipping their iced tea, were not happy at all about our son’s behavior, and they let us know this.
“What you need to do,” one lady said, “is give that kid one big slap on the behind. Really, you should have done that years ago.”
This comment infuriated me, as you can imagine. No matter how my son behaved, there was no way in hell I would ever spank him. That’s something I am against, and the research supports my feeling that spanking doesn’t work and is detrimental to children.
However, I remember her comment getting under my skin, because as much as I knew that hitting would not have solved my son’s penchant for big, explosive temper tantrums, I did constantly wonder if there was something I had done wrong as a parent to cause him to be so difficult—and if I should be doing anything different to handle it.
My answer came just a few years later, when I gave birth to my second son. Now, I love both of my sons equally, but my second son is just…well, easier than my first. He is as spirited and opinionated as his brother, but he is not nearly as intense. He is easily soothed if he gets upset about things. He is even tempered. And at night, he falls asleep almost instantly.
A few years after he was born, I realized that I really hadn’t done anything different in terms of parenting either of my two boys. I had practiced what you might call “gentle parenting” with both of them, relying on natural consequences and “time in” instead of “time out” when they misbehaved.
I’d always tried to treat them with kindness and patience, even when they were acting poorly, and I would try my best to redirect them when I sensed they were getting upset or into trouble (as you can imagine, this worked fine for my second child, and not my first).
If you read the research about temperaments, you will find that kids are basically just born who they are, challenges and all. Accepting that my older son was just born the way he was—that he was naturally a more difficult child than most—was an “a-ha” moment that not only made me feel better about my own parenting, but made me a better parent.
I began to talk more openly with my son about his challenges in life, and we brainstormed ways for him to cope. For example, we are in a constant discussion about how to make sleep easier on him, as this is something he continues to struggle with. But rather than hoping he will change, we are working on accepting things for what they are, and working toward viable solutions, like meditation, breathing techniques, and bedtimes that work better for his body rhythms.
My son’s earliest years were his most difficult, by far. This is probably owing to the fact that I got very little sleep and few breaks when he was little. But I also think it has something to do with the fact that I hadn’t quite learned how to accept him for who he was. I thought that if I tried this or that technique (and believe me, besides spanking and more punitive punishments, I tried all the parenting techniques out there), I could “fix” him.
I’m happy to report that despite his more challenging years, he has turned out pretty freaking amazing, if you ask me. Yes, he’s still intense, and yes, he will probably always be my more difficult child. But he is also the smartest, funniest preteen you will ever meet. He’s extremely self-aware and reflective. He knows himself and his struggles better than anyone, and that is a noble characteristic—one that will help him move through life with strength and resilience.
They say that difficult kids are some of the most gifted, brilliant, and special kids out there. And that may be true. But for us parents, they are more than that. They also our greatest teachers. They keep us humble. They teach us that love and acceptance are really the most important things, both in parenting and in life.
And my goodness, no matter how much grief and stress they cause us, we love these fiery souls something fierce … just exactly as they are. To the moon and back.