Your Toolbelt Blog

How to Cope with Challenging Kids By Lara Symonds, MA, LMFT

Joyce always expects the unexpected when it comes to her 8-year old son Milo. Within seconds, he can go from sweet-IMG_0266tempered and happy into a vicious tantrum. She’s grown overwhelmed by phone calls from teachers, relaying how Milo hit another child in class or got into a fight on the playground.


She felt she was at the end of her rope and out of ideas of how to parent Milo. She had been spanked when she was a child, and had very negative memories about that and didn’t want to parent the same way she had been. But sometimes…Milo was so challenging…that Joyce was sorely tempted.  Joyce realized that she needed help.


She reached out to a friend who had dealt with similar challenging behaviors from her own child—yelling, punching and talking back— what seemed like much more extreme behavior than typical.  She wanted an approach to help Milo herself instead of turning to medications.


Difficult Child BookJoyce’s friend recommended The Difficult Child by Dr. Stanley Turecki. According to Dr. Turecki, while many children suffer from psychological ailments that respond to medications like Ritalin, it is important to first examine the possible root causes of the child’s behavior before resorting to medication.


Those causes may be as simple as temperament. For instance, Joyce was making Milo play baseball because his brother did. When she asked him what he preferred to do, to her surprise, he said he wanted to visit the library. Once they started going a few days a week, his behavior at school began to improve. The library seemed to allow Milo the downtime he needed to gather emotional resources.


In addition to allowing your child’s temperament to more often guide activities, here are some other tips for coping with emotional and behavioral issues in children.

  1. Set specific, consistent, and clear expectations for your child. While some spontaneity now and then—like a surprise trip to the zoo—can be fun, everyday life with children runs more smoothly for the child and the parents when the child knows what to expect from their parent. Parents who are disorganized and/or are without clear boundaries tend to create more of a struggle for themselves. Be reliable and loving, while maintaining consistent rules and expectations.
  2. Apply the “Positive Parenting” approach. Psychologist Georgia DeGangi, author of Effective Parenting for the Hard-Effective Parenting Bookto-Manage Child, recommends that parents “catch” their kids being good, and then reward them through acknowledgment and actions. She advises against rewarding bad behavior with attention, if possible.
  3. Recognize your stress signals and take care of your own well-being. Finding appropriate ways to cope with the behaviors of a challenging child is essential. Take time out to relax in healthy ways whenever possible. Try to let go of the fall-out feelings of guilt that often arise when a parent is taking time away from their child. After all, even Mother Teresa, the icon for self-sacrifice said “If you wish the lamp to continue to burn, then you must continue to add oil to it.” You will be a better parent for having taken the time and care you need for yourself.
  4. Seek professional help if needed. Do not be ashamed of reaching out for help if the behaviors continue to seem unmanageable, especially if they are having a negative effect on the family or on your child’s successful development. We recommend and family counseling for children 6 and older. Parent coaching and parenting classes are also wonderful resources for parents wishing to get extra support and guidance in their parenting.


With a few other parenting “tweaks” (and a couple of “Mommy” spa afternoons), Joyce began to see a distinct difference in Milo’s interactions with the world, and in her own ability to work with his more challenging behaviors.


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