Congratulations! You have a challenging child!
Your life will be filled with excitement and never-ending wonder. Oh, sure, there will also be a great deal of frustration, and all that trials-and-tribulations stuff, but count yourself lucky. Your child comes at life full-on, no need to motivate or inspire. Those traits are inborn in the challenging child, but so are other characteristics such as high-energy, demanding, attentive, inquisitive, precocious, self-assurance, and high-drama.
So how do you cope? How can you channel all of that energy and still keep up with the demands? What follows are my real life experiences: what worked, what failed miserably and made me feel like the worst parent on the planet. I do not pretend to hold any degrees in anything, especially parenting skills or the like, but what I do possess is almost 18 years of experience as a parent of challenging children. Additionally, I can not tell you how to raise your child and I do hold to the AP-style of parenting as a personal preference. The following are tips based on my experiences and I do not demand that you use them or know that they are right or wrong or even the best. You will have to learn your child and what works and what doesn't. Parenting the challenging child, I have found, is a guessing game at the best of times and a survival technique at the worst. You decide what works for you.
Child One was my introduction to parenting. She came out of the womb demanding our attention and all of our time and energy. She needed very little recharging and sleeping was sometimes a non-issue for her. I was so exhausted that I stopped listening to the instinctual urges for parenting and started taking the advice of well-meaning friends and family. My husband and I thought that we were failing by using a gentle approach with her and we believed Aunt Betty when she said that our child needed a firm hand.
While we were busy trying to catch up, she was busy getting on with the next mess or the next tantrum. Sometimes her tantrums would get so out of control that we felt like sitting on the floor and screaming right along with her. Our frustration levels were high, and out of anger, we would spank Child One. This seemed to work for a while, but the tantrums escalated and so the spanking escalated. It felt wrong to spank her, but nothing seemed to work the way that all the books said it should. Technique A had failed and I was on Technique Z and feeling like a parenting faux pas.
As we tried harder and harder to gain control of Child One, so she tried harder and harder to have things her way. Even when we tried lax parenting -giving in to her every whim to quiet her and console her and not doing any real discipline but allowing her to take the reigns completely- she responded with ever increasing misbehaviors. We feared that Child One was on the short path to becoming a psychotic criminal and we had no idea how to veer the course.
One night while my husband was away on business, Child One decided that she did not want to go to bed. By three a.m., I was an exhausted mess. We had three children by this time and Child Three had medical and developmental issues. I tried to force Child One into going to bed and all that did was add fuel to her fire. I spanked her to the point of anger and felt I was losing control. I left my children home alone that night because I could not control myself enough to parent them properly. It was the bottom for me; the lowest of lows was achieved that night and I think it was a turning point in my parenting career.
The next day, I called and got us in family counseling. Child One was also diagnosed with an entire alphabet of abbreviations from ADHD to ODD to OCD to SID. One of the diagnoses that stood out in my mind was Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). Basically, when Child One was born, she did not become attached to anyone and was feeling like she was just floating along all alone in the big, old, sufficating world. We knew she could form relationships, but we also knew that she treated those relationships as fleeting and worthless, depending on her mood.
She did not fit all of the RAD profile, but Child One did seem unattached to anyone in particular so we decided to help her get attached. By then, the internet was up and running, so I did a search on 'attachment' and I ran across information about Dr. and Mrs. Sears and their Attachment Parenting theories. They were saying to parent from instinct and from your heart. If what you were doing did not feel right or if you were miserable, change what you were doing so that everyone felt like they were doing the right thing. To put it simply, they were saying to parent like you would want to be parented and to keep things simple and easy. Additionally, Child One needed to be re-attached or bonded to her primary caregivers so that she could form a trusting relationship and be able to give a little instead of taking all.
But I knew that my child was not simple or easy. She was demanding and high-energy and hyperactive. I had tried using gentle parenting techniques and she responded by trampling on me like a doormat. At this time, we were also involved in parenting classes and family therapy. I ran the 'parent from your gut' and the re-attchment ideas by one of the therapists and he said it felt like a great idea and to give it a try. What did I have to lose?
So, we gave it a shot. And guess what? She responded positively and made incredible strides towards becoming a more patient and calmer child. Child One was needing us to show her that we trusted her in order for her to trust us. We had come at parenting with the 'I am the boss and you have to mind me or else' attitude and had felt like a mere child was manipulating and controlling us. It was the battle for control -on our part to control the child and on hers to control her surroundings- that nearly lost us in a parent vs. child struggle. Following are the steps we took to help our daughter bond with us and then help us parent her in a less controlling but more effective way.
Love the child and show love. This was and is a difficult thing for me because I was raised in a totalitarian household where the father was the supreme ruler and he showed little if no affection. The mother was supposed to show the children the affection, but our mother was never shown much affection and did not know how to be geniuine in her attempts at showing love. It was also difficult because we had had years of a bruised and battered relationship with Child One and we were going into this ordeal with baggage. We loved her, but we had difficulty showing love and she had difficulty accepting it. What finally worked was to view her as a child and nothing more. She was not a sum of her actions or her behaviors, she was a child who deserved and deperately needed love.
Become an active parent. Parenting from the sofa never did us any good. Yelling, screaming, and hitting are not the activities one needs to initiate, and usually get the opposite of the desired result. Instead, go to your child and participate. Remember when I said I felt like dropping to the floor and having a tantrum with my child? Well, I did that one day at a very crowded mall and my then 11 year old Child One was mortified. There were no more tantrums from any of them in the store! I had shown them that I was not beyond participating in the situation in order to get them to understand my side, too.
In addition, I became involved in all of the aspects of my children's lives. I started volunteering at school and became a Girl Scout Leader. I let my kids see that what they did and what they cared for was important and that I wanted to be a part of it.
Control the situation, not the child. You can keep the situation from getting dangerous or out of hand. We learned a wonderful parenting skill called 'redirection' and used it to help Child One see that sometimes things could not be controlled and so we changed how we reacted or what we were doing to make us feel better. Redirection works for busy toddlers who are deconstructing an entire room in thirty seconds and for teenagers who are having drama melt-downs at the speed of sound. If little Billy is using his Tonka truck for a battering ram against your new T.V., it's easier and more effective to give him something else to channel his energies instead of trying to make him stop doing what he's doing without giving him an alternative. Before long, Billy is back at misbehaving because the situation was not changed and his need for releasing his feelings was not met.
Learn your child and their behaviors. In your efforts to control the situation, you must also try to learn what your child is really trying to say or accomplish. Watch your child and their behaviors and try to figure out what she's really asking for. A melt-down in Wal-Mart occurs because you said no when your child wanted an oil filter wrench (yes, this happened!) may not mean that your child is wanting obscure car tools. It may be that she's wanting something but can not put in to words what she needs. Maybe it's attention, a nap, something to eat. By observing her behaviors and seeing what she responds to during certain situations, you can begin to learn to read the signs and get a feeling for what she's trying to tell you when the words (or actions) do not necessarily mirror the situation.
Forego control. Control is an illusion. We can only control our own reactions to certain things, people, places, and situations. Attemping to garner control over your challenging child will eventually lead to a battle of wills and puts you in the position of totalitarian parent mentioned above.
Change the situation, not the child. As I've mentioned before, you can only control your reactions so why not try to set yourself up to react positively? If little Billy is doing something you do not like, give him something else to do. You can be the judge of when the situation is getting out of hand and needs changing or when it's time for your challenging child to start being able to maneuver through a situation enough to turn it into a positive event. Redirection is the key to calmer parents and more satisfied challenging children because they seem to thrive on moving and doing and get bored easily. More often than not, I've found that my children misbehave because they are bored and not because they are simply trying to be bad or get more attention. And giving them something else to do does not have to be a major production. Just give them a safe toy if they are playing with something that you would rather they not play with. In extreme cases, you might want to move to a new locale, but my challenging children usually become more at ease with small and simply changes and larger changes may set them up for another tantrum.
Remember the KISS method. My dad taught me the KISS method. Keep IT Simple, Silly. Remembering this has saved me a mint on frustration and energy. When my challenging child seems to be running in circles and demanding my time and energy and I am trying to engage in something else, I think 'what would be the easiest way to get both of our needs met?' Elaborate games or frilly toys never seemed to hold my child's attention and were usually a waste of time, effort and money. If I am in the kitchen needing to cook supper and Child One was berating her sister and knocking over furniture, I simply asked her if she would like to cook the supper. Then, I chose something that she could either prepare solely or with minimal help and that is what we ate for supper. Even toddlers and babies can 'help' in the kitchen as long as they are given a safe place and their own age-appropriate equipment.
Be willing to change. I once told a mommy friend of mine that I was so flexible that Elastigirl (from The Incredibles) has nothing on me. Isn't it funny that Elastigirl became the care-worn housewife, trying to cope with the increasing and ever changing demands of the modern family? She was flexible and she knew how to change to meet the situation.
What worked today (or 30 minutes ago) may not work again. In addition to flexibility and simplicity, you are going to need to be creative. Defusing a situation with one solution may be a full-time fix or it may be that you got lucky and that fix was a one-off. Realize that your challenging child is an ever changing child and what worked on the tantrum o' the moment earlier in the day may not work again, ever, or it may just need to go back into your bag of tricks and wait to be recycled on another occasion.
Stop the seriousness. Parenting is not a job to be taken lightly, but it never hurts to lighten up. My kids and I have "Silly Sessions" where we just act silly for a little bit. These are especially helpful when you are attempting to de-stress a situation.
Just breathe. I used to hate the "this too shall pass" advice but I'm beginning to find out that it does. And de-stressing is a great way for you to help your challenging child see that you are taking things a little easier. When you are aggitated or aggrivated, you send your child a message and he will most likely begin to mimick your behavior. I've found that the most stressful situations are eased when mommy starts a giggle fest. Laughing is a great de-stressor and I have been so close to a personal breakdown that laughing seemed like the craziest AND most sane thing to do at the time. And, you guessed it, it worked like a charm and the rest of the situation went more smoothly. It also seems to be a domino effect. De-stressing during one situation or event helps to make the rest of the day go better and everyone seems a bit happier at what they are doing.
Coming up next, Raising the Challenging Child -Part 3 "It Really Does All Work Out in the End"