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Dealing with a challenging child – Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Most days I find something to love about being a mom. I have a son who is 8 and a daughter, 6. My husband has been deployed at times, leaving me to fend for myself with the kids, but I have connected with some amazing mom friends.

My daughter, however, manages to push my buttons so that I turn into a screaming, swatting, privilege revoking monster. There have been days when I change our plans to not go out in public, or regret that I have, because of her melodramatic and disrespectful behavior. Last week we were running errands as a family and stopped at a sporting goods store so Dad could run in to get something he had promised her. It was only going to take him five minutes. She pitched such a fit about not being able to go in with him that we decided to head straight home. The next stop would have been for lunch, which unfairly disappointed our son. My husband and I weren’t thrilled about the change of plans either. Needless to say, she was livid.

But what else could we have done?

Hardly Ever a Dull Moment

Don’t miss last week’s column The science behind shifting school start times — Good Parenting

Dear HEAD Mom,

She sounds like a challenge! From your description, she fits at least three of the “difficult” categories in temperament theory: strong willed, not very adaptable to change and emotionally explosive. It is quite possible that she had set her mind on going into the store with Dad (whether this was your original plan or not) and took the news that she wasn’t going in as a shocking betrayal. Hence the explosive reaction.

Temperament theory

The theory of personality differences is based on behavioral traits that seem to be steady throughout a person’s lifetime. Genetic factors can contribute to parent-child conflict if the child’s temperament clashes with the parent’s.

The concept of enduring temperament was studied by Alexander Thomas and Stella Chase in the 1950s and has borne out in various studies:

  • Longitudinal studies — decades of analyzing the behavior of the original 141 children in the study.
  • Intergenerational studies — seeing how these traits showed up in their children.
  • Genetic studies — finding genetic markers for behavioral traits in DNA the same way that eye color can be spotted.

You probably have already compared your daughter’s physical traits to yourself and your husband, and have recognized matches and generational misses. Her eyes or her hair may more closely resemble an ancestor or cousin than her parents or her brother because genetics works that way. Research and advice about “goodness of fit” for temperament differences helps to explain why some parent-child relationships are smooth and others, such as you and your daughter’s, are bumpy.

When the fit is not good, parental efforts at understanding and accommodating a particular child’s nature are required. In other words, you may have to override your natural tendencies in the face of hers.

The best way to handle a child’s inborn behavioral traits is to accept her just the way she is. Eye color may not be the best example because that rarely causes behavior conflicts. Let’s say height (which is developmental as well as genetic) is a factor in a behavior. A short child might jump, stack chairs, wield a broom or interrupt a parent to reach a snack that she sees on top of the refrigerator. Rather than getting upset with her for this, you could place snacks either where she can safely reach them or out of sight. If her short stature happens to coincide with the behavioral traits of sneakiness and determination, you could avoid trouble by either locking up snacks or changing your buying habits so that there are no forbidden snacks to be found anywhere in the house. But she can always help herself to the carrot sticks.

Strong-willed tendencies

A strong-willed child needs firm limits. It’s easiest on everyone if limits are enforced without an adult having to be present. If there’s no trouble to get into, she has a much harder time finding any. If we substitute “snacks” with power tools or poisons, it’s even easier to understand why prevention is the wisest strategy for keeping the strong-willed child in line.

Her impulses, preferences and opinions are very strong, so encourage her input on as many decisions as is appropriate and limit battles to a few issues on which you have the final say. This will reduce the number of conflicts between you.

As much as possible, she should be able to have choices and the chance to express herself. Don’t oppose her will unless you absolutely must for safety, cost or consideration of others. Your limits should be clear, consistent and categorically enforced. (This means that Dad and other caregivers need to be in 100 percent agreement on the limits.) Likewise, the day’s plans, including each shopping stop, should be clearly spelled out. Get in the habit of reviewing each day’s plans with your young daughter the day before, in the morning, when you head out and as you go through the day. You might include how much time you plan to spend in each store, who is going in and for what specific purpose. Then try not to alter the plan from her expectations.

Poor adaptability tendencies

The trait of poor adaptability shows up whenever the plans change. Some people are extremely spontaneous and flexible, while others suffer intense stress if anything is other than what they were expecting. Of course, sometimes the plans do change. The unexpected could be a shift in weather, an unforeseen delay during one of the errands, sudden hunger or fatigue or illness on the part of someone in the plan, or something as simple but disastrous as the business you were planning to visit is closed.

Expect that a child who has difficulty shifting gears will probably stall, argue or blow up if this occurs. Some stress management strategies would help both of you to keep as steady a head as possible in such circumstances. Stress management strategies include: regular exercise, adequate sleep, good nutrition and enjoying activities that calm and refresh. De-stressing activities could include listening to music, walking in the woods or reading a good book.

You might practice a mantra with your daughter that she can use when the rug seems to be pulled out from under her. Express sympathy when you explain that disappointments are often hard to take, but, sure as rain sometimes falls on our parade, the sun’ll come out tomorrow. Other comforting examples: “That’s the way the cookie crumbles” or “Maybe next time.” Your model of maintaining your composure will go a long way to help her see that the world has not come to an end.

Emotionally explosive tendencies

Life for a drama queen is by definition dramatic. This personality trait is exhausting — for the performer as well as the audience. Emotional highs are extra high. Emotional lows are extra low. Life is a roller coaster. What are the triggers that commonly overexcite or upset your daughter? Some extra-dramatic children need limits on video game playing because of how excited and upset they get while playing. For others, an upset is likely during a particular kind of homework or because of an unmanageable curl in their hair. Playmates or siblings may cause frequent upsets or excite her to the point of wild behavior. Recognize what and who these triggers are and limit them or plan to supervise her play more closely.

On the other hand, you can reduce emotional explosions by increasing activities that channel emotional energies constructively. Drama is a good choice. Provide dress up clothes, a mirror, or puppets and a makeshift stage and let her invite family and friends to be the audience. If musical performing is her thing, support her with singing lessons, a drum set or a pretend microphone so she can belt out a ballad. Visual art is yet another way to express feelings, whether with crayons, markers or paint. Any of these interests could be followed over the next few years with a class or club to provide not only an outlet, but a possible direction for her grown-up emotional life.

The theory of temperament traits explains a lot about the behaviors that don’t go away no matter what the parent tries.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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