Kids Therapy Time

You CAN Love That Very Challenging Child.

Before I had children of my own, I was a newlywed sitting in my parked car on Main Street in Flushing, Queens, NY.  It was a cold winter day, and I noticed a mother in her thirties or forties pushing a stroller with a screaming child who was missing socks.  And I vividly remember my thought. How can that woman not put socks on her poor baby in the winter? What a terrible mother. Four children and seventeen years later, when I see that all too familiar scene, my revised over time became, How come that difficult baby won’t let her poor mother put socks on her in the winter?!

While some children seem to enter this world with a “go with the flow” attitude and cheerful disposition, others are more challenging for us parents.  A child’s sensory issues, anxiety, ADHD, defiance, mood issues etc. can make “parenting” feel like an uphill battle.

Not only do parents have to cope with their children’s difficult behaviors and emotions, they are often struggling with their own emotional and behavioral responses to this child.

Parents often feel so much shame or guilt with regard to their own feelings and reactions.
I lost total control of myself and screamed at him for fifteen minutes.” “The things she says to me are so outrageous and disrespectful, I slapped her without even thinking.  I  feel sick to my stomach.” “He feels like I love his siblings more than him.  I feel awful.  It’s not that I love them more, they’re just easier.  I’m worried I’m destroying his self-esteem.” “Can I be honest?  Sometimes I do hate him.”

I recently saw an anonymous question asked in an Internet forum for moms:
“How do I love my child who is extremely challenging and difficult?” 

What an honest and brave question! Most of us don’t talk about this; those moments when we feel out of love and drained. Those moments when we look at this difficult child and feel rage, disappointment, fear for the future, or absolutely nothing at all. Sometimes, when we do share this with a well-meaning friend or family member, we exit the conversation feeling judged.

Have you tried this?”
“You’re too strict with him.”
“You’re too lenient with him.”

We can wind up with thought of,  Am I awful? Or,  What is wrong with me?

Though this is not an overnight process and will take work, you absolutely can love your difficult child.

It starts with fully accepting that you are only human and that your reactions and feelings, while uncomfortable, or not what you would like them to be, are completely understandable!I am not saying that hitting your child or screaming, or emotionally pulling away is OK.  I am not validating that behavior.

What I am saying is that whatever your child is pulling from you, must be looked at, validated, accepted and soothed.  You must give this understanding and empathy to yourself first.  Then, and only then will you be able to give it to your child.  Before you can validate, accept, soothe and love your difficult child, you have to have the willingness to give these things to yourself.

Old Baggage
This child may be pushing your buttons in a way that is either reminiscent of a past or present relationship, bringing up old stuff and opening up old wounds.

We have to ask ourselves:

Does my child remind me of someone?
How do I feel around my child?
Powerless? Exasperated? Angry? Anxious?
Going into superwoman/fix it mode?
Not enough?

Who else has made me, or when was the last time I felt this way?

It’s important to be able to decipher whether any of the feelings that are blocking you from connecting to this difficult child, are old baggage that you are carrying into this relationship.  Some parent clients report to me that this shift from classic “parenting” to “self-work” alone improves not only their relationships with their child, but the child’s behavior as well.

If any of this interests you, I highly recommend the book The Conscious Parent by Dr. Shefaly Tsabari.

Change and Control
Though everyone is different, I find that many parents either consciously or subconsciously are desperate for their difficult child to change.  We want them to get better, not only for ourselves, but more importantly, so they can have an easier time in life.

We know they are struggling. 
It hurts us to see them struggle. 
It pains us to see them suffering while their siblings and peers seem to have an easier time. 

As counterintuitive as this may sound… we cannot change them.
We can’t make them better.
None of that is in our control

What is in our control is feeding them, providing shelter, getting them whatever services they need and  providing some stimulation for them.  We can’t change who they are and their struggles, but we can work on our relationship with them.  It’s often relevant for parents to make sure they aren’t trying to make better what is not in their control.

Here is a practical example of what I am talking about:

You just get a call from school that your son Yitzy hasn’t handed in his homework, yet again.  This spikes your emotions (anger, anxiety, despair etc.)  Somewhere inside, you’re feeling responsible to see to it that Yitzy gets his homework done.  But you’ve been at this rodeo before.  You know that when you tell him it’s homework time, he’s going to kick and scream and tantrum for three hours.  And your other kids have to hear this all night.  And they hide in their rooms, and don’t get your attention.  Then, you feel guilty about that.  Before you know it, Yitzy has depleted you.  You don’t have one ounce of energy left to give him or anyone else in the family, and let’s face it.  You resent him for that.

Here’s where the self-work comes in.  What is Yitzy’s lack of caring about his homework bringing up for you?  Perhaps it’s fear that he won’t get accepted to a good college.  Perhaps in your childhood home, that behavior wouldn’t fly for a second.  Perhaps you were an A student.  I would bet if you dig a little, something is going to come up for you.

This is where we shift our focus from “parenting” to “self-work.”  Just sit with whatever is coming up for you and think about it.  My advice in this situation would be to not engage in the homework battle.  Set up a quiet space for him to do his work (in your control), make a homework snack for him (in your control), if you’d like, you can make an incentive chart.  But him actually sitting down to do his homework… not in your control.  This is the hardest part, parents!  The letting go of the outcome part.

When parents are having a hard time accessing their love for their difficult child, there is almost always an element of fear involved.  If you hold on to the fear, it starts to creep into the relationship and impact your feelings for Yitzy.  Don’t let things you ultimately can’t control impact your relationship with the child.  How you let it go is for you to figure out.  Some women join a support group, some turn to prayer and give it to God, some take up a hobby.  Some feel better simply by giving themselves permission to not worry so much about the outcome and live in the moment.

Often times, we resent our difficult child because they take up a lot of time.  Time we would like to spend with our other children.  Go spend time with those other kids!  It’s OK.  Re-shift the focus from this difficult child (and if you have one, you know exactly what I’m talking about!) to your other, less challenging kids.  They need you too.  Allow them to occupy as much mental real estate as the difficult one.  Believe me when I tell you, you may wind up able to connect more to your difficult child by demoting him from Priority #1 to Same Priority As Other Children.  This re-shifting may allow the love you already have for your child to be more easily accessible.

See The Good
My very wise friend who lives an ocean away, shared with me the most moving piece of wisdom, when I was going through my own “parenting” (but really, self-work) challenges.

She said, “Jen, see the good and bring it forward.”

Though I am my own work in progress, and have a ways to go, See the Good and Bring it Forward is how I try to start every parenting day.  Actively think about the positive traits that your child has.  Are those traits what you thought they would be?  Maybe not.  And you may have to go through a mourning-like period in order to reach acceptance.

  • Make a mental list of those positive qualities.
  • Write them down.
  • Tape them up on your bathroom mirror so you see them in the morning.
  • Take a picture and make it your phone’s screen saver.
  • And then, notice those qualities and talk about them with your difficult child.
  • Catch him/her being good.

As parents, we need to work on our belief that our children will be OK, and convey that to them every day.  Our voice becomes theirs.  Our perception of them becomes their self-identity.  Sometimes a difficult child is difficult to love.   Please know that your feelings are normal.  Please don’t judge yourself for them.  Please take care of yourself.  Please know that self-care is what will get you through raising your “difficult child.”  If you’ve just lost it with him or her, please know that you can repair it.  Please know that you are amazing for wanting to improve your relationship with this child; and that this child is beyond blessed to have you in his or her life.

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About the author

Jennifer Mann, LCSW

Jennifer Mann, LCSW works with individuals, families and couples at her private practice on Long Island, NY. To contact Jennifer, call 718-908-0512 or email her at You can follow her on Facebook at JenniferMannLCSW@lcswrelationshiphealth.

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