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Parenting: When Things Go Wrong

Handling The Difficult to Soothe Child

Special Guest Post by Robin Luband, PsyD

Jenna throws her shoe across the car. “Jenna, stop it!” her mother shouts back asshe pulls over the car, glancing at her watch. “No! I won’t! You stop it!” Jenna hollersback, a look of defiance on her face. “Jenna, that’s enough! How many times do wehave to do this? I’m not going until you apologize.” “I hate you,” Jenna replies, “I’mnever listening to you again!” Although Jenna’s mother knows her daughter is still achild, visions of her future adolescent daughter calling her names or worse threatsfurther the mother’s momentary panic and dismay. If her daughter is this muchtrouble now, what does the future hold? How will she resolve this mess? When willthe chaos stop?

It is exhausting to parent a difficult child. You never know when a problem willoccur or what occasion will be spoiled by another one of your child’s outbursts. Youfeel on edge making plans to do things knowing that your child’s moods or behaviorare unpredictable and risk adding your own disappointment and frustration to themix by trying. Your fed up with the recurring challenges to your authority and feelunable to set things right. In truth, you often do not know why your child behavesthe way he or she does.

Parenting a struggling child is tiring. You may be frustrated by the roller coasterwhere you see your child do better, hope things can and will change, only to see thebehavior derail again. Perhaps, to recover your sense of efficacy, you busy yourselfwith other tasks or concerns. At least in these other situations, you feel competentand capable. If you have the resources, you have your sitter work more hoursbecause it seems to you your child acts better for him or her. You find yourselfbeing more anxious, unhappy, depressed, guilty or angry. You may disengage or yella lot. This makes you feel even worse. Perhaps you have another child whose behavior is easy to manage. Thereby, yourecognize that the problem isn't some deficit within you, although like most parentswho have been repeatedly or chronically frustrated by raising a hard to managechild, you feel intense guilt over your perceived mistakes and are confused by yourchild's behavior. You may experience thoughts and feelings you don't wish to have.When your child acts this way, you sometimes feel at that moment that you don'tlike them very much, although really, it is the behavior you don't like. You worrynot only about your child, but also about your relationship with your child and yourabilities as a parent. Parenting a challenging child can be isolating and alienating.

Depending on your child's behavior or moods, interactions with other parents, caregivers, teachers,and extended family members can be complicated and tricky. People may complainabout your child or criticize your parenting, and their comments can range fromhelpful and constructive to accusatory and hurtful. At times you are defensive and hurt by other people's comments. You realize your child's behavior is troublesome,but feel let down by the absence of tolerance and support from those around you.Or else you may feel shamed by your child's behavior, worry that their shortcomingsare a reflection on you or assume that others must think it so. In the face of criticism, you struggle between protecting your child's feelings,redirecting their behavior, and standing up for your child. You are frustratedbecause you correctly assume that others cannot possibly know what you and yourchild are going through.

The lack of support you feel furthers your disappointmentand is emotionally deflating. Criticisms from others can lead to significant rifts insocial relations, inauthentic relationships, negative interactions, and a general lackof joy and pleasure. When these rifts aggravate marital alliances, they add anothernegative dimension to existing stressors and lessen the family's ability to cope productively. All too often, the difficulties and pressures associated with parenting a child in needleads to stress within the marital relationship and parenting conflicts. The samedifferences or parallels in world views, personality, and coping styles that attracttwo people to each other and produce complementary or productive thinking undergood conditions can, and often do, result in hostility and opposition when parentsare struggling for the right response to a child's confusing, irrational, stubborn, ordesperate behavior.

It is also not uncommon for parents to argue with each other in the presence of the tantrumming child, adding another level of chaos, aggravation,and disbelief to the mix. These difficult feelings can carry over and corrode theparents’ relationship, prolonging the conflict beyond the immediacy of the child'sissues. I think most parents would agree that it is hard to be happy together, whentheir child is notably misbehaving, miserable, or in some way unmanageable. Whenfaced with recurrent outbursts and stressors from both within and outside of thefamily, parents are bound to run out of patience from time to time and, put simply,lose it.

The Issue of Your Authority

As parents, our need to make things right can make us desperate for order andcontrol. We think we must make sure the child knows what he or she has donewrong and we focus our attention on clarifying their misdeed(s), expressing ourdisapproval, and determining corrective consequences. This can result in criticism,threats, and a variety of demands. Unfortunately, our need to remediate theproblem and regain a sense of authority over the child’s acting out can lead us tocreate vacuous, inappropriate, or unrealistic consequences, let alone make hurtfulcomments, that in the end are unproductive and undermine parental authority.

Most children who act up do so because they are emotionally overwhelmed and arein a reactive state that compromises their reasoning skills. In other words, theyare frustrated, upset and can't think clearly. More often than not, your negativecomments will upset the child further and worsen their predicament. Additionally, they put you in the precarious position of thinking you need to follow through onyour threats in order to maintain your authority. In the moment of conflict, what you say and do is also affected by your emotionalstate. Your anger, frustration, or disappointment makes it difficult for you to feelcompassion and support your child effectively.

For these reasons, emotionally tumultuous moments are not the time to assert your authority, as they areopportunities to demonstrate your ability to tolerate and contain your child’snegativity. To do this, you must first take charge of your own emotions, thoughts,and behavior so that you can help your child take charge of theirs. If in the process of redirecting your child, you act in ways that are less than ideal andregretful, whether by saying things you shouldn’t have or making threats you don’twish to or can’t possibly keep, let your child know that your emotions got the bestof you. Teaching your child that everyone makes mistakes when upset or angry willhelp them understand that it is okay to have bad feelings, but that we must learnhow to manage them.

When the time is right, discuss with your child a plan formanaging similar situations better in the future and consider together alternativesolutions to the problem. This way, you will be teaching your child how to regulatetheir emotions, remediate a problem, and learn from their mistakes through bothyour behavior and instruction. When More Help Is Needed Parenting is a humbling business, but parents do not need to be alone in theirstruggle. There is help and support to address difficult issues with children,and there is help and support to meet your needs as well. Chronic and repeatedstruggles need and warrant your attention. It does no one in the family good andcan damage relationships significantly when any one family member is facingdifficulty. There are many excellent books about parenting that can broaden yourunderstanding of your child's needs and give you parenting guidance.

Much of the advice is excellent, especially if it works for you and your family. However,most parents I see in treatment tell me that their child's issues do not neatly fitinto a categorical description or that the child's behaviors vary, are sporadic, orinconsistent. Although capable and compassionate, they are confused by theirchild's behavior despite their efforts to understand and help them. It is becausethey are attentive and concerned that these parents appear to benefit from speakingwith an expert who can help them sort out inconsistencies, clarify issues thatunderlie the surfacing behaviors in question, and expand on their parenting tools. Bringing your child to therapy can be a great way to sort out your child's needs,give them support to make changes, and help them reach their potential.

Seeking guidance from a therapist for parent support is another way to help your child,improve your parenting abilities, and build your own resilience so that you canparent with confidence and enjoy your time with your family. Guidance counselors,teachers, school psychologists, pediatricians, and religious leaders can also help you clarify your child's needs, make recommendations for assistance, and be a supportfor you and your family. But, many parents struggle without seeking assistance.

Unfortunately, financial and practical barriers to getting treatment present real obstacles. Sometimes,some of the financial burden can be reduced through the use of insurance orsliding scale options provided by a therapist. Importantly, parents should inquirewith therapists to see if they can negotiate a lower fee for service due to financiallimitations. For other parents, it is the psychological burden and inconvenienceof seeing a therapist that deters them from seeking professional help. Thisburden, which in its details can be unique to each family, is in no way unusual oruncomplicated. Nevertheless, it is surmountable. It does no one in the familyany good to continue to encounter repeated conflict, perpetuate negative feelingsabout oneself and others, or struggle and fail. Conversely, the possibility ofchange through intervention can reshape identities, repair relationships, expandopportunities, build resilience, and ideally, create joy. So, the next time you are feeling parental distress in the face of your child'supheaval, use your upset as indication that you need to change things. If you need further help still, seek out expertise to help you reconsider your options. Ifprofessional help is warranted, it is worthy of your time, attention, and investment.A parent should never have to feel alone with his or her struggle. Seek out as muchsupport as you can foster with the means you have. There is always more help to behad and the possibility that a different approach will yield a different outcome whenthe right supports are in place.

Robin Luband, Psy.D., received her master’s degree in developmental psychologyand doctorate in clinical psychology. She is a child psychologist practicing in WhitePlains, NY. See, “Who’s in Charge? Parenting Your Child’s Emotional Upheavals andUpsets. Part 1: The Difficult to Sooth Child.”


Stephanie Newman, Ph.D., is the author of Mad Men on the Couch: Analyzing the Minds of the Men and Women of the Hit TV Show, which can be purchased fromBarnes & Noble, Indie Bound, andAmazon.