Loving the Difficult Child


By Mary Cooney,

Author of (Evangelizing Our Children with Joy)

Once in a while, one of my kids fall into a funk – a period of negativity and difficult behavior which makes parenting, especially homeschooling, a real challenge. When this happens, not only do I feel sorrow for my child, but I also feel discouraged and inadequate. And yet, I know that this is a common experience among parents.

Perhaps it’s a hyper-sensitive child who whines and cries over the smallest vexations. Perhaps it’s a strong-willed child who fights you tooth and nail whenever you tell him to do something. Perhaps it’s that hormonal middle schooler, who has suddenly become moody, disrespectful, and ultra-critical. Or perhaps it’s a child whose health issues makes her irritable and crabby.

Whatever the situation, although you know deep-down that you love this child, there are times when it can be a real challenge to be patient and loving. So, what can we do?

First, let’s not take our children’s behavior personally. Often it will seem like a child’s angry or scornful behavior is directed right at you. But the reality is that since you’re the mom, your child knows you love him unconditionally. Therefore, he has no inhibitions when it comes to expressing his feelings around you. This does not mean your child should be allowed to treat you with disrespect. We need to be consistent about commanding and demanding respect from our children. Otherwise they will treat us like rugs – things to be trodden upon without care. However, it is good to remember that, in most cases, it is the moms who bear the brunt of their children’s bad behavior. It’s not just you. It’s a part of motherhood. Without losing sensitivity to the feelings of others, we need to grow thick skins, an objectivity that will protect us from the thorns our children fling at us.

Second, before we judge, let’s try to be understanding. When a child continually acts up or fails to meet our expectations, it’s easy to think, “Oh, you’re just lazy, stubborn, selfish, etc.” It’s easy to attribute the poor behavior to a vice which needs to be corrected. Sometimes this is the case. However, it is often better to try to understand the matter from the child’s point of view and to let your child see that you are trying to understand their point of view. I think it’s always a good idea to do this before making any corrections or taking disciplinary action: I know you’re angry. I would be mad, too, if Smarty-Pants called me a dum-dum. But that’s no excuse for dumping your spaghetti on his head….

A child who senses that you are always judging her often becomes withdrawn, resentful, or defensive. A child who sees that you are at least trying to understand her point of view, even if you don’t agree with her, will be more receptive to a peaceful resolution. I know this is hard and time-consuming, as some children will always insist they are right, will always point the finger and pass the blame. Nonetheless, over a long period of time (years) this approach of trying to understand before judging will pay off. For then you are modeling patience, justice, and sensitivity to the feelings of others. Even more, your child will know that you are not making quick judgements and that you are trying to be fair. So, avoid rash judgements and long lectures. Rather, give your child an opportunity to express his point of view, encouraging him to speak as calmly as possible.

Third, when a child’s poor behavior extends for a long time, be aware that your child is not happy with himself. His behavior is not only upsetting to you. Often, such behavior agitates siblings who, provoked or frustrated, retaliate with little understanding and patience. Siblings, especially younger ones, can be very blunt, easily wounding a child who is already hurting. Just the other day, 5-year old Princess said to her brother Feisty, “I don’t like you anymore. I like All-Star, but I don’t like you.” Later that day, I found Feisty sobbing into his pillow. “Nobody likes me,” he cried. It would have been easy to remind him of all the annoying behaviors that elicited Princess’ response. But a list of faults and failures will not motivate a child.

Rather, these children need to be reminded of their inherent goodness. We need to be remind them of their natural virtues and encourage our children to build upon them: Feisty, I know you feel as if no one likes you, but it’s not true. Princess was just mad. She really didn’t mean what she said. You’re a great kid, Feisty. You’re generous, thoughtful, and a ton of fun. Princess loves playing with you. I bet if you apologized, she’d forget that she was ever mad at you.

When a child’s problematic behavior extends for a long time, he’s not happy about it and he doesn’t know how he will overcome it. Even worse, it may feel as if you are always correcting him, always disciplining with negative feedback. To avoid discouragement, we need to give our children lots of encouragement, hope, and support. Telling funny stories of how naughty you were as a child or how you and your siblings/friends used to fight can be very encouraging. At the least, such stories can distract a child from his own self disparagement. And then, help your child to make peace with his siblings when he rubs them the wrong way. Developing new hobbies and interests can be another way for a child to take his mind off his troubles. Whatever you do, you need to express confidence that your child will overcome this present period of difficulty, and you need to reassure him that he is not alone; you are there to help.

It is also helpful to remind your other children that the one sibling is going through a tough time and needs extra patience and understanding. Remind them that we all go through peaks and valleys. This can then become a time for siblings to grow in compassion and charity, as they struggle to put up with the one who is going through a difficult time.

Fourth, while we try to be understanding and encouraging, we also need to maintain firm boundaries. Health issues, hormonal mood swings, difficult temperaments, etc. often make it hard for a child to stay within the boundaries of acceptable behavior. But that doesn’t mean we get rid of them altogether. Out of justice and to maintain some semblance of peace in the home, children who are going through a challenging period need firm boundaries. This is especially true when it comes to matters of safety, respect for parents, and charity towards siblings.

So, when a child crosses the line, let’s be consistent about correcting his behavior. Unfortunately, simple warnings or verbal corrections will often not suffice. We will need to back up our words with gentle but firm actions and consequences.

Fifth, a prolonged period of behavioral problems can put a lot of strain on your relationship with your child. So, it’s helpful to spend quality one-on-one time with the child just having fun together. Go on a special outing or take a walk in the park together. Find something your child really likes to do and do it with him. This is a time of relationship building and letting your child shine. It’s not a time to give a lecture or discuss behavior problems. It’s a chance to affirm your child and let him know how much you love him and enjoy his company. It’s also an opportunity to give your child a break from peers and siblings who often aggravate him.

Sixth, difficult children are emotionally exhausting. So, give yourself a break, especially if you’re with the child all day long. During one of my kids’ funks, which was caused by a health issue, I was stressed. But I didn’t realize how badly I needed a break until I had to have a 3-hour blood test. Even though I had to have blood drawn four times during the three hours, sitting in the lab by myself without any kids was actually enjoyable. Pretty pathetic definition of fun. But I really relished the break.

When a child is constantly giving you a hard time, it’s normal to feel angry, resentful, or frustrated. You need to have breathing space: a chance to clear your mind, pull yourself together, and rejuvenate. So, have a date with your husband, or spend time alone in a fresh environment. Household chores and other responsibilities can wait (don’t worry, they won’t go anywhere). You will draw strength from a change of pace and scenery.

Seventh, Remember that this won’t last forever.   As I stated earlier, we all go through peaks and valleys. Sometimes a child’s behavior improves, other times it regresses. Hoping and knowing that such difficult phases will pass, we may need to adjust our expectations for a time, but only for a time. Spring always follows winter, and we can always hope that the current trial will lead to a new growth in virtue and maturity. This is something I have seen with my own children. When God allows us to suffer, He always has a purpose.

In the meanwhile, the best thing we can do is to pray for strength and wisdom and to pray especially for the child who is causing so much disruption in the home. One of my favorite Gospel stories is The Healing of a Boy with a Spirit. Here, a father brought his possessed son to the disciples for a cure, but they were unable to cast out the evil spirit. So, the father brought his son to Our Lord:

And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.” – Mark 9:20-29

This kind can come out only through prayer. Whose prayer? The disciples’ prayer? Our Lord’s prayer? I believe it was the father’s prayer that moved Our Lord to cast out the devil. See how he converses with Jesus: He tells Our Lord the details of his troubles and then begs, “have pity on us and help us!” Note the father’s persistence even despite Our Lord’s rebuke for his lack of faith: “I believe; help my unbelief!” Like this father, we need to implore Our Lord for his Help with persistence, even when we lack faith.

Finally, let’s remember that the family is a school of love, especially sacrificial love which is an act of the will rather than a sentimental feeling. These difficult times are opportunities to grow in patience, understanding, self-control, humility, and above all, love. Praying for God’s grace to do this will help us grow stronger and holier as individuals and as families

Mary Cooney is a wife and mother, born and raised in Toronto, Canada. With a degree in Music Education and a masters degree in Piano Pedagogy, she has been teaching children for over twenty years. Her most delightful students are her own five, lively home-schooled children. She currently lives in Maryland.

Check out her book Evangelizing Our Children With Joy

To Explore more by Mary Cooney, Visit mercyformarthas.com

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