We can all identify what it looks like to raise a harder-to-parent child. After all, many of us live daily with short fuses, extra sensory sensitivities, tantrums, clinginess, whining, high-running engines, and constant bids for attention. Sound familiar? How do you parent your child through these challenging behaviors?
What Factors Contribute to These Challenging Behaviors?
Before we dig into how to parent our kids through some of these challenging behaviors, it’s helpful to understand the root causes of why our kids feel harder to parent.
As with many parenting issues we discuss here, you won’t be surprised to learn that sometimes a harder-to-parent kid is challenging because of our own “stuff.” Several issues impact how we experience our child: our innate temperament, parenting style, attachment history, sensory profile, and how we “fit” with this child.
On the child’s side of this dynamic, their temperament, trauma history, sensitivity to stress, attachment challenges, and how the child “fits” with our current style will all contribute to their behaviors. For kids who join the family at older ages, many instinctive responses to struggle, transition, or internal needs have already been “grooved” into their brains. Their challenging behaviors are often survival skills – learned in the unhealthiest of conditions. Our harder-to-parent kids can be difficult because their behaviors feel so extreme and intense – to them and us.
Parenting Challenging Behaviors Requires Us to Change First
It’s vital that we parents understand how to attend to the need-based factors contributing to our children’s challenging behaviors for several reasons:
Wounds Created in Relationship Will Heal in Relationship
When we are parenting children wounded by traumatic experiences in previous relationships, healing can only come in the context of safe, nurturing relationships. In these safe relationships, they can relearn new ways of coping and behaving. They must learn that they no longer need the survival skills they developed earlier in life. They need to repeatedly experience the pleasure of a relationship and the safety of a loving attachment with you to open themselves to learning new behaviors.
We Are Raising Future Adults
Modeling responsiveness and healthy relationship skills, including self-work and openness to learning, gives our children life skills. Changing our child’s behaviors should target life beyond the immediate annoyance or challenge of their behaviors. Our children need us to take the long view to parent them through these difficult moments. The bigger goal is to help them grow into great adults who experience a need and have healthy ways to express or meet that need.
For example, shutting down repeated whines for more screen time might bring peace at that moment. However, it doesn’t change the underlying need your child is trying to express. Ask yourself: what is my child asking for underneath that whine? How can I positively respond in a way that builds connection and communicates the child’s value? Can I meet his need in a way that layers healthy life skills for self-advocacy?
Our Coping Tools Become Their Coping Tools
Our children’s challenging behaviors are stressful and sometimes even embarrassing. However, how we react – or respond – in those moments can either break the cycle of challenging behaviors or further entrench it. Not only should we be practicing responsiveness to their needs, but we should also be modeling how to express those needs differently. If our reactions in challenging moments don’t match the words that we tell our kids in their challenging moments, take a guess which “lesson” speaks louder to them? The expression “more is caught than taught” springs to mind because it’s so true.
How to Avoid Triggering and Being Triggered By Our Kids
How to Parent Challenging Behaviors
Now that you know where your child’s challenging behaviors come from and why you need to do the hard work of leading the way to change, it’s time to get practical. We’ve put together suggestions for parenting your child’s challenging behaviors, paired with real-life examples to help you get started. Your goal is to build repeated positive and pleasurable experiences between you and your child. You will reinforce the messages that you value your child and support her as she tries to grow beyond her challenging behaviors.
Draw Your Child into Relationship
Our kids who struggle with challenging behaviors often look for connections with you, albeit poorly. Their histories of difficult relationship experiences lend themselves to unhealthy or annoying bids for that attention. So even when your child’s behaviors repeatedly stress your capacity to connect, consider how to target time with that child proactively.
The goal is to build up repeated experiences of predictable, safe, and nurturing relationships. Give the child a voice and choice in how to build up that pleasure of being with you. Keep doing it as you see what works and how your child softens toward your bids for connection.
The Real-Life Example
Your child has begun to talk back and ignore your attempts to connect with her. She is prickly and grudgingly engages in conversation with one-word answers. The next time you pick her up from practice, stop for her favorite fast food and have dinner alone together. While you are driving, ask her to pick some music. Ask her why she likes this song or band, and pick out one or two things you enjoy about her choice.
Keep the conversation easy and light but thank her for hanging out with you and ask if you can take her out again next week. Slowly build on the first few encounters by focusing on being safe and predictable and making a pleasant space to connect.
Fill Their Tank Before They Get Empty
Consider the preceding events that might contribute to their tantrums for kids who exhibit short fuses, hair-trigger tempers, or quick flashpoints for frustration. Is she well-rested? Has he eaten lately, or is he crashing? Are you asking her to transition too quickly from one activity to another? Ask yourself all these questions and consider how to fill your child’s gas tank pre-emptively.
There is a real need to preventively meet our children’s physical needs for healthy food, water, and sufficient rest. When we are diligent in keeping our kids well-fueled, their brains are more able to receive the correction and re-direction necessary to ward off meltdowns. Another fueling we can offer is a tank full of language to express what they feel or what they need. We keep their tanks filled by offering breaks in activity or challenges to rehearse how to talk about what they are feeling.
The Real-Life Example
Johnny is repeatedly late to pre-school because he can’t break away from his blocks without a major tantrum. Tonight, help him pack a snack and water bottle for pre-school and plan out his breakfast for the morning. You can even walk him through setting the bowls, plates, and spoons out to prepare. Talk through the steps of getting ready in the morning before you put him to bed.
In the morning, after his healthy breakfast, allow him to set a timer on the smart speaker for 15 minutes of block-building play. When the first timer goes off, he gets to ask for another 10-minute reminder. At that second alarm, it’s now time to clean up. Ask him to direct the smart speaker to play a fun “clean-up” song.
When he has successfully cleaned up, you can head out the door to pre-school and enjoy his pre-packed snack and drink on the way. Repeat this routine every day, offering praise and high-fives for any progress he makes.
Put Coins in the Meter
When our child is in a cycle of challenging behaviors, they often don’t even know that they have internal alarms that trigger their behaviors. A child struggling to feel connected or secure in a relationship with a parent might become extraordinarily clingy or whiny and not even realize that it comes from a fear of disconnect or abandonment. Her anxiety increases, and her behavior devolves.
You can “put coins in her meter” by spending short spurts of time focused solely on connecting activities with this child. Your attention is entirely on her in these moments, reinforcing connection and increasing her sense of safety. You are depositing into her meter with attachment, confidence, and security coins. When you must turn away to attend to other things, her meter starts ticking again. Her internal meter will sound alarms when it gets low – and her behaviors will ramp back up. The goal is to turn back to her with full attention before the meter runs out and a meltdown occurs.
The Real-Life Example
You’ve identified that your child’s whiniest, clingiest behaviors occur when you are preparing dinner every evening. Before she gets home from school, prep whatever you can for tonight’s dinner. Once she is home and has had a snack and drink (remember, fill her tank with healthy fuel!), sit with her and talk about her day or read a book together. Find whatever activity you enjoy together (drawing her into the relationship) and fully invest in that time focused on her (depositing coins in her meter). Before you move to dinner preparations, give her fair warning that you have to start dinner.
When you do get up to make dinner, watch closely to determine how long that meter lasts before her behaviors start to devolve. Find a stopping point in your activity to draw her attention back to you before she struggles. Then add some more coins to her meter. Maybe ask her to wash the vegetables while you spin the salad. Or help her set the table, engaging in a joke-telling contest while you work together. You can release her to play after a few more coins are in that little meter of hers. The bonus is that you get to finish dinner prep in relative peace.
Make Life Simple, Predictable, and Repeatable.
Dr. Ross Greene says, “Kids do well if they can.” When we come to our kids’ challenging behaviors from this mindset, it prompts us to ask ourselves some key questions:
What am I doing to help my child do well with these challenges? What skills does this child need to face this challenge better moving forward?
You can give yourselves more time and space to work on your child’s skills to overcome challenging behavior in two practical ways.
Simplify your life.
Boiling the calendar down to the essentials for a season gives you space to navigate new skill-learning and daily practice. You will also find that you gain mental and emotional energy to manage the big emotions of your child’s challenging behaviors and learn new tools to change.
Make your routines predictable and repeatable.
Predictability of routine allows you to observe what triggers your child. You can focus on teaching him new ways to respond to the internal triggers that cause his behaviors and then repeat them often across your routines. If your family doesn’t already have a structured and predictable routine, make it a priority to develop one.
How do you handle your child’s challenging behaviors? Tell us about it in the comments!
Image Credits: Saad Akhtar; Nithi Anand; Thijs Knaap; Brett Jordan
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