Your toddler son clears out a grocery store aisle with an hour-long tantrum when his favorite cereal is sold out. Your kindergarten daughter loses points in class for nudging classmates on the carpet, bolting out of line and generally behaving impulsively. Your tween routinely forgets to turn in homework and can filibuster for hours when confronted with a simple parental request to clean his room or set the dinner table.
These are the extra-challenging kids who can send their parents into spirals of despair and discouragement. They may have a diagnosis, such as ADHD, or be on the autism spectrum — or they may simply be tougher to parent. Regardless, the strategies for raising extra-challenging children are similar and will call on your deepest reserves of patience, confidence and resilience.
“One of the hard things for parents of extra-challenging kids is that other people seem to be dealing with parenting so easily,”
says Emory Luce Baldwin, a family therapist, parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington and co-author of Parenting with Courage and Uncommon Sense. “The challenge is not to give up and not to give in and not to give way to awful-izing.”
One of the most important steps is to overcome your own shame or feeling of being overwhelmed. If conversations in your parenting groups or with neighbors leave you feeling that you’re doing something wrong, find new circles of support.
PEP periodically offers a class on parenting extra-challenging kids. Baldwin also runs support groups for parents who want to talk about the worst their kids can do-without feeling judged. In that kind of setting, you can share the shame of not liking your child or the fear that you’re falling short as a parent.
“The terror of, ‘I can well imagine my kid ending up in San Quentin’ — it creates tremendous pain, real pain,” Baldwin says. “When you’ve got the parent’s fear and anxiety and stress piled on top of the child’s fear and anxiety and lack of confidence in himself, it goes very badly.”
Let Your Kids Be Messy
As parents, we often think that our children should remember something we’ve told them once. Or twice. Or 17 times. But for all kids, experience teaches lessons that mere lectures cannot. This holds double for extra-challenging kids.
“When my daughter was 10 years old, it came to me as an epiphany that her preferred learning style was to learn things the hard way,” Baldwin says. “Nothing was going wrong. It wasn’t because I hadn’t warned her. Her preferred learning style was to experience the consequences for herself.”
Don’t despair when your children can’t stay on “green” at school or lose their sweatshirts and keys. Have the courage to watch them head into a mistake and let them learn from it, rather than intervening to rescue them. If you can’t have faith in their ability to learn-eventually-how can they believe it themselves?
“Just because they mess up more doesn’t mean they’re not learning,” Baldwin says. “They may be more impulsive. They may blurt things out. They may say stupid or rude things more often. They may be clumsy. Just because they make more mistakes than whatever the average is, that doesn’t mean they’re bad kids or that they don’t care.”
Look for Slivers of Hope
Instead of focusing on your child’s failure to behave perfectly, look for signs of progress. Even if this is the 10th time he’s forgotten his homework at school, perhaps he realized it was missing more quickly than he’d noticed before. If this time he remembered when walking into the house, perhaps next time the light bulb will turn on as he’s walking out of the school. And then eventually the thought will occur before he leaves his classroom.
Share these small steps forward with your children and help them strategize how to build on the progress in pursuit of the eventual goal.
“It’s really easy to discourage these kids with comments like, ‘Why don’t you pay attention?’ or, ‘Why don’t you care?’ or, ‘How come you’re so insensitive?’ ” Baldwin says. “If the kids really believe the shame and blame, they start believing they really are bad.”
It might be hard to find a silver lining, but do your best. Perhaps your high-energy, distractible child is also the one who comes up with fun games or family adventures. Maybe your overly empathetic tween is also remarkably affectionate and loving. And even the most agonizing disasters can become memorable stories when enough time has passed.
“These kids add a lot of spark and fun,” Baldwin says. “Most of these kids survive and do fine. We all survived. It shakes things up. Life is way more interesting. Not every day do we enjoy that, but overall we can enjoy that.”
You’ll certainly have plenty of opportunities to grow as a human being if you’re the parent of an extra-challenging child. You’ll learn more about yourself and get lots of practice controlling your emotions and working on communication skills.
Trust in the Long Term
Ultimately, your goal is to raise a confident, well-adjusted adult who can contribute to society, not an 18-year-old with perfect grades and an Ivy League admissions letter. (Right?) Focusing on the long term can help with the daily challenges.
You must trust that your child has the ability to do what’s needed to be successful and that we will discover the choices he must make in order to achieve the goals he sets for himself. You’re the parent, the one he looks to as he tries to figure out whether he’s capable enough or strong enough. Be sure to give the answer, “You can do it.”
“As parents we’re always at our worst when we’re operating from fear,” Baldwin says. “We’re parenting our best when we parent from courage.”
As the article says, “find support!” Don’t miss this week’s webinar, Parenting Extra-Challenging Children Thursday, June 20th at 9 pm ET.
This article originally appeared in the June 2014 edition of Washington Parent Magazine