Raising Difficult Children: Kids Who Are “More” of Everything

Is your child stubborn, grumpy, sensitive, angry, wild or just plain difficult?

When my highly active firstborn was 1 year old, we were visiting a friend who had a toddler the same age. When this mother commanded “No” at the edge of a flower bed, her child stopped short.

“Yours listens? And stops?” I asked incredulously. That’s when I knew for sure that my energetic and persistent child really wasn’t quite like most other kids.

As every parent knows, some children are harder to handle than others. Variously referred to by experts as difficult, sensitive, challenging, quirky or spirited, children with atypical temperaments can become much easier to manage when you learn just how broad the range of “normal” is. Your child may scream, “You’re not the boss of me!,” but what he’s really telling you is “I’m not you,” and it’s sometimes done in ways that leave you at a loss. By learning more about what to expect, you can keep both you and your child from toppling off the developmental roller coaster.

Label Me Not

Labels have a lot of power. That’s why Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of Raising Your Spirited Child Rev Ed: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic, prefers the word “spirited” for lively, eager, intense and assertive children.

“Many negative labels seem to say that those qualities are forever immutable: loud, wild, nosy, stubborn, picky and so on,” Kurcinka says. “But focusing on your child’s strengths is the best approach.”

Kurcinka cites research showing that a positive perspective actually changes our behavior toward our kids. Not only that, but research has recently shown that actual biochemical changes occur in the brain depending on how kids are nurtured. In light of these findings, she advises parents to exchange negative labels for ones such as these:

• holds high standards (rather than “demanding”),

• strongly committed to one’s goals (rather than “argumentative”),

• energetic (rather than “wild”),

• cautious (rather than “anxious”).

Labels can actually get in the way of optimal parenting. For example, 3-year-old Lila has lately become combative toward her mother, Marge. Whenever Lila doesn’t get her way on a trip to visit her grandparents, she stomps up the stairs to her room and slams the door – three times.

Lila’s father, Terrence, doesn’t like the idea that there is anything “wrong” with his child. After all, he points out, she doesn’t exhibit this level of anger around him. Remove the label of “wrong” and Terrence can begin to understand Lila’s behavior as the product of one person’s temperament in the context of the whole family’s dynamic.

“Problem behavior based on temperament is no one’s fault,” says Stanley Turecki, M.D., a child and family psychiatrist and author of The Difficult Child and Normal Children Have Problems, Too. “It’s not just the child or just the family – it’s how the two interrelate.”

If the mother is the primary one to struggle with the child over bedtime or clothes, the child may behave better with the father. The mother then may feel frustrated, confused, inadequate or guilty.

Whereas certain kinds of kids – the overactive and impulsive, for instance – will be evident in the pediatrician’s office or in school, according to Turecki, other kinds – such as the very stubborn, the very persistent or the very picky – may drive one parent up the wall but won’t be a problem elsewhere. Rather than placing blame on one parent or the other, therefore, everyone who is concerned about the child’s behavior needs to work together to improve the situation.

Difficult Children and Tantrums

One morning at our co-op nursery school, one of the other mothers began to take my 3-year-old son Kevin’s jacket off for him. He was distraught until I came over and explained to the helpful parent that Kevin would rather do such things himself. His tears finally tapered off.

One of his classmates, Corinne, would become inconsolable when another child touched one of her crayons. Nothing her mother could do would convince her that the crayon hadn’t been ruined.

Tantrums are a common thread among many challenging children. To parents, these tantrums may appear to be unreasonable reactions to small disappointments, but for the child who is highly sensitive, every change from the routine is a challenge, every minor irritant a major case.

Highly sensitive kids may resist playing with new groups of children or may even fall apart if you dare to change their brand of cereal, according to Stanley Greenspan, M.D., a child psychiatrist and author of The Challenging Child. “Their senses are often stronger, sharper and more overwhelming. A loud machine, or your voice, can be irritating. When they cry, they fall to the floor sobbing. When they’re angry, they may shriek and pound the walls.”

The most common type of temper tantrum is manipulative: the child wants something, you don’t give it to her and she throws a fit in order to get her own way. When this is clearly the case, experts suggest that parents be very firm and not get drawn in.

Rita and John Sommers-Flanagan, authors of Problem Child or Quirky Kid? – A Commonsense Guide for Parents, suggest telling your child, “If you say that in a mean and bossy way, my answer is always no. But if you ask me nicely, then at least you have a chance of getting what you want.”

Sometimes, however, your sensitive child may simply be overstimulated after an enrichment activity or birthday party, for example, followed by a supermarket stop. If he throws a fit under these circumstances, consider it a temperamental tantrum, not a manipulative one.

Experts advise parents to learn to avoid trigger situations like this, in which more stimulation is heaped on an already overexcited child. Any child can become supersensitive at such times.


  • Strategies for Coping

  • Types of Difficult Kids

  • Where Does Your Child Fit?

  • Resources

  • Advertisment