Many parents wonder what is the best way to parent a difficult child. There are two common paths in our culture. One way is to bring down the hammer and increase control in the household. A second approach is to throw up your hands and give up on trying to change things. Of course, you may still complain about your child’s behavior, but you have no hope of being effective.
Common ways to parent a difficult child
Let’s start by exploring these two very different types of parenting methods we see most often in the media and among friends, family, and in our own households.
1. Controlling parents assert that they are always right. They attempt to control the child’s behavior and thoughts in order to achieve success. When children make mistakes, they are reprimanded and punished. The challenge is that children in these households typically rebel or lose themselves. They tend to lack self-control and intrinsic motivation.
2. Permissive parents feel helpless and unable to positively impact their kids. They tend to feel victimized by the child’s behavior. They may not have the time or resources to actively parent their kids. Or they may have been parented by controlling parents when they were children. They are now over-correcting in an attempt to avoid putting their own children through the same thing.
3. Swing parents go between the two extremes of controlling and permissiveness. They buckle down and put punishments and rules in place, only to give up when their child fights back, sneaks out, or does anything else to push against the controlling measures. Swinging between two polarities can leave kids feeling insecure and more likely to act up. This can create an exhausting cycle for both parents and kids.
A more effective way to parent a difficult child
But there is another, more effective method of parenting that is far more likely to help a difficult child and make being a parent easier. Assertive parents build their parental relationships on mutual respect and trust. With clear boundaries between who they are and who their kids are, they recognize their kids’ unique personalities and strengths.
They don’t feel threatened when their child makes mistakes or doesn’t want to do something the parent cares about. They seek ways to enhance the child’s natural strengths and interests and create situations in which the child can learn to face developmentally-appropriately hardship. This approach builds safety and grit.
When children make mistakes, they are spoken to with kindness and understanding. But assertive parents also have boundaries and rules. They collaborate with their kids to set goals and make changes. They have confidence that the child is doing the best they can.
Difficult children are harder to parent
There is no single definition of what makes a child “difficult,” but one thing is clear, and it’s that parenting feels hard, even impossible.
When parents look back at a difficult child’s evolution they may see a child who was wonderful and then suddenly became difficult. Or they may see a child who has always been a challenge. Maybe they see a baby who was fussy, a toddler who was demanding, and the inevitable out of control teenager.
It makes a lot of sense that when we have a hard time with something, we assign blame to the thing that is causing us problems. In the case of parenting, we tend to think there is something wrong with the child.
And it may be true that you have a highly-sensitive child, a child who has special needs or a learning disability. Maybe you have a child who, through no fault of yours, experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that have led to trauma. But it’s important to remember that relationships are between two or more people, and when we have a relationship problem, everyone in the relationship plays a role.
We are always and forever in a relationship with our child. And how we respond to and accommodate their difficulties impacts the relationship and the people within it. Sometimes we accidentally make a challenging child even more difficult to parent, even though that’s the exact opposite of what we want!
Making parenting easier
When we look at a child who is difficult to parent, people often begin by thinking about what is wrong with the child. But we miss a lot if we don’t look at how they have been shaped by the parent-child relationship.
This can be so challenging, and it is not coming from a place of parent blaming and shaming. But the fact is that we impact our children when we parent them. And we can often help our children if we acknowledge our own role in how they are behaving and feeling.
In fact, we can usually make parenting easier for ourselves if we work on how we parent our kids.
Almost nobody learns how to be a great parent
Our kids are handed over to us, and very few of us have any training in how to be a good parent. In fact, most of us learned everything we know from our own parents, who were likely untrained themselves, and television, movie, and book families, which are almost always over-simplified and deeply flawed. This incomplete education leaves us vulnerable to parenting mistakes.
If we were parented by controlling parents, we may do the same automatically. Or we will swing the opposite direction and become permissive. Most of us actually swing between controlling and permissive, which creates a very confusing environment for our kids.
Negative behaviors like using alcohol, sex, drugs, cigarettes, lying, cheating, poor grades, skipped classes, shoplifting, sexual promiscuity, vandalism, and eating disorders thrive when parents are not taught how to create a stable parent-child relationship.
This does not mean that parents are responsible for kids’ bad behavior, but it does mean that there are things parents can do to help kids find a healthier path.
Here are the steps parents can take to parent a difficult child:
1. Forgive yourself
The first step in learning to parent a difficult child is to forgive yourself. Many parents who have challenging kids are living with deep shame about their “failure” as parents. Work with someone who can help you process and work through that shame.
We all come from somewhere, and we all do our very best for our kids. The fact that your child is difficult is not your fault, but there is something you can do about it. And it all begins with having compassion for yourself.
Next, learn as much as you can about parenting. Focus your attention on understanding attachment. We have several articles on this topic, including:
- Do you kind of hate your teenager?
- Why is my child emotionally withdrawn from me?
- How to listen to your child non-defensively
- Love your child for they are – not who you wish they would be
There are some excellent books that teach the neuroscience of connection and safety, which underlie healthy parent-child relationships. Some of our favorites include:
- The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired
- Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers
- Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous and Independent Children
Learn everything you can about healthy parent-child relationships. Most parents feel understandably defensive about parenting issues. But try to keep an open mind. Curiosity is the very first ingredient you need to learn something new.
One of the first things we lose when we have a difficult child is our ability to listen to them without judgment. This is because we’ve built a mountain of complaints and assumptions about them. But healing will come from compassion, not controlling or giving up. And compassion can only thrive in a safe space when a child feels like you listen to them.
Open up conversations about their choices, goals, and regrets. Truly listen as you would listen to your best friend. This will be more likely to put you in a place of acceptance and empathy, which will build trust in your relationship.
Give them space to express themselves imperfectly. Don’t jump in to tell them how they should have done something instead, how they should be looking at the problem, or any other form of advice. Most people will find their way to the right answer for them if given time and trust.
It makes perfect sense if you believe that your child has harmed you and that they are the ones who should be apologizing. But difficult children are unlikely to apologize unless they feel safe. And the best way to build safety is for you to repair any mistakes that you have made.
It costs nothing and will make a significant impact if you apologize to your child for past mistakes. This doesn’t mean you are taking the blame for their behavior, but it does mean you are taking responsibility for your behavior. Here are some examples:
- Olivia, when I found out you were drinking, I yelled and completely lost my temper. I imagine that was probably scary. I’m really sorry.
- Bryan, I realize that we were slow to get you the help you needed for your ADHD. I want to apologize for how my hesitation to get treatment for you impacted your early years in school,. I know that it has made school harder for you. I’m sorry.
- Tisha, while I wish you were able to recover from your eating disorder, I realize that when I shamed you for eating those cookies, that was wrong. My anger was unhelpful, and I can see that what you need is support, not punishment. I’m sorry.
Some parents might worry that these statements let the child off the hook for their behavior. But quite the opposite often happens. When parents consistently work to repair their own mistakes and demonstrate vulnerability, their child is more likely to apologize for their own behavior.
5. Show up
When a child is difficult, it’s natural for the parent to want to spend less time with them. It’s frustrating and often exhausting to be with a child who is acting out. But building a safe, healthy parent-child relationship is the fastest route to transforming your situation.
Find ways to show up for your child. Eat meals together, go for walks together, watch their sports games or video game tournaments, and share time as often as possible. It’s all too easy to hide behind screens and doors today, but a difficult child needs their parents to show up and make space for this very important relationship.
Even if your child says they don’t want you around, they need you. Children need their parents, even when they are old and even if they have a complicated relationship. Just because your child is angry, withdrawn, or acting out doesn’t mean they don’t need your presence in their life.
Assertive parenting makes kids easier & more likely to succeed
Assertive parents are more likely to have kids who are easier to parent and also more likely to succeed emotionally and behaviorally. Some core components of assertive parenting include:
- An expectation that parents and children each behave respectfully and honestly
- Respect for the parent and child as individual people who have sovereignty over their own lives and choices
- High expectations of positive behavior both within and outside of the relationship
- Honest communication
- Dedication to building a healthy parent-child relationship
- Compassionate, positive interactions
- Parents set boundaries and have authority to make decisions around the child’s health and safety
- Empathy for each other
The assertive parenting model allows our children to live life on their own terms, even while living within acceptable conduct in the home and society.
Our kids will thrive under assertive parenting in ways that they will never thrive under controlling or permissive parenting. They will develop a strong sense of self, high self-esteem, and a powerful belief in their own self-worth.
And yes, they may still rebel. They may still be difficult to parent sometimes. But that’s because they are human beings living a human life, not because they are acting out against overly-rigid or permissive parents.
They may still develop eating disorders and do things like sneak out to go to a party and get drunk and call us to come and pick them up. But if they can rest assured of the safety of our relationship, they are more likely to thrive anyway.
Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.