Dr. Seth Meyers, Clinical Psychologist

Dr. Seth Meyers, Clinical Psychologist

Sunday, December 30, 2012

PARENTING: Parenting the Difficult Child

Like many parents today and others who came before me, I have one of those children who is, in turns, remarkably sweet and intensely difficult. In a word, my child can be difficult, prone to mood changes and acting-out behavior that goes beyond what we usually expect to see in a child with so-called 'normal' social and emotional development. As a therapist for many years, my Achilles heel causes me to diagnose on impulse, but my experience parenting has taught me why I need to contain that impulse. The truth is that my son, soon to be six years old, deserves a chance, which means that he deserves that I not be too deterministic and paint his emotional future with any kind of a broad brush stroke. Sure, there’s a tiny part of me that is afraid that what I see in him today are merely the seeds for major emotional storms as a teenager and adult, but my job is to work hard with him, hold onto some faith, and always strive to see the good and strengths in him.

To be completely honest, my son is adopted, a child who came into my life almost a year and a half ago when he was four and a half years. He has many reasons to have anger, but something has surprised me over time as I’ve been exposed to many more young children and have spoken to many parents about their own experiences with their children: There are quite a few difficult biological children, too. In other words, I’ve come to understand that a child who is difficult is difficult for many different reasons: their own biological predispositions, their experience with profound breaks in important attachments, and so forth.

At the end of the day, we can never be completely sure what causes a child to be difficult. Many researchers have studied temperament with the belief that temperament is what makes a child, say, easy or difficult. Thomas and Chess (1977) researched this extensively and categorized children into three temperament categories, including easy, difficult, and slow-to-warm-up. (Incidentally, about 10 percent of infants were difficult, although many babies studied didn't fit into any categories). More recently, Mary K. Rothbart (2005) studied children's temperament and considered three other categories, one of which was negative affect. This category referred to the degree to which a child is shy and not easily calmed. Despite impressive attempts to understand and categorize temperament, we still don't know exactly what the most true and accurate way to describe temperament is. Yet frustrated parents everywhere - myself, included - don't need a fancy term to explain it; we simply call the child 'difficult.'

Difficult children aren't difficult because they're bad children or because there's something wrong with them. Difficult children are difficult because they can't regulate themselves well. Their mood gets easily thrown and they have great difficulty recovering and bouncing back. It's crucial that parents of such children know how to navigate the difficult child so that he thrives emotionally as much as possible, and that you have the best possible relationship with him so that he feels connected, accepted, and loved.

What I’ve found, above all, is that parents of difficult children need to find a way to make sense of the difficult child in order to be able to nurture him. (No, the difficult child isn’t necessarily a boy, though I am employing the male pronoun here for the purposes of this article).

Mourn the loss.

If you have a difficult child, give yourself permission to feel sad and frustrated that you have a child who is often extremely challenging to parent. There are individuals who may deny or resist the proposal that there is a such a thing as a ‘difficult’ child, but I can assure you that parents with difficult children know exactly what I’m talking about. To be clear, I see the difficult as child as one who has intense anger issues, a frequently negative mood or drastically shifting moods, aggressive behavior, or ongoing interpersonal conflicts with his siblings or peers. The good news is that the difficult child doesn’t usually stay difficult forever, provided that parents intervene in a boundaried and nurturing manner. But until that point that the child emotionally matures, parents need to mourn the loss that their experience parenting is more difficult than an awful lot of other parents. (And I’m not even getting into the experience of parenting children with major special needs here, a topic deserving of its own attention).

Make sure you have a social life outside the home.

Even when it’s not convenient or you’re too tired to be social, you need to get out of the house and socialize with your peers. Getting out and meeting your own personal needs for affiliation with other adults is imperative to your mental health – and your ability to return to your child and be able to nurture again. See, the hard part of having a difficult child is that the child’s emotional needs sometimes feel bottomless: No matter how hard you try, he’ll still feel unhappy or still feel that you’re not doing enough for him. My son, in particular, has anger issues, and children who have anger issues often see themselves a victim in almost any kind of situation. I’ve learned to expect that, so that doesn’t bother me half as much as the other issue: the frequent shifts in mood and constant crying at the most unpredictable provocation.

Watch out for ‘do and un-doing.’

Most parents do the best they can but, like me, occasionally miss the mark. I take solace in the fact that I do a lot of the 'right' things. I spend a lot of time talking to my son about his moods and beliefs when they’re a little – um, off – and I take him to psychotherapy with a brilliant and kind therapist. I give him lots of praise and physical affection, and spend a lot of one-on-one time with him reading, teaching him how to cook, and playing with his toys. But even though I’m a good parent, say, 95 percent of the time, there’s the other five percent that ends up slipping out. Invariably, and no matter how hard I try to contain my unhealthy impulses or how many great things I’ve said or done that day in parenting him, I end up saying or doing something that un-does all the good stuff.

This reminds me of a a defense mechanism mental health therapists call ‘doing and un-doing.’ In other words, I do all this good stuff, but I sometimes do something else that un-does it! To prevent doing and un-doing, try to become as aware as possible of what your triggers are for frustration so that you can avoid snapping in a moment of weakness. Phone a friend for a little pep talk, or take some deep breaths in the privacy of your bedroom. We shouldn't let ourselves do something that un-does all the other good stuff we do.

Bottom Line: Parents of difficult children need to be nice themselves when it comes to analyzing their own parenting style and parenting efforts, because it’s simply not easy to parent a difficult child. Working on the few techniques I describe above can help you navigate parenting a little more easily.

References: "PsychPage.com Child Temperament". http://www.psychpage.com/family/library/temperm.htm. Retrieved 2009-04-21.

Rothbart, M.K & Hwang, J. (2005). Temperament and the development of competence and motivation. In A.J. Elliot & A.C. Dweck (Eds.), Handbook of competence and motivation. New York: Guilford Press. pp. 167-184. ISBN 978-1-59385-606-9. http://www.guilford.com/cgi-bin/cartscript.cgi?page=pr/elliot3.htm&dir=pp/sapp&cart_id=471466.23602.

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