Within the first few weeks of my son’s life, I knew parenting him would be a challenge. He was always alert, and always needed stimulation. His personality and needs made it hard to get things done, and I often found myself being totally overwhelmed. At the time, I wondered if there might be something wrong with me as a parent, but what I learned is that he is simply a high-demand child.
He’s four now, and while he is still a high-demand child, I’ve gotten better about being able to get a handle it. Raising a high-demand child is a challenge, and it takes a lot of trial and error to figure out how to honor their feelings, but also not give in to every demand and, thereby, raise an entitled little asshole. The struggle is real, folks.
Truth bomb: The first six months of my son’s life almost killed me. From about five weeks of age, he slept when he wanted to. He was awake for long stretches during the day, and he decided that 4:00 in the morning was a reasonable time to wake up. He always wanted to be awake, he always wanted to be held, and he nursed constantly. I was drowning.
We lived with my parents, and they were thrown a major curveball when my son came barrelling into their house. He was twelve pounds of hellfire, come to set them ablaze. He didn’t just cry; he would scream. And scream and scream and scream until the tears ran dry and then he would scream some more.
My parents wanted to lend a hand, but they were helpless, unable to soothe him the way he wanted to be soothed. In fact, no one could soothe him except me. I was exhausted and overwhelmed, and no one around me understood what I was going through. “You’re spoiling him,” was a phrase I heard (and sometimes still hear) a lot. But I didn’t think of it that way. I was dealing with a little boy who needed the one person who understood him, and that happened to be me.
Parents of high-demand children are often alienated because of their high-demand children. People who don’t have them, just don’t understand them. As a first-time parent, it was soul crushing and I was filled with self-doubt. Maybe I was coddling him, maybe I was spoiling him. Maybe I was just a horrible mother.
But I wasn’t a bad mother — and no parent of a high-demand child is a bad parent. We are doing the best we can against really difficult odds. Across the board, the biggest piece of advice I’ve seen for parents of high-demand children is to manage your expectations, not only of your child, but of yourself as a parent. You and your child are walking a different path than other parents and children, so comparisons will get you nowhere.
One of my biggest challenges is dealing with the advice of my friends and family. No one in my family has ever dealt with a kid like mine before. I was a mild mannered kid, eager to please and willing to do whatever I was told. I realized fairly early on that I would need to ignore their (well-intentioned) advice about things like crying it out and give my son all the cuddles and attention he so obviously needed.
As high-demand children get older, the key is knowing when they have a genuine need and when they are milking it for attention. High-demand children often need more assurance that you are in close proximity to them, and when you aren’t, it can send them deeper into an emotional tailspin. My son is an attention seeker, but I’ve gotten to the point where I know when to honor his need for my attention and when his demands are unreasonable.
When he’s doing it for attention, it drives him bonkers when I walk away from him while he’s in the depths of an emotional meltdown, but it’s one of the ways that I’ve learned I can regain control. If I walk away and ignore him, eventually, he will do what I asked him to do or fix whatever behavior needed correction. If he’s really off the rails, on the other hand, some soothing might be what he needs instead.
For the record, a lot of high-demand children have problems with self regulating, especially when they’ve reached a peak. Once my son is upset, it it literally impossible to stop that train. Sometimes, I just have to ride the wave. It takes a longer time than most people would expect, and it’s fucking unbearable, but I have to wait. He’s not listening when his emotions are that high, so we both end up getting frustrated, and nothing gets accomplished except both of us bursting into tears.
My son feels things on an extreme level, as most high demand kids do. The simplest request — especially when it’s something he doesn’t want to do, like getting ready for bed or taking a bath — can turn into an all out war. He will unleash blood-curdling screams until his face looks like it’s going to explode. I simply let him scream his head off, and keep going about my plans.
I don’t invalidate his feelings in any way, but ignoring his behavior and continuing on with what I was doing shows him that I’m not giving in either. But it’s so hard, because sometimes all I want to do is give in because I can’t deal with the fucking screaming anymore. I want to let him eat ice cream for dinner because I don’t have the energy to argue with a four-year-old about why we can’t eat ice cream for dinner.
But then I remind myself that if I don’t set limits, he will be an entitled asshole male who thinks he can do whatever he wants and will get whatever he wants simply because he pitches a fit about it. No way; not on my watch.
Having a high demand child takes an entirely different approach to parenting. You must be adaptable, but you must be firm. As a parent, you have to tap into your intuitive side far more often. The biggest thing I’ve learned in my journey so far as the parent of a high-demand child is to trust my instincts. I know my son; I can tell the difference between being “manipulated” and when he is genuinely in need of a little extra empathy.
I have learned when to stand my ground, and when to acquiesce. It’s not always easy, let me tell you. The world doesn’t know how to deal with high-demand children, so I have to prepare my son to live in a world that may try to put him in a box he doesn’t belong in.
It’s not always easy for us, but when we cross each new threshold, I cannot contain the pride I have in him, and in myself for getting there.