Parenting Your Challenging Child


Patricia McGuire MD FAAP

Frowning boy

Parenting a challenging child is not for the weak of heart. You must be willing to bend and adapt to your child’s needs. But, at the same time, you need to stay true to your beliefs regarding moral and ethical behavior.

One child in six will be a challenging child to everyone who interacts with this child. Some children may be challenging to only one parent due to differences in temperament. Other children are challenging to almost everyone they meet due to differences in brain development, temperament, and the life circumstances in which they live.

One suggestion for responding to your challenging child is to pretend you are their age. What did you hear asked of you? How did that make you feel? Do you know how to tell your parent why you are refusing or getting upset? If you find yourself answering that you should do it and quit crying because your parent is in charge, then you are not thinking like your child. You are thinking like an adult who has already learned many lessons in life about cooperation and authority.

Children respond emotionally because of their lack of life experiences. You have learned about compromise, but are you using it with your child? If the answer is no, why is that? Do you feel that you would be giving up power? Many adults feel as if they must have the last word or else they have lost a battle. These feelings are due to insecurity. Secure adults feel comfortable taking time to understand what the child is feeling and how to make the child feel safe and teach him how to do tasks he may not like.

Maybe your child is challenging due to brain-based disorders, such as ADHD, LD, or autism. It can be hard to imagine how he sees the world since you don’t have these disorders. You are wise to look to experts to understand and develop strategies for working with your child. The most important take-aways for interacting with your challenging child are:

  • Talk slowly, give only one direction at a time
  • Allow him time to process what you said and what is happening, and
  • Listen to his concerns and compromise when needed

You may find your child challenging if your home situation is stressful. Children want to feel loved, accepted, and respected. Their brains work almost entirely through the limbic system. The limbic system is the part of the brain which decides if there is danger and should they run, fight, or freeze. They get scared if they don’t feel loved, accepted, or respected. This fear will make them refuse to do whatever they think could harm them. Your child will be more cooperative when he senses that you are feeling safe yourself. To do this, you must address the home issues, including counseling for yourself if appropriate.

Raising a challenging child is difficult. The rewards when he reaches adulthood are worth learning about him, how he sees the world, and how you can provide him with the skills that will allow him to feel loved, accepted, and respected as an adult.