Difficult Children: Why They Act That Way and How to Deal With Them

Msc (psychology), NLP
@Islaah Center for Psychological Wellness

It’s something very common people talk about: some kids are just harder than others.

It’s not just parents’ perception that certain kids are way more challenging: Science has proved it. Research by Harvard University psychologist Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., suggests that an infant’s temperament at birth is a good predictor of a child’s behavior in adolescence. He found that 40 percent of babies have a calm disposition (they’re not overly ruffled by stimuli like light or noise), and years later, these kids remain chill. However, as many as 15 to 20 percent of babies are born with a more “reactive” temperament, and your friends and family might politely call them a “handful.” In Dr. Kagan’s study, these babies recoiled from lights and noise and were hard to soothe. Difficult children can confuse and upset even experienced parents and teachers. They often act defiant, stubborn, loud, aggressive, or hyperactive. They can also be clingy, shy, whiny, picky, and impossible at bedtime, mealtimes, and in public places.

Why they act very difficult?

Difficult children aren’t difficult because they’re bad children or because there’s something wrong with them. Difficult children are difficult because they can’t regulate themselves well. Their mood gets easily thrown and they have great difficulty recovering and bouncing back. It’s crucial that parents of such children know how to navigate the difficult child so that he thrives emotionally as much as possible, and that you have the best possible relationship with him so that he feels connected, accepted, and loved.

If you have a “difficult” baby, does this mean he—and you—are destined for even harder times ahead? Definitely not. “There’s always that nature-versus-nurture controversy,” says Nancy Snidman, Ph.D., director of the child development unit in psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who conducted the research with Dr. Kagan and continues to study the temperament of children. “However, parents, other kids, and teachers can help shape a child’s personality and coping skills over time.”

That fact is that we don’t choose our kids, and all kids are not created equal. In reality, some kids truly are more high maintenance than other children and, consequently, parenting them is more exhausting. High-maintenance children require us to grow and expand our capacity for giving in order to fulfill their needs. It is that parents of difficult children need to find a way to make sense of the difficult child in order to be able to nurture them.

Some tips to deal with difficult kids

    • Be aware of the situation: Consider and manage environmental and emotional factors — hunger, fatigue, anxiety or distractions can all make it much more difficult for children to rein in their behavior.
    • Adjust the environment: When its homework time, for instance, remove distractions like video screens and toys, provide a snack, establish an organized place for kids to work and make sure to schedule some breaks — attention isn’t infinite.
    • Make expectations clear: You’ll get better cooperation if both you and your child are clear on what’s expected. Sit down with him/her and present the information verbally. Even if he/she “should” know what is expected, clarifying expectations at the outset of a task helps head off misunderstandings down the line.
    • Provide countdowns for transitions: Whenever possible, prepare children for an upcoming transition. Let them know when there are, say, 10 minutes remaining before they must come to dinner or start their homework. Then, remind them, when there are say, 2 minutes, left. Just as important as issuing the countdown is actually making the transition at the stated time.
    • Let kids have a choice: As kids grow up, it’s important they have a say in their own scheduling. Giving a structured choice — “Do you want to take a shower after dinner or before?” — can help them feel empowered and encourage them to become more self-regulating.