Why is My Child So Difficult?

Special needs mom, Clinical and School Psychologist
08/16/23  12:58 PM PST
managing difficult children, behavior problems in children and teenagers, parental guidance

When we think about our child’s or teen’s behavior, we often see the superficial part  that we may not always fully understand. That is, we may see defiance or disrespect, but what is the underlying need behind the behavior? We may react with anger, yelling, doling out consequences or taking away privileges. It’s easy to get lost within our emotions and the surface behavior rather than the non-verbal message that our child or teen is trying to communicate to us, without words.

As parents, many of us judge ourselves based on our children’s choices and see them as a part of our weaknesses or where we are lacking. We sit with “mom guilt,” or guilt in general. Rather than focusing on what our child may need, we focus on trying to manage or control the behavior with consequences or trying to save face for on-lookers, whether those are friends or family. As a parent, try to take a deep breath and reframe your child’s behavior; ask yourself, “What is my child trying to tell me? What does he or she need?”

Find the Antecedent

When our child or teen engages in a repetitive behavior, this is the time for us to shift our focus from: “Why is my child being difficult” to: “My child is having a difficult time. What is happening and how can I support?”

That’s a huge difference in perspective. For example, if your child repeatedly jumps off of the couch, think about what type of need your child is trying to fulfill. Our generation of parents may be quick to say that we need to punish our child and get her behavior “under control”. Their perception may be one of deliberate defiance rather than trying to understand that our couch-jumping-child may be trying to create sensory regulation. Another example is our teenager who is repeatedly missing assignments.  Rather than interpreting this behavior as “laziness,” ask yourself the question: “What could be contributing to my child’s difficulty in completing her assignments and homework?” Perhaps your child is struggling with a learning disability, anxiety, poor focus, or they need a lesson or concept re-taught but are too embarrassed to ask for help. Other reasons why your child may be struggling include poor auditory processing, separation anxiety, struggles with friendships, social anxiety, or difficulty with managing time or prioritizing (weak executive functioning skills).

Identify the Problem

These moments with our children can be used as opportunities to build awareness and skills. For example, when your child says, “Homework is boring” re-state their phrase to let your child know you hear them, which is validating. Ask questions that can help you drill down to the root cause, such as: “Which part of homework is hard for you?” If they struggle to answer, your child may not have enough insight yet to know the reason why homework is boring. You can then help break down the process of completing homework to help them identify where their frustration lies. That might include questions like:

  • Is it hard to remember to write the assignment down in your assignment pad?
  • Is it hard to find the assignment after you’ve written it down?
  • Is it hard to start the assignment?
  • Is it hard to work on your assignment until it’s done?
  • It is hard to stay focused while you’re working on homework?
  • Are you getting distracted by your own thoughts or by sounds around you?
  • Do you need the concept re-taught or repeated?

Each one of these questions breaks down the concept of “boredom” and helps to give it a label and a direction. For example, if your child is struggling to manage assignments, then the focus can be on finding strategies around that. It also gives your child words to describe what he or she is struggling with rather than resorting to “boredom,” feeling misunderstood, becoming angry and shutting down.

Build Stress and Frustration Tolerance

Many of our children struggle with persistence and working through a skill, task, sport, etc. that takes time and practice. Our children are used to immediate gratification and to entertainment content that targets short attention spans. This is reinforced through the instancy of social media, YouTube video surfing, online shopping, and looking up answers to questions via Google.

Our children question the importance of specific tasks, such as making their bed or emptying the trash cans around the house. However, what we are doing is developing routines and building awareness by looking around their environment and taking note of a full garbage can or dishes in the sink. By asking our children to empty the dishwasher or clean the bathroom, we are also building executive functioning skills such as sequencing, time management, and maintaining mental checklists.  It also helps our children to develop resilence; they build the skill sets necessary to plan their day by figuring out what time to wake up in order to get to chores and completing homework prior to their social plans.

We are also teaching our children how to problem solve rather than us, as parents, doing all the problem solving for them. Many of us as parents want to relieve our child or teen’s sense of anxiety or pressure by finding quick solutions for them, rather than allowing him to sit with the discomfort, feelings of nervousness and frustration. Instead of offering solutions, ask:

  • “How do you want to handle this situation?”
  • “What do you think you want to do?”

Initially, your child may be used to YOU coming up with the solutions and may not have answers to these questions. Resist the urge to jump in with answers, and sit with your child instead. Sit with your own discomfort of tolerating your child’s discomfort. If resilience was a plant, this is where it would be growing.

If your child replies, “I don’t know,”  “Tell me,” or “Fix this,” you can state:

  • “I’m glad you’re sharing this with me.”
  • “I’m not sure how to handle this. What do you think?”
  • “I know this is hard. Think about it and give it a little bit of time. There’s no rush.”
  • “I believe in you.”
  • “You can do hard things and make hard decisions.”

Our role as parents is not to make our children’s lives “easy” or “happy” or pleasant all the time. Our role is not fix it. Our role is to teach them to understand what they need, verbalize their thoughts and feelings, and coach them to generate ideas that can help them work through struggles or situations that need problem solving. It’s okay if your child experiences the ugly parts of life such as not being included, not coming in first place, not earning the grade, not making the team, not getting the part or the job, or not seeing eye to eye with a friend. Let them have these experiences while they are still living with you in your home so that you can be present, listen to them, support them, validate them, and cheer them on.

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