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Learning from a Difficult Child

"Mary" (name withheld at author's request)

Did you see me in Wal-Mart? I was sitting on the floor in the shampoo and soap aisle, physically restraining my small son, so he would not deck me or take out (another) row of Calgon (“take me away”). Just another day in the bewildering life of a mom dealing with a difficult child. But this wasn’t supposed to be happening to me, an experienced mom with two older boys known for their pleasant personalities, politeness and cooperation. But my determined little Tom made sure it was happening to me—in Wal-Mart, the doctor’s office and my own kitchen.
My third son’s intensity, energy and impulsivity were unusually high for a toddler, and much to my dismay, did not show clear signs of abating even when he was three and four. His behavior included destructiveness and well-aimed biting, kicking and hitting. My long-awaited baby was a hard-to-deal-with handful. I was overwhelmed, angry, embarrassed and hurt. How could the little one I loved so much be so uncivilized, when his older brothers had responded so well to the guidance lovingly offered by my husband and me? Now at age five, Tom remains more difficult than some children his age, but his steps toward self-control have gradually become apparent and left me with greater wisdom. I can look back over my years of learning from him and see a number of strategies that helped me cope and helped him improve.
Just say no—to situations I learned that there were many circumstances that would precipitate tantrums, impulsivity or other bad behavior. Since these happened many times a day, I was in no danger of removing all opportunities for my child to learn to change his behavior and cope, but I did remove the obvious offenders to reduce our stress. Knowing Tom could not spend an hour in a grocery cart with strangers asking him questions, I became a “dash-in” grocery shopper when I had to shop with him. (As long as I could, I carried him in my backpack, but it was difficult with such a high-energy, and as luck would have it, sturdy little boy). I also did not leave him in the church nursery unless one of us could stay with him. None of the nursery attendants were equipped to deal with him, and I was afraid that he would hurt smaller children and become known as the bully. We turned down invitations for dinners he would have ruined anyway, and opted to host or attend outdoor picnics or events with extremely child-friendly environments. Yes, at times this was a sacrifice, but I knew that setting my child up for failure would only end up badly anyway. And, again, in our Tom-friendly circumstances, he still got experience in dealing with his difficulties, just not in such an overwhelming way.
Become hyper-vigilant. Parents of toddlers know that play dates are usually not calm coffee breaks just chatting with other parents. Most of the time, the interruptions are continuous, as one child and then another needs to be re-directed or attended to so that civilization prevails. With Tom, I found I had to double or triple that, and it lasted through most of his fourth year. I was on my feet, anticipating his next move before he could lob something or push someone. As much as I wanted to enjoy the company of my friends, hyper-vigilance had to take precedence, or we quickly would have become unwelcome.
My husband and I tag-teamed, taking turns at being hyper-vigilant at shopping malls, parties and grandmothers’ houses. It was exhausting, and some people didn’t understand why we weren’t able to relax and socialize. If you’ve never had a child who got into the refrigerator with all the food while you took a 45-second bathroom break, it is probably hard to comprehend.

Footnotes to hyper-vigilance: since it is an exhausting job, primary caregivers who spend long hours on duty may need to take a break. My husband encouraged me to exercise, write or take a walk. Also keep in mind that hyper-vigilance is a hard habit to break: as my little one grew more competent at playing in groups, I had to re-train myself so I would not always expect every incident to have been caused by him. There should be balance between helping your child take responsibility for his actions and creating a negative self-fulfilling prophecy for bad behavior.

Use “holding time.” Time-outs had worked beautifully for our first two boys, as did other common guidance techniques used by many loving parents. I had grown into these techniques with my other young sons as part of a parenting style that emphasized the importance of my boys’ relationships with me. My aim was to avoid both overly harsh and too permissive parenting, and to implement a loving guidance philosophy as espoused by La Leche League International and many involved in attachment parenting. Books by William and Martha Sears, including The Attachment Parenting Book, provide information about this approach to discipline.
Our third child was far too wired for a basic time-out to work. Sent to his room, he would rant and become destructive, getting him into more trouble. I developed a technique we called “holding time,” which I generously modified from information I read in a book called Holding Time: How to Eliminate Conflict, Temper Tantrums, and Sibling Rivalry and Raise Happy, Loving, Successful Children, by Martha G. Welch, M.D. When my child needed to be limited because he was behaving inappropriately, I placed him on my lap and restrained him, using both my arms and even both my legs (to keep him from kicking me), if necessary. I was careful not to use more force than necessary and checked to be sure I was not inflicting pain. The object was gentle but sure restraint, not revenge. If the problem was not a tantrum to begin with, holding him surely led to a tantrum, but I held on through the entire episode. First he’d go through a fighting stage, then through angry acceptance, and finally to calm resolution and a willingness to make amends. The first few days of trying this, holding time seemed to create worse and longer tantrums, but a calm was descending on me. I could be in charge, place limits without allowing destruction, and help my child reach a resolution that ended on a sincere and positive note, even if it took a while.

I began to add a little mantra-like saying to our holding time. “Tom, you can’t control yourself right now, so Mommy will help you. But the bigger you get, the more self-control you will need, and you will be able to do it yourself.” More kicking and screaming and refusal to cooperate, but I kept holding and repeating.
After just a few weeks of holding time, the actual “holding” was cut from 20-30 minutes to 10-15. Eventually, over months, I could say to Tom as he was verging on loss of control and not responding to other techniques, “Do you need me to hold you, or are you going to be able to control yourself?” Often, that was enough for him to be able to get himself together. Other times, he still required holding. As he became able to project the consequences of his actions into the future, we were able to reinforce self-control in more traditional ways that had worked for our other children. For instance, “If you behave in the store, Mommy will feel good enough to go back to the park so we can play some more.” Holding time became a thing of the past, but now is somewhat fondly remembered by our family.
Instinct tells me that parents who find the use of holding time to create more fury in themselves shouldn’t use it. Being calm and matter of fact is key, and it would certainly be a misuse of the technique if it made a parent feel or act violently toward her child.
Help articulate feelings. Throughout all of Tom’s toddlerhood and early years, I also worked hard to help him voice his feelings. Tom was articulate at an early age when calm, but when he became frustrated, he immediately “went into his body” and began acting out physically. Taking a cue from Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish in How To Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk, when he was on the verge of a meltdown, I’d say, “You feel frustrated” or “you feel angry” or “you feel left out.” I didn’t allow these feelings to be an excuse for poor behavior, but found that dealing with the feelings as well as limiting the behavior really helped. His “feeling vocabulary” eventually became exquisite, and as a four-year-old, sometimes expressing the feeling precisely headed off inappropriate physical action.
Establish healthy family rhythms. Throughout my struggles with trying to help my child grow civilized, I kept reading, thinking and talking to people. An idea I got from reading about the Waldorf approach to education was the importance of “rhythm” in children’s lives. I found that alternating quiet, intensely focused, inward activities (crafts, stories, cooking together) with boisterous activities that used gross motor skills (outdoor play, biking, dancing) helped create a positive daily rhythm. I also paid attention to the rhythm of our week—an “out” day of errands and taking older kids to activities was best followed by a “home” day where we could recoup. I noticed Tom was better behaved when I did a better job at creating a good rhythm for our family.
Physical exercise for a physical child. I also found ways to emphasize something Tom was really good at: using his body. On the playground, he “pushed the envelope” with his antics, and I found a low-key preschool gymnastics program (which emphasized personal development as well as physical skills) when he showed enough progress to be able to participate with a group. He became a fast and fearless ice skater at the age of four. Huge quantities of exercise and outdoor time seemed to help—and I got in better shape too. “Running Tom” became a daily family task much like “walking the dog.” During our stay in a hotel, the employees watching the security monitor asked what we were doing. It happened that the security cameras were pointed directly outside where we were exercising our four-year-old boy by racing up and down the sidewalk. Wind sprints were never more useful.
Affirm the strength. One day, I hit on a great phrase by accident. “Tom, you are powerful, so remember to tone it down so your power doesn’t run over people.” Soon, before playing with friends or entering a group, one of us would remind the other about his “power” and the necessity to “turn it down.” The results were incredible. At four-and-a-half, Tom would whisper to me, “Mom, I’ve got my power on low” in the middle of a play date. We were getting there.
Try some behavior modification. One more book I should mention is 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children by Thomas Phelan. This book is basic behavior modification, something I had not used much of with my more compliant older kids. Whatever rewards I set up they found they could do without, and any consequences were something they could endure anyway. The reward system also seemed to have a more negative effect on our relationship without providing much in terms of long-term self-discipline or character development. But with some adjustments, the 1-2-3 approach was helpful to Tom and me, especially during the second half of his four-year-old year as we were beginning to phase out holding time.
Recognize the effect of development on behavior. I don’t find much need for behavior modification and some of these other tools on a daily basis any more, since now, as a five-year-old, Tom is blooming. Much of his improvement is due to his hard work and that of his family. In the same way that some children walk earlier or ride a bike later, some children attain developmental milestones related to behavior at different times. Most five-year-olds simply grow into a greater capacity for self-control, assuming they have had both love and limits. But I do think that our attempts to help Tom control himself, and my efforts to find support for the intense job of mothering this spirited child, were of great value. We could have ended up with a resentful mom, a sullen angry child and a miserable marriage.
Instead, I’m a mom with new perspectives, greater empathy for those parenting difficult children, and profound gratitude to friends who recommended books, listened to me cry, and talked me through my ideas and worries. My husband and I tested our commitment to parenting with love and guidance and emerged with a stronger partnership. Older brothers Doug and Mike have learned a lot of nurturing skills and seen firsthand the commitment it can take to work with a young child, and they have expressed relief that the techniques we used helped Tom turn a corner. And Tom himself is a sunny five-year-old who runs up the mountain in our back yard with his brothers and can now go to play at a friend’s house knowing he will be able to get along and be invited back.
Today, rather than saying good morning, Tom woke me with a gentle voice. “Mom, when the snow melts, I will be able to pick wild flowers to give you.”

Copyright 2003

The author adds: "Perhaps the most important thing that helped me get through those years was support, which I found in both books and people."

Read more in "Other Thoughts About Dealing with Difficult Children."