Other Thoughts about Parenting and Difficult Children
by "Mary" (the author requested her name be withheld)
Perhaps the most important thing that helped me get through these years was support, which I found in both books and people. The two most valuable books I read were by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka:
Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, Energetic
Kids, Parents and Power Struggles: Winning for a Lifetime.
These books helped to reframe a child's negative qualities as positive ones (a "stubborn" child may be thought of as "determined," an "inflexible" child has "focus"), and they offered specific strategies for dealing with intense children. Other books that were helpful to me, without my agreeing with every word, were:
The Difficult Child, by Stanley Turecki with Leslie Tonner
The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, "Chronically In-flexible" Children, by Ross W. Greene
Taming the Dragon in Your Child: Solutions for Breaking the Cycle of Family Anger, by Meg Eastman with Sydney Craft Rozen
While the written word can provide a lot of information, there is no substitute for an understanding ear, especially if you are fortunate, as I was, to find someone who has specific insight into dealing with a "hard" child. The right person is emotionally supportive and understanding of the rocky road you are facing, but she may also provide encouragement and ideas for getting through the day. A caveat: beware too much "exposure" to people whose mindset leaves you uncomfortable or doubting your intuition. Well-meaning acquaintances or relatives, and even some professionals, can have a toxic effect when they are dismissive of our concerns or offer simplistic solutions: "I'd just spank him until he knows who's boss" or "My children wouldn't dare do that!" While dealing with a demanding child seems to leave no energy for anything else, it has been absolutely worth the effort to seek a supportive mentor or group to help. The connections paid me back in increased sanity and a few more tricks in my bag—and an expanded framework for parenting that helped Tom and me make progress together.
Another key I learned in dealing with my child was acceptance. My child was and is more difficult than average; in fact, he was so far at one end of the spectrum that his father and I at times considered the possibility that he was beyond "normal," and that we may need professional help. In any case, we believed that informed, careful and determined parenting was his best hope for helping him learn to get along in the world. (If you don't have a way to develop resources to deal with this kind of child, or if your child appears "over the edge" to you, getting professional help may be called for.) Accepting the situation helped me develop strategies that resulted in Tom's improvement and in the ability to get our family through the day.
If you are dealing with a difficult child and you haven't seriously considered how diet, sleep and television are affecting your child, I encourage you to examine how adjusting diet, helping to insure the most rest possible, and limiting or foregoing "screen time" might improve things for your family. For instance, while experiments with the Feingold diet did not bring about improvements for our son, many parents find children's behavior vastly better when they eliminate certain chemicals, additives and food dyes. We eat few of those anyway, and we continued to find that general good nutrition emphasizing whole foods and no caffeine did make a difference, as did paying particular attention to anticipating our son's inability to cope with hunger and thirst. It was easy enough to keep a jug of water, fruit and bread in the car.
Additionally, while Tom had a difficult time going to sleep, was a poor napper, and did not "sleep through the night" until he was five, we still kept up our warm bedtime routine and started plenty early so that even if it took him a long time to go to sleep, he would be well rested the next day. The only thing worse than a hungry Tom was a tired Tom.
We never allowed Tom to watch such action-packed television as The Power Rangers. We found that very little to no television was our best bet in helping him manage as a two- and three-year-old. Many parents seem to use TV as an "unwind time" for their kids, but some find that when the television goes off, their energetic child also "goes off." Like we did, you may find that the actual medium of television, not just its content, is something that is best avoided or limited with difficult kids.
Finally, my experience in talking to parents of difficult toddlers and preschoolers is that a large majority of them are boys. Mothers especially may benefit from reading and thinking about gender differences in young children. This may help with a parent's acceptance of how "different" the child seems from her childhood self. This is a great topic to get Dad's insight on as well. And finally, it may help you come up with creative ideas for channeling your son's energy. Believe it or not, Tom was using a real hammer and nails at his own wooden workbench—wearing eye protection—before he turned three. That hammering produced some of the "quietest" hours of his early childhood.