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Parenting a challenging child

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If you are parenting a behaviorally challenged child — one who is highly inflexible, defiant, and in trouble much of the time — then you may be all too familiar with the confusion, anger, guilt, and shame that go with the territory.

Challenging kids make life significantly more difficult for their families, teachers, and others with whom they interact. They are often poor problem solvers with rigid interpersonal styles. They may have meltdowns and explosive episodes a few times a week or dozens of times daily.

But there is help — and hope.

Snapshot of the challenging child

Because of the variety of symptoms and severity, challenging kids may receive a diagnosis of Oppositional Defiance Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, Conduct Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or others.

Challenging kids may get in trouble for non-compliance at home, school, or both. They have difficulty following instructions, switching gears, getting along with others, and responding appropriately to a variety of social situations. They have outbursts and may swear, hit, spit, throw things, or assault others.

Parents of challenging kids often feel stuck and desperate when the use of rewards and punishment is ineffective, especially given that such strategy is often prescribed and is at times effective with less-challenging children. Challenging kids may embarrass their parents with noncompliance so much that they become convinced their child enjoys being hostile and mean!

What causes the outbursts?

Too often, parents mistakenly blame themselves for their child’s misbehavior. Blame may also come from well-meaning friends or school personnel who believe their parenting is not strict or consistent enough. But parenting techniques are only one factor impacting children’s behavior.

Author of “Lost at School” (Scribner, 2008) and “The Explosive Child” (Harper, 2010), Harvard Medical School instructor and pediatric psychologist Dr. Russ Greene writes, “Challenging behavior occurs when the demands of the environment exceed a kid’s capacity to respond adaptively. In other words, it takes two to tango.”

In “When Your Kids Push Your Buttons” (Grand Central Publishing, 2004), parent educator Bonnie Harris explains, “Children feel under attack from negative judgments and criticisms and are often left with no choice but to engage in counteratt­ack.”

On the surface, challenging kids may appear to be attention-seeking, manipulative, limit-testing, and poorly motivated, but this may not be the case! Children often harbor unsolved cognitive problems, which they lack the skills to solve on their own.

Experts who work extensively with defiant children and families insist that challenging kids do not enjoy tormenting or offending people. Harris states, “Children want to be successful. No child is happy being manipulative or out of control.”

These kids frequently have trouble reading social cues and use aggression and defiance for self-preservation.

The importance of empathy

Being responsive and showing empathy is critical to managing challenging behavior. Dr. Greene asserts that when parents show empathy and teach skills for adaptive behavior, behavior improves.

On Greene’s Lives in the Balance site, he teaches the definition of good treatment which is “being responsive to the hand you’ve been dealt” and is not “treating every kid exactly the same.”

Philip and Nancy Hall, who wrote “Parenting a Defiant Child” (AMACOM, 2007) believe parents need to display empathy and “the know-how to help their children develop and sustain meaningful relationsh­ips.”

And in “Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids” (Adams Media, 2008), Harris explains that parents’ expectations of their child must be based on who he is, not on who they wish he would be. She writes, “To affect their behavior, their internal state must first be understood, then accepted, then addressed.”

Help for families

Because of varying philosophies and approaches to helping challenging kids, parents should educate themselves to choose experts and solutions which offer a good fit.

A fairly new approach is Greene’s Collaborative Problem Solving, which involves three parts: learning about your child’s perspective, clarifying your own concerns, and brainstorming solutions. The role of parents is to figure out what is getting in their child’s way of not doing well.

Greene stresses that solutions to behavior problems take great effort, bravery, and practice. But since this method eliminates any power struggle, the outcome is win-win. To learn more about it, visit www.livesinthebalance.org/what-collaborative-problem-solving-and-why-it-important.

Harris also endorses a collaborative approach with kids who push your buttons, and her excellent tips for coping include:

• When emotions are heated, stop dangerous actions only. Do not react.

• Never try to teach a lesson or solve a problem in the heat of the moment.

• Walk away if you think you will yell, blame, or shame.

• Count to 10.

• Inhale and exhale deeply at least three times.

• Find a word or phrase to repeat to yourself that will hold you back from reacting even for a second.

• Remind yourself that your child is having a problem not being a problem.

• If your emotions are high, acknowledge that you are having a problem as well. Own it.

• Don’t make your child responsible for your feelings or reactions.

• Don’t take it personally. Do be a sounding board.

• Appeal to your child’s sense of fairness and logic.

• Remember, this too will pass.

Because challenging and defiant children come in all shapes and sizes, there is not a one-size-fits-all treatment or prescription. An important first step, even if you are struggling to define the problem, is to seek help, stay positive, and cling to hope.

Michele Ranard has a husband, two children, and a master’s in counseling. Visit her at hellolovelychild.blogspot.com.


Greene, Russ W. “The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children.” Harper, 2010.

Greene, Russ W. “Lost at School: Why Our Kids With Behavioral Challenges are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them.” Scribner, 2008.

Hall, Philip S., and Nancy J. Hall. “Parenting a Defiant Child: A Sanity-Saving Guide to Finally Stopping the Bad Behavior.” AMACOM, 2007.

Harris, Bonnie. “Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With.” Adams Media, 2008.

Harris, Bonnie. “When Your Kids Push Your Buttons: And What You Can Do About It.” Grand Central Publishing, 2004.

Updated 4:38 pm, December 9, 2016
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