There is Not Always a “Fix” for the Difficult Child

Difficult Child

Have I mentioned that I have a two year old?  ‘Tis true.  And she is one HECK of a two year old.  In fact, she has always been an intense child.  As a baby she awoke every hour or two.  (I realize this is normal.)  But she always woke up screaming.  I would nurse her back to sleep or do whatever worked but there were never tender nighttime moments with air sucking or fist finding as my sweet one gently showed the signs of hunger.  No, she is designed like a fine race car: zero to 60 in 2.5 seconds.

The intensity of babyhood has followed her into toddler-hood and she is a delightful, charming, lovely and insane, screaming, balls to the wall, child.  She switches from one to the other at a moments notice.

Here is the funny thing though- when I mention some of her more distinctive “traits” people are quick to find an excuse for her.

“Maybe she has a gluten intolerance.”

“Could be she has colic.”

“Try taking out the dairy.”

“Get her adjusted.”

“Cranial therapy works wonders.”

“Have you tried wearing her?”


My mom even said once that, “She is only unhappy when she doesn’t get enough sleep,” to which my mother- in-law (who LIVES with us and said child) responded, “She must be tired ALL THE TIME.”

You know what I think though?  I don’t think there is anything WRONG with this girl.  I don’t think she can or needs to be “fixed” with an adjustment or a diet change or magical technique.  I think she is just kind of …. hard.

And, I am not afraid to admit it.

I could make up excuses for my child.  I could blame it on something that is beyond our control.  Or I could try to control the situation in every way possible. I think that I could successfully drive myself batty doing so.  I could also just admit the simple yet difficult truth of the matter:  some babies, children and human beings are harder.  Or more intense.  Or more sensitive.  Or if you are lucky, they are all three.

But it seems to me that sometimes nobody wants to do this.  We would much rather find an excuse, a reason, an explanation.  I think it takes some of the blame off of the kid, and it makes us feel like we have a little more control over our lives than we actually do.  If we can just figure out the cause, then we could fix them!!!!

The other thing that I hate to think about is how I and the way I parent contributes to the trouble I sometimes have with this sweet child.

After a hard day yesterday I was talking to my husband at dinner.  I was telling him that she was difficult.  There was hitting and kicking and even spitting in addition to the usual yelling of orders and general mayhem and screams.  (To be clear, it was the two year old yelling orders and creating mayhem, not me.  Well, mostly.)

“Doesn’t she ever do that to you?”  I innocently ask.

“Never,” says my silver-back of a husband.  “I would not put up with that.”

Stunned silence.

But I am a good mom.  Right….?  She doesn’t just do this with me, right?

I hope I AM a good mom.  But the ugly truth is that I am not a perfect mom.  I am not always consistent.  I don’t always demand respect.  I let things slide when I should be firm.  And, as the hubby pointed out, he doesn’t put up with some of the behavior that I ignore.

Again, it would be much more pleasant to blame some ethereal factor on the hitting, spitting, kicking and what not.  The truth of the matter though is that some of it probably happens because of me.  A more difficult child demands a better parent.  A more consistent one.  A loving one.  A balanced, firm, and kind parent who sets boundaries and makes sure they are not crossed.

Sometimes I can get away with some sloppier “mom” work with my other kids — but not with this one.

So when I say that this baby/child doesn’t have anything “wrong” with her other than the strong personality she was born with, I don’t mean it as an insult.  I love her more than I can put into words.  Sometimes I think that my intensity of affection for her is a result of the way she pushes me to my limit.

I am not ashamed of my difficult child.  But I will also not pass the buck or find an excuse for the way she is.  I am grateful for her and I am grateful for the lessons she has brought with her.

She has humbled me as a parent.  I really thought I had figured things out before she was born.  I knew how to handle a baby and I knew how to keep a toddler from being crazy.

I was wrong.

She shows me my flaws.  She demands that I be better and stronger.  She teaches me patience and joy all at the same time.

Then again, I am pretty sure she inherited her personality from her father’s side of the family.  So this is all really his fault.  That makes me feel better.

This article appeared originally in June of 2012 on the Mama Birth blog. Originally appeared on Mothering in April 2013

19 thoughts on “There is Not Always a “Fix” for the Difficult Child”

  1. My younger daughter is the same. I wouldn’t take what your husbands says so much to heart though. I am a strict, consistent parent and very very rarely relax my rules for any of my children and yet my daughter still gives me trouble. Around anyone else, including my husband, she’s dramatic but not difficult and it frustrated me endlessly. I’ve come to realize though that her boundary pushing with me is a sign that she knows I love her no matter what. She can trust that her “misbehavior” will not cause me to stop loving her even if I get angry and I am a safe person to explore her limits with.

  2. I appreciate this article today as I have had yet another ‘bad’ day with my nearly 5 year old daughter. She sounds very much like your 2 year old…since she was a baby she has always been intense and demanding….always waking up screaming to the point where I was worried and asked the doctor about it but he said it was normal. She is a fighter, a scraper, a demanding, controlling, bossy, sensitive, short tempered, little girl who at the same time is full of love and can be the sweetest and kindest girl. I always blame my parenting on days like we’ve been having…contantly looking for a different discipline strategy. But perhaps you are right, perhaps there is nothing to *fix*. And I too, believe she gets these traits from my husbands side of the family!

  3. I agree with VaHBMom – my little girl is much more demonstrative with me than anyone else. It used to make me doubt my parenting style with her but I learned that she just feels safest and most comfortable with me so all her guards come down and she feels ok to let it all out. Oddly, I figured this out when I realized that I am that way with my husband – he is my rock, I put on a brave face around others but when he comes onto the scene I feel I can just release all of my anxieties and frustrations. Poor guy gets the brunt of it but he understands. So that’s what our expressive children are doing with us – releasing their anxieties and fears with the person they feel safest doing so. Think of it as the utmost compliment, and just be the rock they need you to be!

  4. I want to give you all a hug. I have a seven month old that is “a girl with a curl right in the middle of her forehead”. When she is good she is very, very good, but when she is bad she is horrid. She is as sweet as she is stubborn and although I am sure it will make my life more difficult I am thankful she is stubborn. It means that she will stand strong when hell is working against her and she won’t back down when she’s right. It means she won’t give up when things get tough and the odds are stacked against her.

    I believe these stubborn children are the ones who will lead the way. As the world gets darker and scarier they are the ones who will stand up, light the path and say “follow me”. They will not be scared off by the dangers that might cause others to shrink.

    I just remind myself when I’m awake for the twelfth time to feed her for all of three minutes before she decides she’s done or when I put away a half-finished meal because she won’t let me eat it or when I decide the dishes and laundry are never going to get finished much less the living room cleaned up because that’s not in her plan for the day that she is growing into the kind of woman I want her to be. Certainly if she won’t behave for me, she’s not going to respect authority that asks her to violate her moral beliefs.

    These kids are warriors. This world and God needs them. They aren’t broken and don’t need to be fixed! But it sure makes parenting not easy.

  5. Then again, I am pretty sure she inherited her personality from her father’s side of the family. So this is all really his fault. That makes me feel better.

    Amen! Always nice to pass the buck… even though you still have to deal with the fallout. Sometimes I feel like a Saint in how I take care of my fiery little red-headed Aries. He’s only 13 months, but I look forward to some rockin’ times ahead. I always remind myself that it could be much worse – from 0-5 months he cried pretty much all the time, no matter what comfort we tried to offer. Now life is a cake-walk! He still has a hot temper, but I don’t freak out about it…I think screeching is better than infant crying any day. I used to feel tormented, but now I can laugh a little about it.

    He taught me the value in being a mother. Now that I can finally comfort him and rock him to sleep, I cherish it all the more because I couldn’t do it when he was little. He is my little CEO, and I know that he’s going to be the boss of someone someday! Let’s just hope it’s not me.

  6. As a horse whisper, mother, and aunt to numerous children, your situation is common for mom’s. The science of this issue is rooted in the female justice checmicals of our brain. What? That is studies show that women get pain when needing to assert justice, where as men get pleasure, clearly seen in your husbands comment, “I would not stand for that.” This led to stories of mom saying, “wait until your father gets home.” Studies also show when women are experiencing this with raising pit bulls, it makes the dog vicious. Cesar Milan would confirm this truth. You need to learn to over come that “pain center” and learn to be the master. Until you do, your child will only act that way to you, because your child is not the problem, you are. Your child does not need to be fixed, but you do. Take an animal class on being master to a dog, and you can do this, you can learn it. I had to, I recall having to force my daughter to take a nap, as she cried in her crib, I cried outside the door. The pain center in my brain to assert law and order towards her, literally gave me pain in my head, it hurt me more than her. But once I did it, she became a great child. Ponder this, the child is being a mirror to the caretaker, showing the flaws of the caretaker in acting out. A nanny would confirm this, as they are avid teachers of law and order that produces happy active and healthy children. Those nannies had to go through much training, and then again, they are not caring for children they gave birth to. My husband had to learn to say to me when I didn’t instill law and order, “cut the cord.” He was right, and the evidence was a happy child when I learned how to lead.

  7. As long as I remember I was called “stubborn” and “difficult”. I can tell you growing up with such labels (any labels for that matter) can only create resentment towards yourself because let’s face it, children believe adults and those “difficult” children will start believing there is something inherently wrong with them.
    You daughter is very lucky that you see her as she is. She is intense. Mine is too. But because she gets it from me, it does not scare me. I remember being wild with emotions and what one needs most is a calm collected and present adult who is at once empathetic but does not waiver the rules to please.

  8. You all have inspired me to join this beautiful forum! I so agree with this post and the comments that followed that I decided this is definitely a place where I feel I belong, and I do believe this may be an answer to much prayer. 🙂

    I have two daughters, ages almost 10 and 7 1/2; both spirited and beautiful and stubborn as mules but with the biggest hearts you can imagine! I am forever grateful for these gifts God has given me. Regretfully, I have not always been the most collected mom throughout this process, but I am not a quitter, so I refuse to quit on them and give in to the temptation to label them. As my husband says, they are who they are and they are a pure mix of the two of us…..our intense and super sensitive genes and everything that makes US tough people got stirred into a soup and equally divided!
    I guess I should add that partly because of this peace the above realizations have brought to us, we are open to new life! My husband and I have decided that we must be even crazier than our kids because I am 43 and my husband 46. We met later in life, and our faith and inner selves have grown so very much during these past 13 years (especially the 10 that involve our kids….imagine that!!!) that we are completely at peace with this whole notion. Amazing, huh?!
    I can’t thank you all enough for this positive reinforcement.

  9. Our little guy was labeled as high needs so I can really relate! He cried almost non stop until 2-3 months, and slept very little for a long time (he’s 2 now and things are improving). Once at around 1 month he cried unconsolably for 20 hours. There was nothing we could do and he was healthy so our pediatrician was no help. I’m mentioning this to show how strong and resilient he is! My mom says he has his way with me. I don’t think I do that bad, but he is REALLY spirited and active. Non-stop moving around 🙂 It’s easy for people to comment and tell us what to do when they don’t have a clue what things are really like. And the thing is, I was raised by very strict parents, and that completely killed my self confidence. I don’t want that to happen to him. I’d rather he be a little wild. As long as they’re well adjusted and functioning well in society, I think we’re doing an awesome job! (and I know it’s not just me because he was already like that at the hospital when I delivered, on day 1 🙂

  10. As the mother of an almost 18 year old – once extremely challenging child – I can tell you there is nothing like a ‘difficult’ child to help you become a better parent, more self aware and, just perhaps, start a drinking problem. Just kidding on that last one. My daughter came out of the womb crying and didn’t stop until she was 3. We’ve been through every emotion to the extreme. She is a wonderful mix of sensitivity, strength, stubbornness and beauty, inside and out. Her temperment has pushed me to my limits and left me on my knees before God, helped me find my sense of humor and dig deeper than I ever have before. I have come out of her childhood with a closer bond to this beautiful human being that I could have ever dreamed, with a renewed sense of my own strength and accomplishment and of course, regrets.
    We are our children’s only advocates. No one else in the world will fight for them as we do. For those of you going through the hardest times right now, I can only tell you, from the other side, it’s totally worth every deep breath, every heart breaking tear of frustration. Today my daughter is a senior in high school. She’s also taking college classes, in the beta club, honor society and working part time. She is still pretty sensitive but that has grown into a love for animals and human rights. She is still stubborn. That trait has morphed into a strength of conviction. She’s incredibly funny. She brings a surprising joy to my life. I’m glad I didn’t go through with that plan to put her up on Ebay when she was ‘training’ me. Just a Kat’s eye view!

  11. I had a baby like that- my oldest of 3. She just turned 11. I hear you on thinking some kids are just harder but, I found out 2 years ago, she does have a gluten allergy, and celiac disease. Even with the diet change, she is still a very sensitive child, an intense child, a child unlike most of the other children I know- but the diet change did make her feel better, it made her less moody, less prone to outbursts, and got rid of the stomach pains she had had for years, undiagnosed. I don’t blame the gluten, I had a special child, but I do wish I had known to look harder at food, sooner. We learned over the years, she was allergic to red 40, felt better when she ate meat instead of pasta for lunch, had more outbursts after certain artificial ingredients. Anyway, I don’t think it is completely fair to dismiss everyone’s suggestions to look at her diet, or other things, for some kids, those do factor in. I think probably all highly sensitive kids are more sensitive to the foods they eat, the sensory stimulation of their daily lives and life in general.

  12. I was so grateful that I had my sensitive kid first. A few years ago I learned that some people have described this experience in the books “The Highly Sensitive Person” & “The Highly Sensitive Child”. Sometimes it’s good to hear that yes, other people are this sensitive too!! It explains so much in our household! So glad you were able to recognize that it’s just part of how your child is. I’m sure that whether you think about it or not you know there are certain things which will always exacerbate her sensitivities & try to work around them some of the time. Its just sensitive life! 🙂

  13. I feel as though you have spoken what I am constantly thinking. My little one has challenged every idea I’ve had about parenting. When I was pregnant I looked at it with those colored glasses. But now I am more realistic. That doesn’t mean that because she is difficult parenting is no longer fun it just means I cleaned my glasses, which makes all the difference.

  14. Katwman3 and VaHBmom – I relate to your comments completely – just moved my 18 yr old into her dorm at the university.

  15. I had one like that, she did improve gradually, and while she was my more difficult baby, my more challenging toddler, and I thought she would never wean, she was my easier child later on. She was an absolute mother’s dream as a teenager, and she’s become a wonderful mother (the high need has sort of switched to high anxiety levels, but she’s still a great adult). She was blessed with a little girl who actually has been even more high need than she was, and they’ve certainly had their days, but at 7 things seem to be a whole lot better and I suspect that her experience is going to be very much like mine. Her second was a mellow baby, an easy two year old, and a 3 year old that may even outdo his sister’s 3, at least in decibel levels. My first was a very routinized baby, an explosive 4 year old, and a pain in the neck a lof of the time the rest of his growing up. He was the difficult kid who hid under an easy baby mode, only because he was so routinized. That became a difficult to transition, needing things to always go the same way older kid. Ross McDonald said that the high need kid with a nurturing mother actually does better than the easy baby with a non-nurturing mother, and I do believe that to be true. I also believe that mothers of high need kids should be spared the judgemental comments of the parents of easy kids. I had a friend whose first was the ultimate easy kid. She was so snarky about my daughter who was the same age that when she was pregnant the second time I kept hoping she’d get a difficult baby, and I felt only a tiny bit guilty when she did. There is no one rule that works for every kids because we are raising people not programming machines.

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