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See our guest post at the New America Foundation: Equality and Justice for All Families.


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."




Desperate mother's picture

What causes this difficulty in a child... i want to understand that where did i go wrong to make my 2 year old son like this?

TiMara's picture

thank you so much for posting this site up. i was near my wit's end with my son's behavior. it was out of control and he's only 20 months old. he screams all the time and hits and scratches and kicks. this information has given me new hope in helping my son use a better outlet to deal with his frustrations. thank you....and god bless

jane's picture

Inspiring article about Tom. You are dedicated, and learned parents. I am a teacher of 32 years taught 5-9 year olds. Children with ADHD are identified at 3 but can not be formally assessed until 5. This is the local government not individual schools and is frustrating for parents and teachers. Schools have to fill in numerous forms which educational panels throw out or make excuses for why funding cant be found for a child. It is disgusting that support is all money driven. Get help from your GP FIRST to speed it up.

SRI's picture

I am going through the same or more worse situation with my 8 year old son.i have an older son who is 13 years old and my friends tell me that i am blessed to have such matured and obedient well behaved boy.i dont understand why my younger son behaves likes this.I am tired of sitting in child counselling sessions,but i shall definetely try out the ways you described .But I am also worried with one very embarrasing tactis my son uses,whenever he wants to get his things done he just goes out in the balcony and screams or opens the entrance door and starts running and shouting and the only thing i do to prevet him doing that is just come back into the house instead of going behind him and that way he comes back but we are very afraid of what the neibhours think and they may complaint...please help!We love our child and he such a loving caring boy othersise when he is in his normal self.he helpes in my house keeping jobs he is so resposible of cleaning the closets his wardrobe.But when start throwing tantrums he goes out of control and becomes a totalstranger for me..i am desperately looking for help!

akanksha chaudhary's picture

i also have an hyperactive kid of 5 yrs. seems difficult to deal with him i'm always on my toes.. child couselling will not help make him join a dance class or a drawing class communicate with him as much as you can ..

Pauline's picture

I have been here too with my now 14 year old son. He displayed all the behaviours mentioned in the story and your comments.
As a loving mother I did loads of research and Reading and have used multiple approaches to help my son.
It has been a long difficult journey, at 14 he is still angry an difficult, however he has learned to deal with this outside, he has nice friends and is an A student in both academic and behavioural terms, so to all of you with a toddler like this please don't worry because they're not "normal", you will have to use many different techniques throughout their life, but don't ever forget these are some of thebrightest humans!, sadly schools usually let them down as they only teach for the way "normal "kids learn , be prepared for this

the other point I'd make is you're probably thinkng "why my child , why me"
my son was labelled at 6 with aspergers and ADHD, the label didn't change anything for me as I already knew he wasn't like other kids. However it did explain the why's , I realised that his fathers whole family , on the male line, had varying degrees of autistic spectrum disorders. This didn't help either as they also have empathy and behavioural issues which led to me having to deal with my son alone, but at least I know why.
The final advice I'd pass

Shawn Brown's picture

I felt like I was at my wits end with my eleven year old boy. A lot of the behavior this article described is the behavior that my son continues to possess. I never knew what to do with him and did not have the support of friends and family. Their first response was to always place him on medication. I realize now I have always given my power away to my son and have allowed myself to become exhausted to the point of giving up. I have faith I can start now and I understand this will be a big challenge because I had no idea or energy on how to parent him. I thank you for this article and the information shared and I am going to utilize it. I was just praying the other day Lord please help me so that I can help this beautiful child you graciously gave me. I believe he answered me today.

Demi F.O's picture

My experience with raising my daughter is certainly not the same with her two older brothers. At 4 years old, she get into tantrums and cries sometimes I think for no reason. This article is a real eye opener to the fact that some children are just like that but that doesn't mean they are bad. thanks.'s picture

my 19 months old baby girl is a very active child .she is rude ..she hits ,then if stopped from something or if she wants something and cant get it she throws such tantrums and shows extreme anger..i m so lost .when i leave her to cry loudly but i cant take it more then few seconds ..and i have to pick her up ..i need to know how to handle her bad behaviour ..NEED ADVICE

catherine myers's picture

Here is another resource you might find helpful, it's a blog from the organization Hand In Hand Parenting:


Jessica's picture

After my son gave me a bloody nose and 2 black eyes from one of his usual fits I came looking for answers and support. I can completely relate: missed dinner invites, neighbors that had to move, and playdates that ended within the first 30 mins. I was so worn out that I went to the doctor cause I thought something was wrong with me. My co-workers just kept telling me that I was doing it all wrong and that I wasn't strict enough. Nobody could understand that things could be this bad. I did lose my marriage over husband gave up cause he just couldn't do it any more and he wouldn't give me a break to recover. You can only time out and disicpline so much - thank you for these fresh ideas. I have found some hope!

MK's picture

I'm glad I found you on the internet. I have a 3 year old adorable boy who is very smart for his age, keeps talking, is not potty trained, has temper tantrums and is very squirmy and agile. He talks too much and asks hell lot of questions. Does not have much social skills and I'm very embarassed to take him to a birthday party or a social setting...his behavior does not fit into his age group at all...what do I do? I feel so miserable all the time!

Bunmi Ala's picture

This is really wonderful. It brings so much hope for families struggling with their kid(s), they can be helped afterall. Many thanks to you for being so sensitive and generous sharing these strategies. God bless you Jeanne.

Amanda's picture

Today I was about to give up... before I read your story. My 4 year old son just started a new pre-school program after being asked to leave another that he had attended since birth. It is only his fourth day, and he has been in the office twice. My child hits other kids, pushes other kids, and cannot keep his hands to himself. I am a young mom who is working to support our family and who is also in school to give us hope for the future. I rely on his pre-school program for child care. At his old school all the other kids were scared of him, I got dirty looks from all the other parents and was told by the school I was doing everything wrong. I have tried timeout, spanking, restricting priveledges, grounding and the reward system. Nothing has worked. I felt alone and angry, until I read your story and others out there who are going through the same thing. I thought I was the only one. Thanks for letting me know, I'm not alone.

Patricia Fletcher's picture

My son is 12 years old and he lost his father very sudden to a freak accident he knows i am disabled i have one leg and had breast cancer and numerous health problems i have tried just about everything. He gets suspende from school, out of school suspension he is disrespectful angry and verty spoiled he has no respecr for anyone or anything he scares me sometimes please help. I try to help him with his homework AND HE REFUSES, HE FATHER DIED UNEXPECTANTLY A COUPLE YEARS AGO AND HAS BEEN DIAGNOISED WITH ADHD AND BIPOLLAR. PLEASE HELP. HE CURSES AND IS VERY DIUSRESPECTFUL, REFUSES TO DO HIS SCHOOL WORK AND IS MEAN TO ME HIS MOTHER AND THE TEACHERS. PLEASE HELP THANK U

catherine myers's picture

Hello Patricia,

We have very limited capacity and cannot give personal help, I'm sorry. I hope we can help you find some good help. It sounds like you have immediate needs, so please call the National Parenting Helpline - 1-855-427-2736. Wherever you live, they should be able to help.

You could try this too: dial 2-1-1 for help with a range of issues, including information about counseling or other services in your community. Some communities have speical outreach programs for children who have lost a parent.

I especially like the approach of the organizaiton Hand-in-Hand parenting, they have helpful information about anger and the way it can hide so many other emotions. They have workshops for parents, perhaps you could participate in one.Their website:

all the best to you and your son.

Cathy Myers



Kim's picture

I just went through a screaming violent tantrum with my 3 year old and I was at a breaking point. To go shopping I can't even take him with me because I am afraid of the next kicking and hitting tantrum when I tell him to not touch something. This article has opened my eyes to new techniques to help my son through those rough moments. Thank you for sharing your story.

E's Mom's picture

This was wonderfully encouraging to read. It is so incredibly similar to what we went through with our now 7 year old daughter. Luckily, when we were at our wits end and just didn't know what to do anymore we found a wonderful child psychologist to help us out. Our daughter has mild ADHD and Obsessive Compulsive tendencies. All of the techniques you used and read were what we did, too, and it worked wonders. Things aren't perfect by any means, but much improved. I would highly recommend that anyone who feels like they just can't handle it anymore please see a professional child psychologist. It helped us out a lot. HUGS and best wishes to all of you. You are not alone.

Mel's picture

I really appreciate you taking the time to make this site. Not only is it of some help to parents with challenging children but it helps us to not feel so alone. My daughter is 3 now and he whole life has been a struggle. Her outburst, aggression and mood swings are so unpredictable and out of control. I cry a lot as a mother with 2 older girls, 15 & 11 who were absolutely aq delight to raise. I feel like "What have I done wrong?" It's so hard, not attending birthday parties with her or taking her in public as the himilation of her behaviour is too overwhelming fo me. I'm going to try some of the things you listed up there. I've tried alot and next comes a refferal to a behavorial specialist. Thanks for helping!

Anonymous's picture

I have a 4 year old boy and need another method of discipline, we've tried "Thinking time", but as soon as he's done, the fighting with his 2 year old brother continues, the ignoring, and lack of respect for us just continues. He doens't have tantrums, he just doesn't listen! He has so much energy to burn that we are exhaused by nighttime, there is no "relaxation us time" left in the day. We've enrolled him in classes tried play dates, he just seems unwilling to participate or turns everything into a rough fighting/shooting game. He seems like he fits in the middle of most of these descriptions, but something just doesn't seem "normal", i will be reading the books recommended and trying the helpful suggestions, i will also be making some appointments with allergist etc.

kit 's picture

adhd is excess energy to us... also we act more on impulse and emotional judgement that intellectual even tho we are gifted in studies. We demand more attention and need it if i am to be honest. As we get older it gets easier as we find more things to do ie. sports to burn the energy off but that still leaves the judgement calls based on emotions.. i recommend patience and extra affection and time with the kid etc.. all we need is love and patience.. and a huge field with some kind of sports ball to kick. :D good luck parents.!

Oby's picture

Thank you so much. I thot i was alone but now i understand that all kids are different and a customised personalised approach is best for each kid. Its been hard dealing with the constant moving about that my son(2.5) insists on doing. Its like people just want to judge you and tell you how much of a bad parent you are. I woke up praying for my son and then found this article. I will try the tecniques and God willing devote more time and enrgy to dealing with the situation.
I pray a change will occur soon. for all those moms, please try more. God has given us these kids for a reason and they will not cause us sorrow but bring us joy. God is able to do all things and he will heal our kids of whatever is wrong,

kd's picture

thank you, this really made me think after a hard day. i actually have the phelan book in a pile somewhere unread and i'm going to dig it out right now! :-)

Bobbie's picture

This is me and my son. You must have been watching us. It is so nice to know my child is like others. I love my son so much but others find it hard to like him let alone love him. We hold him when he is angry and always stay calm and loving and yes it mostly works. My son is now seven and we are still having a lot of problems he is said to have ODD. What ever he has he has our love and that is what will carry us through this though time. Thank you for your thoughts and help.

akankshachaudhary 's picture

i also have a hyperactive active boy of 5 yrs, looks like im struggling with him but your article has again given me strenghth to fight back thanks..

Majd Faidi's picture

Thanx for this great Article... i was desperate... thanx God i found your article and thank you too for the amazing tips!!

Majd's picture

thank you for the great article... Hope it yeilds good results before it's too late for my 4 year old child. i'm totally desperate dealing with him


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