Transforming the Difficult Child

Parenting a difficult child is challenging, frustrating and makes you feel like a failure. The full title of the book that has the best information for parents of the difficult child is "Transforming the Difficult Child - The nurturing heart approach - Shifting the intense child to new patterns of success" by Howard Glasser and Jennifer Easley. The biggest problem of raising the difficult, intense, challenging, over-energized child is that conventional and acceptable methods of parenting are doomed to failure. Why? These children require a much greater effort, focus, inner-guidance and self-control than the average child to achieve and maintain success. The more intense the child, the more intense the intervention needs to be. The more difficult the child is, the stronger the container needs to be. The authors offer this word picture to help us understand the need for a stronger container. Take a look at a balloon. It is a very appropriate container for air. It can take quite a beating before it breaks. If you put water in the balloon, it will hold it but you have to be very careful. One drop of the balloon and the container proves to be inadequate. Now imagine a liquid metal like mercury placed in the balloon. It can not even hold its shape. It needs a stronger container. The same goes for the difficult child.

The payoff for the intense child is your energy and your attention to their problem behavior. A parent needs to change the focus of their attention and emotion. Most parents get upset and emote when their child is misbehaving. This feeds and reinforces the difficult child. The parent is encouraged to "flat-line" their emotions and reactions while the child is disruptive and give lots of positive emotions when behavior is appropriate. The time to teach a child about the rules and expectations is not when they are being inappropriate, but when things are going well. The example of a video game is very interesting. Have you noticed the long attention span your child has during video games. There are plenty of bells and whistles (reinforcement) while playing and doing well but very little energy when they lose the game or get caught or killed. The game ends and then they get to start all over again with the same game. There is no criticism or getting yelled at, just start again, trying your best to do better. The parent of the difficult child needs to flatline their emotions and reactions when their child fails, just deliver the consequences and move on.

The energy starved child can be getting a tremendous amount of negative attention throughout the day and still be starving for attention when they get home. Why? Negative attention is like junk food, it has little nutritional value. The negative attention gets encoded in their brain as "I am a failure". This is reinforced every day they are disruptive. Poor behavior leads to poor self-esteem. Often, these children may reject ordinary positive comments by adults because inside, they are doubtful, at their very core, that anything positive could be true about them. When they hear positive remarks like: "Good job!" or "You are doing so well!", inside, in their subconscious self-talk they are saying, "I am not a good kid" or "I'm always getting into trouble". The child's "low self-esteem radar" is always ready to shoot down positive statements because they (know or believe) they are failures.

Take Three Necessary Stands

I - I refuse to get drawn into giving my child greater responses, more attention and other unintended "payoffs" for negative behavior. I won't accidentally foster failures and reward problems with my energy.

II - I resolve to purposely create and nurture successes. I will relentlessly and strategically pull my child into a new pattern of success.

III - I have clear rules for my child and clear and consistent consequences when he or she breaks the rules. I resolve to give a true and effective consequence when a rule is broken.

If a child has the perception that he or she gets more out of life for acting negatively, and we take only the stand of intensifying the rules or the harshness of the consequences, we will actually make things worse. Why? The child will size up the new circumstances and surmise that now they are simply playing for bigger stakes. The child will not be doing this "on purpose", but the addictive side of the habit will draw them toward the prospect of a larger response. Difficult children simply are stuck in patterns from which they cannot extricate themselves without skillful help. The parent as therapist, the child's primary caregiver, is the best person to be the agent of change. For a complete manual for helping your child be successful, read the book and begin practicing the principles in it. I have seen dramatic changes in children when these principles are followed.