Articles on adoption, foster care, & pediatrics

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The "Difficult" Child

Some children, whether we blame temperament, genetics, neurochemistry, prenatal exposures, and/or early childhood experiences, are just plain difficult to parent - intense, needy, easily frustrated, inflexible, inattentive, hyperactive, impulsive, and so on. Or, if you prefer to look on the bright side of life ... spirited, sensitive, perceptive, persistent, and energetic.

If you're nodding your head, read on ... there are effective ways to parent, and perhaps even embrace these traits. The good news is, kids can change - but often we need to change our understanding and approach first. A good place to start would be with one or more of these resources. But bring it up with your doc as well, and consider a specialized parenting class, family counseling, "positive behavior support", or consultation with a developmental/behavioral specialist if you find yourself out of ideas or optimism.

You and your providers may also consider diagnoses such as ADHD, RAD, SPD, ODD, OCD, FASD, and other 3- and 4-letter-words. I'm not label-happy, and agree that it's easy to get lost in this "alphabet soup", but I am a believer in early, accurate diagnosis and treatment when neurologic and mental health disorders are involved. One way to start evaluating concerns about emotions, behavior, attention, and peer difficulties is with a screening tool like the Strengths & Difficulties Questionnaire.

Transforming the Difficult Child, by Howard Glasser and Jennifer Easley, is my favorite book for parenting, and yes, transforming, older children (over 5-6yo) who are difficult to parent, including kids with ADHD. It's also a lovely, positive parenting approach for "easier" kids. If you want a sample, check their website, and I've posted the first 2 chapters on our site as well. Glasser's belief is that normal parenting and teaching methods are designed for the "average child", and that the harder normal methods are applied to difficult children, the worse the situation can get, despite the best of intentions.

I really think this approach has arrived at a simple, but essential truth about parenting ANY child - we need to reverse our typical, inadvertent pattern of paying more attention to misbehavior than to good behavior. Instead of making a big deal over negativity ("why water the weeds?"), make a big fuss over the good stuff. Their Nurtured Heart approach has 3 basic aspects:

  • Super-energizing experiences of success
  • Refusing to energize or accidentally reward negativity
  • While still providing an ideal level of limit-setting and consequences

In Glasser's words, this approach helps therapeutically shift intense children to using their intensity in wonderful ways, and creates a world of first-hand experiences of prosocial behavior: "Here you are being successful ..." This is more than "catching kids being good", it's about having powerful ways to make any moment an opportunity to create success, by finding the good in what IS happening, but also in what ISN'T happening.

Do I love this approach? Yes indeed. You're very likely to find something useful, if not transformative, in this resource. As for his take on medications, I find it to be provocative, but not as much in line with our experience. The "energy" that kids with significant ADHD or FAS have is not always a gift to be cherished, and medications can be invaluable, as part of a comprehensive plan like the Nurtured Heart approach and school accommodations. But I am increasingly recommending a dedicated trial of this approach, plus the therapeutic parenting ideas in Gabor Mate's Scattered, before prescribing medications.

Another book that folks have liked is The Difficult Child: Expanded and Revised Edition by Stanley Turecki, which focuses on nine particularly difficult temperaments: high activity level, distractibility, high intensity, irregularity, negative persistence, low sensory threshold, initial withdrawal, poor adaptability, and negative mood.

A classic in the "insert-euphemism-here" child literature is Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, Energetic by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, and her Raising Your Spirited Child Workbook.

"Inflexible, intolerant, and explosive" child? Try The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children by Ross Greene.

"Challenging" child? See The Challenging Child: Understanding, Raising, and Enjoying the Five "Difficult" Types of Children, by child development guru Stanley Greenspan, for positive parenting insights into "the sensitive child, the self-absorbed child, the defiant child, the inattentive child, and the active/aggressive child".

A website that draws on a number of these books, as well as her own experience parenting and running groups, is Elaine Gibson's The Challenge of Difficult Children. Lots of good, opinionated, from-the-trenches advice to be found here.

My favorite temperament resource is the "Preventive Ounce" website, for children up to 5 years old.  Learn where your child is on scales of Sensitivity, Movement, Reactivity, Frustration Tolerance, Adaptability, Regularity, and Soothability. Then check out a wealth of sound, temperament-specific parenting advice on issues that your child is likely to encounter in the next year. A good temperament site for school-aged children is INSIGHTS, with its online temperament profile.

Finally, a brief note on The Strong-Willed Child. James Dobson and his "embrace-your-inner-bully" theories are emphatically NOT RECOMMENDED, particularly for a child who has already experienced lack of attuned caregiving, violence, or other trauma.  The man beats his pet daschund with a belt on page 3 ... this is the guy you want helping you raise your kids? There are much better Christian parenting books out there that don't involve spanking your children into submission. The research on corporal punishment is overwhelmingly against it, and no amount of "folksy take-charge wisdom" or selective Bible interpretations should convince you to hit your kids.