When you have a challenging child, sometimes it feels like you are slogging through mud in the trenches of life. It’s hard to see your way out of the struggle or to remember that there are days that you feel like you are succeeding at this thing called parenting.

Parenting the challenging child can make you doubt your ability to parent at all. 5 Tips to help you parent the challenging child.

To be clear, lest you are tempted to set yourself up for unrealistic expectations, parental “success” is loosely defined around here. If you’ve gotten everyone out the door, on the bus, or logged on to virtual school without a major tantrum, you succeeded! If everyone ate a semi-nutritious breakfast, and no one forgot lunch or lunch money – success! If you only ran 10 minutes late doing it all – WINNING! Put your feet up for a minute and enjoy the taste of victory.

However, we all have those days when success in parenting feels like an impossible goal – even when we loosely re-define what “success” is. Maybe you are parenting an adopted or foster child who has experienced trauma or abuse. Perhaps she has brain damage caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol or drugs. Maybe his temperament is a poor match for yours. Maybe she isn’t sleeping most nights because she still doesn’t feel entirely safe enough just yet – no matter how gentle and predictable you’ve crafted your nighttime routine to be. Whatever the reason, some kids are simply more challenging to parent.

5 Parenting Tips When You Have a Challenging Child

When you are in the trenches of parenting a challenging child, it’s hard to see a way out of the struggle. In those hard times, you need some “quick” tips and tricks to help you cope. Read over these tips every week until you start to climb your way out of the parenting depths.

1. Practice self-care.

Our number one recommendation before you do anything else is to take care of yourself. You’ve heard the airplane analogy ad nauseam, but it’s true. “You have to put on your own air mask before you can help someone else.” Your sanity and energy are the most important thing you bring to your family and to this challenging child, so you must find a way regularly to recharge.

Take an afternoon to walk in a local park. Go window shopping (or actual shopping) at the mall by yourself. Spend a Saturday morning at Starbucks. Schedule a monthly massage, plan for a regular exercise class. Sing in the church choir. Block out your calendar for a daily run. Whatever feeds your soul and brings you joy qualifies as self-care, and should be a priority in your calendar.

2. Find your person.

This is similar to self-care, with a similar analogy: When your battery is dead, you need to connect with a live cell to recharge. Who is your live battery? Who can you connect with when you are in the trenches? Who will understand and support you? You need an online or in-person friend who’s been where you’re at, a therapist, your spouse, or all three. Find your person and let her know that you are struggling and will need to lean on her to help you through the hard days.

3. Educate yourself about the impacts of trauma.

Our mantra here at Creating a Family is “knowledge is power!” The more you learn about the forces that shaped this child, the better equipped you can be to cope and parent this child.

  • Read or listen to interviews about the impact of trauma on a child here and here.
  • Learn about how alcohol and drug exposure during pregnancy can leave their mark here and here.
  • Begin to understand how your own temperament, personality, and attachment style influence how you respond to this child.

4. Cut your challenging child — and yourself! — some slack.

Cultivate empathy for your child. When you are in the thick of the struggles, that might feel like a tall order. Once she is asleep (and looking angelic), remind yourself of what happened to her that brought her to this place. Focus on the fact that your child is not purposely trying to drive you crazy and make you feel like a failure.

While you are thinking compassionately about your child, direct some empathetic thoughts inward. What issues from your past are you bringing to this interaction? Do you hate conflict because of your own family of origin? Do you crave order and structure in your life to feel secure? Does your love language conflict with your child’s? For example, do you want physical affection, but this child expresses love through being helpful? Be kind to yourself while teaching yourself to be compassionate for your child’s path.

Practical Tips for Disciplining While Maintaining Attachment

5. Play together!

Never underestimate the power of having fun as a person and family to help you through the dark times. Allison Douglas, Family Advocate with the Harmony Center, said  it well, in a Creating a Family AdoptionEd.org course:

“The more difficult the child, the more fun you should be having with them.”

Find one thing that you and your “challenging” child enjoy and make a point of doing it together frequently. Once you find one thing, look for something else. Keep it simple, easily accessible, and inexpensive: bike riding, playing catch, making silly TikToks together, reading books aloud, or baking cookies.

Make the Changes

These 5 tips can help you parent your challenging child. These are not one and done tips that you can check off a list and then move forward. Rather, they will help you focus on healthy routines and planning for YOU, if you are like most parents juggling real life. These tips might need to be tweaked and re-calibrated as the current pandemic-living evolves. It’s worth it because these lifestyle changes can open up opportunities to grow and succeed as a parent by any definition of the word!

Originally published in 2017; Updated in 2020
Image Credits: Rolands Lakis; Yasuyuki HIRATA