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'Difficult' child, difficult parental relationships

When Everett was two, his tantrums (while oh-so-not-what-I-expected in the rosy months of pregnancy and infancy) seemed developmentally appropriate. I chatted with other mamas about our children's so-called "normal" behavior. Sure, he was on the energetic, stubborn end of the child spectrum, but I loved his spirit, and his hugs and loving words were indications to me that I had nothing to worry.

And then, he turned four. And then, he turned four-and-a-half. And slowly I began to think my child didn't seem so "normal" anymore. His tantrums, instead of lessening, worsened. Over the past few months they've been epic, earth-shattering. I've started to search for a label a little stronger than "energetic" and definitely not "spirited." (No. Oh no.) Whether that label is "ADHD" or "bipolar" (probably not, but sometimes...) or "defiant" (yuck) or, more kindly, "explosive/inflexible" -- well, something's going on. I should not be getting in screaming battles with my four-year-old about brushing his teeth.  He should not have such a well-developed and well-used repertoire of swearwords.

It's been hard on my husband and I, as we have different experiences with him (Everett's worst and most awful tantrums are saved for time alone with me, even though he professes to love me best and always apologizes, kissing and hugging and telling me how much he loves me, later) and, well, we have different approaches to parenthood. I'm a reader, he's a "didn't it work for 1000s of years?" kind of guy. ("NO!" is my response.)

Anyway, we've been working through it as best we can, starting with a parenting class we'll take tonight, and following with more individual expert advice for both us and, perhaps, for Everett. The thing I fear most is that our problems are not so-called "normal," and I've seen many a relationship destroyed for more prosaic disagreements. Have you had a hard time negotiating discipline (whether or not your parenting picture is more or less normal), too? What's been your best relationship-saving strategy?


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So sorry you are struggling through all of this. I am the mom of a four-year-old boy who can be more than a bit of a challenge, and I understand your frustration. I would take into consideration what the professional say, but also, keep in mind that your son may be 'working' you and your husband's very different parenting styles. Kids don't necessarily do this on purpose; they are just trying to get what they want any way they can.

That being said, I have seen 4-year-old terror machines turn into very nicely behaved young children, especially (and I hate the gender bias, here) boys.

Get all the information you can and make a plan. Don't scare yourself too much with all the labels and internet knowledge. Look to the experts for direction, but trust your knowledge of your son.

Another thing you might consider is changing his diet. Wheat, soy, food coloring, etc, can cause enormous behavior stuff. We noticed it with orange and red dye with our girl... within fifteen minutes of ingesting anything with food coloring, she was a screaming maniac.
A lot of people say sugar can be a culprit also. For us that is not really the case. It's more the coloring. :-)

The fact that he apologizes says that he has a real awareness of what is going on. I am curious if you have sat down with him during his calm times and talked with him about what is going on when these things happen, and how it feels for him: does he feel angry, out of control, frustrated, or something else? How does he feel afterward? What does he think sets him off? I know that he is 4, but it sounds like he is a smart kid and may be able to process or debrief. The good news is that although I am not for labeling kids, there are a lot of methods out there for working with kids who have many different kinds of issues. I like the idea of learning all you can, and turning to professionals if you need to. It's tough when parents disagree, and it's helpful when you are able to step outside the relationship and get assistance from an expert who can help you help your child and, I hope, doesn't appear to "take sides!" Good luck!

In response to your penultimate question, YES! My husband and I have had an awful time negotiating discipline for our toddlers. Sadly, though, I have no relationship-saving strategy. Our eventual sanity-saving strategy was separation.

I know this doesn't directly address your question and I haven't seen Everett in action ...HOWVEVER I second Rhonda's suggestion based on our own experience.

On the advice of our naturopath, refined sugar of any kind, soy, dairy, and peanuts were cut out of Mila's diet. We actually cut these out to deal with some chronic illness issues (which disappered) BUT we also enjoyed a dramatic change in her behavior for the positive. Suddenly those "what the H E double hockey sticks is going on here?" moments disappeared.

I later saw an interesting article in ODE magazine related to this called "You do what you eat," here is a link:


Again, I this is only based on our experience but I do think it is something to consider if really feel that his behavior seems out of the norm.

I have been using some of the basic Love & Logic principles in our household, especially providing two choices I can live with for most major issues and never backing down once I have stated a rule. I am not *always* the best about keeping a relatively even tone (I have definitely really lost it a few times!) but I have found that when I do keep my cool, the tantrums don't escalate half as much. Also, I ignore tantrums. At best, I might say something like, "ooh, that hurts my ears! I am going into the other room until you can pull yourself together.." or "do you need to go to another room while you work this out?" It's amazing, it really works if you are consistent. My 4 year-old son most often chooses warm togetherness over alone tantrum-ness. I try to let the kids do as much as they can on their own, but I am pretty clear about what I expect and time frames (10 minute warnings, 5 minute warnings, and "out the door we go!") If you give them a little control and acceptable choices, the result should be confidence building, and they will be less likely to get so frustrated. It takes a LOT of work, and it is not always easy, but the payoff is great.

I echo the above posters regarding reading a lot, and seeking outside help if the situation seems intractable.

Good luck!

I don't talk about this aspect of it on my blog but yes ... reading your post felt very familiar to me. I have two Spirited Children and I'm a spirited personality as well. When my son who is six began to have rages (most often on vacations), we began to seek some professional help. Have you tried the book "The Explosive Child"? I am coming to the realization that we simply aren't clear enough in our rules and expectations with the kids. I'm too willing to not fight battles and my husband is the other way round. I'm the reader (ask and if it's a parenting book I've probably got it) and he's more likely to just stick with what worked with his parents although I try to remind him of the times when he wasn't happy being parented that way... Hang in there and I'd say there's absolutely nothing wrong in seeking some professional help. I also say we should look at having a parenting group either in person or online around "spirited" kids and what all that brings. Let's bring our issues out of the closet so we don't have to feel we are struggling in the dark as I have for so long. Also, bringing the authors of "Parenting the Spirited Child" and "The Explosive Child" would be amazing.

I also forgot two more quick things:

A therapist told me that it is very "normal" for children who are angry but not good at expressing it for whatever the reason ... to say things like "I hate you," and "I'm going to kill you (my son's current favorite) because it very clearly gets across the point that they are definitively MAD!

Also, I've been told several times and I believe this... good parents get help. Better to seek professional help and support and not need it ultimately than to not and struggle on your own.

Best of luck and feel free to contact me anytime... you can do so through a comment on my blog ...

Thanks so much for all your comments, you guys! I'm wiping tears away. MamaZuzi, I hear you loud and strong -- I've got "I hate you," "I wish daddy would get shot in the Army" (great) and "I want to go live with another family!" (after which I explain that the other families have bedtimes, too, and they're EARLIER).

Anyway. I *have* read The Explosive Child, and devoured it with great interest. I've experimented with diet, a bit, and never found any direct link between anything (from sugar to food coloring to wheat to whatever) between his diet and his outbursts. His worst one ever was after a few sips of one of those super-natural green juice blends! *sigh* ...

We have noticed a few things that might (or might not) help with Everett. We can expect trouble if our son has an empty stomach for too long, gets too tired (although he's getting better about saying I need to go to bed NOW), doesn't get enough one-on-one time with Mom and/or some down time alone (his favorites are currently reading, Legos and/or video games -- which I DON'T love but in the interest of his reenergizing safely, we limit him to things like pool and ping pong or chess. I believe that just as children often behave well all day long and then "lose it" at home where they feel safest, they too "lose it" more often with Mom frequently because she feels the closest, most loved and safest too. In our case, I believe my kids lose it more with me because I too am a spirited personality and working on coming to grips with what that means. I'd be happy to try to put together a list serv kinda group for parents of kids in PDX area who struggle with the things we're talking about... we need to connect and share! Hang in there and keep us posted.

Sarah - I'm glad you're getting some support here. I can empathize only partially - our toddler is developing some champion temper-tantrum skills, and I'm watching warily to see how that evolves.

I know of a family therapist who might be able to be helpful. He's been a great resource to us on a casual basis (he's a neighbor). If you'd like his contact information, let me know.

I find this post very interesting as my spirited 2 yr old has started some really HUGE tantrums, and it totally is becoming an issue in our marriage. Fighting over discipline is awful but it seems we can't agree. I would LOVE to meet with other mamas who deal with spirited children as I know I could learn a lot and will need a lot of support in the next 4 years as he gets older. My son can be so loving, but if he doesn't get what he wants, it's rage time. We don't yet have the nasty comments, but the rages are sometimes totally out of control. I know some of it is normal toddler behaviour, but I also know my son is VERY spirited and has been that way from birth (and even in the womb). And having a strong personality myself, we seem to clash, and then I clash with my more mellow husband about it.

So far what has worked somewhat for me is explaining to my need-to-know-everything toddler what is going on and/or going to happen in great detail and WHY. That does seem to help, along with keeping him fed and well-rested. But I'm already scared for what the future years will bring...with baby #2 on the way, I'm scared about his life as The King being turned upside down with a new sibling just as he's almost 3 and really getting going.

Anyway, no great answers here, but I think a lot of parents of spirited children probably have similar questions.

It is scary when we are worried our kids are acting outside of "norms". I don't love having those guidelines much b/c IMO it seems to cause unneccessary worry for parents that gets transferred to kids.

I like to look at it as this is Everett's way of communicating to you. Sounds like you have checked out the diet part, that is usually an important place to start.

Second is to look at what is going on for YOU.....I think kids often act as barometers for our feelings and don't even know why they are doing what they are doing or feeling such big stuff. I don't mean that you are to BLAME for his behavior at all, just that he is attached to you and you to him and through that connection he experiences the world with you in a very close way. I think changing our energy as parents often will change some of the energy we are getting back from our kids.

Third, Trusting Everett and yourself as his mother. Know that he is doing his very best to get his needs met and I see our job as parents to help them get them met and minimize frustration until they can learn more effective ways to communicate as they grow.

I really like Scott Noelle's parenting tips and he is also a wonderful counselor. Check his stuff out here and see if it resonates for you.

A book that helped me a lot was Parenting the Strong-Willed Child by Rex Forehand. It has a 6 week program to help get your child's behavior back on track. Some things are really hard to incorporate because I tend to get angry quick and start raising my voice. So occassionally I have to have a "mommy timeout" before I can deal with the kids. My kids do exactly what I teach them to do. If I'm frustrated and angry and start to yell or spank, they do the same when they're angry or frustrated. That was a hard lesson to learn. Meeting with a support group or even a playgroup has been incredibly helpful for me. You find out how others deal with things and that it does eventually get better with time. But IMO you and your husband really have to come to an agreement. If you don't, your child is going to be in a constant state of confusion as to what is acceptable behavior and what isn't. Hang in there. Good luck.

Sorry, wrong book. Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child by Robert MacKenzie was the book I really liked. I did read both books. The one by Rex Forehand deals a lot more with ADHD children. Both books have very specific programs to incorporate discipline techniques.

this is the first time i've been to this site, and reading your story echoed my story almost exactly. "the explosive child" is definitely a good book. we got professional help when we realized what was normal at 2 was no longer normal at 4 1/2 - a good therapist for our family and both our sons. and now i often say "who is this new child?" we did a token reward system (something i originally thought was not a good parenting tool - he earned or lost marbles and could cash in different amounts of marbles for different activities on a list he had come up with). this ultimately wasn't really about the rewards for our son. it was about noticing positive behaviour and downplaying our reaction to negative behaviour. it trained us in a way that nothing else could. we learned we should say five postives to every negative/correction. a correction can be something as simple as "close the door" if said in a certain tone implying you forgot to close the door; i am the boss; and i am telling you what to do. said with a lighthearted "close the door, please, buddy" is not necessarily a correction. we no longer belabored the point about the behaviours we did not want to see. it was a simple, "oops, you lost a marble." we started noticing, naming, and pointing out the behaviour we did want to see: "i see you sharing your toy with your brother. that was a kind thing to do." it is amazing how over time we gained cooperation from this positive attention we were giving our now more self-confident son.

we as a family are now done with therapy, but my partner is going to continue with individual therapy. i think for the parents of a challenging child, your old issues that you may not even be conscious of get so stirred up, that therapy for yourselves on an individual level or as a couple could be a great idea. and last but not least - humour is the key. end all of those arguments by laughing or joking about the absurdity of it all. it really saved us - i would have left a while ago if not for humour.

best of luck to you.

I talked to my 4 year old about Sarah's post last night. "A mom is having this problem with her 4 year old, and I wonder if you could help us understand." She told me:

- kids just say stuff like "I hate you" sometimes, but they really love you and they don't think you're a bad mama.

- she used to say mean stuff to daddy, but she doesn't any more, so she's pretty sure this other 4 year old will stop too.

- she wants to loan a special toy to the sad mama (Sarah) to help her feel better, but don't let her son have it if he is being mean.

Then I told her I've been having trouble with my own 4 year old sometimes too. She looked shocked! I described some hair pulling and scratching that happened recently, and she excused herself from the room, saying she needed some time away from me. When she came back, she was carrying a little drawing she made of a girl with hearts pouring out of her. She told me to keep it always, because it would help me feel better whenever she is angry with me.
So this morning, when she started showing some anger, I went and got the drawing, and just looked at it, saying nothing. Coincidence or not, the anger didn't last.

I often feel like my daughter has two different personalities (one of which is awfully hard to love) and it's so hard to get back from the angry kid to the nice kid (especially if I succumb to being an angry mama). The angry kid is incapable of logic, but the nice kid is pretty expressive, so those moments seem like the best opportunities to address the anger. Solutions from the kids themselves are generally pretty powerful.

Oh, my God, Jenny, how incredibly sweet and inspirational!

Your situation with your son sounds very much like mine. He is "spirited", intelligent, emotional, and very hard to disipline. The trouble began when my second son was born and he was almost three. I felt like I had reached the end of my parenting skills. We started to see a child therapist for some "play therapy" techniques which I do at home and new discipline guidelines. I have learned so much from her and my son is finally starting to do better. My husband and I see her together and so we all feel like we are on the same page. If you would like her name and number, let me know. You are not alone. And more importantly, there is nothing "wrong" with your son.

Jenny your post brought tears to my eyes, and Amy Jo that was wonderful advice that I am going to try w/my older boys. I also have a spirited child, but he is almost 8 and that brings on a whole different set of issues because he cognitively understands so much more than my 5 yr old. I really do feel sometimes I am dealing with two different personalities with him like Jenny wrote.

One thing that we try to be consistent about is having him go to his room to calm down if he is throwing a temper tantrum. I try to explain that he is not is not in trouble but that he has to calm down in order to be w/the family. When we do time out we use a space that has no toys etc.

When he was younger we would do "hug breaks" I would just hold him and hug him until he calmed down - he would squirm and fight me but then eventually melt into my arms. I think in his case his emotions would be so out of control that it scared him

Another book recommendation is The Optimistic Child by Martin Seligman. It is a great book about preventing depression/anxiety in children.

It is so hard dealing with this and it definitely can affect your relationship. The thing we did which helped was have a family meeting and came up up family rules and consequences. We had our oldest help contribute to the rules and kept the same rules for the kids just different consequences per child (time for time outs etc.) Then we posted them in the kitchen. This help me and my husband be consistent and not fight w/each other over the punishment. Also if one of us walked into a situation we could back the other parent up.

Good luck, you really are not alone and like Kristen said there is nothing wrong w/you or your son.

Hi. I just found this discussion and was so glad to see it. I have two girls 6 & 3 that are both "strong-willed" or "spirited". Our older daughter's tantrums have gotten somewhat better, but the younger one has had a week of insane tantrums that have lasted up to 40 minutes+. It seems to be around times of change, like school ending or going back to school. She actually brought me to tears the other day. I have read the "strong willed child", but my husband who is the primary caregiver is not too keen on reading it. We try to give lots of positive praise, but it doesn't always seem to help. Is there a better book? Is it time to see a counselor? How do you take things out of their diet when they are the pickiest eaters? Would love to be able to meet and discuss all these issues with other parents dealing with similar issues. Wondering why dealing with this has to be so hard and exhausting?

I don't know if there is a more appropriate thread for this post, but:

Tantruming isn't so much of a problem with my daughter these days (she's just turned 8), though there is still the occasional explosive screaming fit over some perceived injustice. The latest worry is lashing out at me physically (like a hard, well-placed kick on my shin at the check-out in Trader Joe's when no jellybeans was the 1-2-3 consequence for refusing to stop harassing her brother--talk about trying to keep your maternal cool). That was followed by another kick later that day and two more later that week. She's getting big, and this stuff hurts! I'm the only kicking target, though she can get very aggressive with her brother. I guess I'd be more worried if she was lashing out at other people--teachers, kids at school (where she is model of appropriate behavior), but one of my friends just asked "aren't you a person, too? and "Have you considered counseling?"

She is self-aware enough to say later "Sometimes I just get so mad at you I don't know what else to do." and has recently begun to acknowledge how upset she gets about how many people like her brother, who is admittedly very charismatic and attracts lots of attention--from her classmates, other parents at school, strangers on the street. She's a different child--much more private, introspective, an observer. As a mother it's sweet to hear people gush over the boy, as his sibling it has to be a drag to know that she's almost always overshadowed by her little brother.

Lately she's been saying "you like him more than you like me--everybody does." This breaks my heart. I can't tell her that I understand more than she'll ever know (until she's maybe 30), that we are very similar, that I don't like to work the room like her dad and brother either, that when I was growing up I was "the smart one" and my brother was "the good-looking one."

I worry she's prone to depression/anxiety that will just get worse as she nears/enters adolescence and will check out the Optimistic Child.

Unmotivated teenagers become difficult to understand. They don’t respect and obey their parents and elders. Parents can take help of certified counseling and parenting programs in improving the behavior, emotions and character of troubled children. Parenting programs are specifically designed to support aggressive kids and improve all the aspects of life.

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