Parenting a strong-willed child has been a constant battle. The learning curve is steep, my friends. Handling the awkward stares from grocery store patrons and fellow soccer moms when your child loses it is one thing, but listening to what is generally unsolicited advice from people you actually love can be downright hurtful.
They usually don’t mean anything by it.
The same way I daily have to remind myself that my son is not in control over his actions during a meltdown, I must also remember that some people are offering their advice because they genuinely love me, our family, and our son. They want what is best; they just don’t understand.
They CAN’T understand, and that’s ok. Their “what’s best” nearly unanimously doesn’t match up with what is best for our son, but that isn’t their fault. And they probably have no clue how isolating it feels to raise children like ours. They are only trying to offer us assistance.
Picture when you were pregnant and every person you encountered felt the need to tell you their horrendous survival story from birth or give you advice that must have been written on the wall of a cave and you would never use it, but you nod your head and smile because you don’t want to hurt their feelings.
Before our son started to show his behaviors, we were the parents who judged the family with the screaming kids who pulled up in a van full of crusty goldfish crackers whose children were eating a sucker before they even got in the restaurant. If I could go back in time, I would hug that mom. I would go right up to her, wipe off the baby slobber from her shoulder, take her diaper bag, fix her mussed ponytail, and hug her so tightly. She is doing the best she can and I don’t know her situation. And they don’t know ours either.
Our son started exhibiting behaviors when he was about 18 months old. He has been asked to leave childcare. We have had to move him to four different preschools, and we didn’t get his first diagnosis until he was almost five years old. Our son is an incredible kid. He is brilliant, sensitive, loving, thoughtful, and downright hilarious. However, 90% of his awake time is a struggle and, to the innocent onlooker, he would look like a straight psychopath when he is melting down. Reading Dr. Greene’s approach to what he calls, “The Explosive Child” helped me to feel less alone and like there were strategies I could put in place to benefit our son.
So, this is my never-completed exhaustive list of the top 10 things we hear when parenting extreme children and how to respond when you really want to scream and yell and spit…just like our kids would do!
“He should be evaluated.”
Really? I sometimes have to physically bite my lip to keep from yelling back, “Oh that is ingenious! Why didn’t I think of that!?” but that wouldn’t solve anything. People who don’t parent our type of child have no clue the painstaking hours that go into doctor appointments, evaluations, medication adjustments, and testing.
Besides, maybe he does need an evaluation, but the last time I checked, most people giving this advice are neither doctors nor therapists so maybe leave this one unsaid. If you are parenting a difficult child and you are afraid of “labels”, you may want to consider shelving your pride and considering your child’s deepest needs. It might be an evaluation, or it might not. This is ultimately your choice as their parent.
Most people who offer this nugget of wisdom have fairly well-behaved children and their typical tantrum over not getting ice cream for dessert pales in comparison to the hole in your wall from having hardback books launched at you for an hour because you wouldn’t let your son punch you out of frustration.
They don’t get it. Be thankful they don’t. Not everyone was cut out for this job.
SAY THIS: “Maybe you’re right. We will have to cross that bridge when we get there.” A smile, in this case, goes a long way for your own sanity. If you have already considered an evaluation for your child, maybe take this a reminder to call a behavioral specialist. If not, simply dismiss it. It will provide you peace over the guilt you’d feel if you lashed out at someone who sees their advice as a loving offer of assistance.
“This is just a phase. He’ll grow out of it.”
If you are a parent of a difficult child, you have no doubt heard this well-meaning line. Believe me, we pray, Mr. Unsolicited Advice-Giver is telling us the truth! However, when we are subjected to daily meltdowns, “growing out of it” isn’t the much-needed light at the end of the hypothetical tunnel for which we are desperately searching.
What if he doesn’t grow out of it until high school? Or when he is an adult? How will he ever maintain a good job or meet a good woman…or even (gasp!) be a loving father himself one day?
Trust me, sir, this advice is not helpful as our questions go much further down the timeline of our child’s lives. I am concerned I will have to visit my child behind plate glass one day.
SAY THIS: “I hope you’re right.” It is honest and it should pacify them. Then remind yourself that YOU CAN DO THIS…whether it is for 8 more years or 18.
“He’s just a boy”
This one just baffles me. Sure boys are generally more rambunctious than girls, especially while they are young. However, no child, boy or girl, should have full-on Threat Level Midnight behavior over something that seems insignificant to the “normal” thinking mind. No parent, for that matter, should justify this type of behavior based on gender.
Our boy is an extreme child that requires extreme parenting. Our infant daughter seems to be the opposite so far. She is super chill, always smiling, and rarely even makes a noise outside of gleeful baby laughter. However, if she one day decides to just run over an push a kid off of the slide on account of it being a Tuesday, she will get her backside painted red just as her brother would have. Gender doesn’t dictate or make appropriate certain behaviors.
SAY THIS: “That is true. He is a boy. However, I am raising someone’s husband and father and I will teach him to respect authority and sometimes that means he needs to take a second to consider a better choice or action.” This response will produce blank stares and looks of amazement, but it is the truth so they will find a way to deal.
“Use reward charts. Praise is always better than punishment.”
If you are parenting an extreme child, you probably have the same cabinet at your house that I do. It is the one overflowing with behavior charts, star stickers, unused prize tokens, chore cards, and reward graphs.
Our type of child may respond more positively to praise than negative feedback, but they are also just as likely to meltdown, regardless of the reward/punishment. I can fill my son’s room with ninja turtle stickers and prize options and this kid will find a way to use them in an assault attempt during a Level 5 loss of his mind!
SAY THIS: “You know, that is a great idea, Where can I buy something like that?” Empower the well-meaning advice-giver and then go about your business. They simply have no grasp on what a day in the life of our child looks like. Telling them where to shove a sticker chart might feel good in the moment, but it won’t solve your problems.
“Just take away all of his stuff. He’ll listen then!”
I’ll wait and give you time to laugh if you are the parent of an extreme child. Once, following a meltdown about cleaning up his playroom, we told our son that we would have to box up all of the toys in his playroom and give them to a boy who could take better care of his things. Without missing a beat, he responded calmly, “You know, that’s a great idea. I never really liked any of those toys anyway.”
Promise them the world, or threaten to take it all away; these types of children are not affected. This requires a brand of parenting that comes with a hard hat and a hazmat suit.
SAY THIS: “We haven’t tried taking away his favorite toy. Maybe you can do that the next time you are with him.” This response will provide the inner laughter that you need, an answer for them, and 100% certainty that they will realize the error of their ways it they ever decide to try it out for themselves.
“In my day, we’d just have got the belt. The kid needs more discipline.”
At the risk of alerting CPS, most parents of extreme children have tried most every discipline tactic known to man. We’ve tried time-outs, spanking, putting him in his room, taking everything he has, removing privileges, you name it, we’ve probably tried it and he probably just punched and kicked us while we delivered the punishment.
For our type of children, it is the thrill of the chase. They love the argument. Once you have crossed that boundary and entered in, the punishment is no longer relevant to them. They have already won.
SAY THIS: “I wish it were that easy but this one is tricky. Too bad it isn’t (insert appropriate number of years) years ago or maybe we would have handled it already.” Older people notoriously want to help, many of them with the best of intentions. However, parenting a child fifty years ago looked very different, both in method and in manner of behaviors. Mental health didn’t exist as it does today.
“There’s no such thing as ADHD or ‘extreme behavior’. It’s just a result of poor parenting.”
This one can make many who parent an extreme child see red. If you know me personally, you know that I am one to stand up and speak out for what I believe–even at the risk of seeming on the wrong side of crazy myself. However, the majority of people do not fully understand invisible disabilities.
Parenting a child with ADD, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, ODD, Sensory Processing Disorder, Bipolar, etc. looks much different than parenting a child whose disability shows itself physically as well.
So, first, breathe. Do your best calming strategy (you know, the ones we teach our children to use).
SAY THIS: “Medicine and technology sure have changed the way people see the world. Every child is unique and requires a variety of parenting techniques. Parenting definitely doesn’t come with an instruction manual. We just hope we are doing most of it right.”
Sometimes being able to remain civil and laugh off the ignorance of other people is best for everyone. In most cases, they are not trying to be accusatory, but there is no way for them to truly understand what you are dealing with. Your child isn’t theirs. If they were blessed with kids who will sit silently on a iPad for hours at a time, God love them. But we were not. Simply smile and walk away before your opinion (generally delivered loudly and with hand gestures) gets you arrested.
Besides, if I am being honest, I am sure I sat in a restaurant and listened to a screaming child before having had Briggs, and thought to myself, “I would hand that kid his own behind if I were his mom!” My judgment on those parents’ inabilities was in no way based on knowledge of that individual child or on their ability to parent them. Sometimes that is just being human.
“You’re the boss. Don’t give in and give him choices!”
Parenting a strong-willed child, or in our case, a child with multiple behavioral and anxiety disorders, is filled with daily choices.
Do I choose to fight with my son for an hour over the fact that the three shades of green camo he picked out do not “match” simply because they are all camo, or do I praise him for dressing himself and let him proudly stroll out the door to the school looking like someone’s Alabama S-10 spray painted with various shades of green stenciled leaves? I choose peace, so I’ll take the second option please.
SAY THIS: “Some kids can handle being given direct orders. We have to choose our battles.” That is both honest and sincere.
At our house battles are won and lost every single day. The blood and tears shed over things like what to eat for dinner and when bedtime will actually take place fall to the wayside when you are trying to keep your child safe. No longer is a war over chicken nuggets as important as teaching our five year old that jumping over the baby as she lays innocently on her playmat is not the best choice.
“He needs a ‘time in’ rather than a time out.”
Yes, extreme children deal with their emotions differently than most kids. Our son does need time to talk things out. However, when he is in a meltdown or a rage, you can time that kid out, in, sideways, or underneath and the behavior will remain the same.
SAY THIS: “If we are timing him in, can I take a time out while you hold down the fort?” Most people offering advice in this realm are of the emotionally-sensitive variety.
I’ve never been accused of being sensitive or in touch with my emotions, but I do know what is best for my child. I also know when I, myself, need a time out to take a breath and come back to calm so I can be consistent for our son. Most people offering emotional advice are too sensitive themselves to have the mental stamina and emotional fortitude parenting an extreme child demands. Hug them. They probably need it.
“Stop screaming and parent effectively.”
Yes. Yelling and resorting to our son’s level of behavior is not the most advantageous way to parent any child, much less an explosive child. However, until you are the parent who has had to all but sit on your own firstborn to keep them from harming themselves after they have spent hours screaming, yelling, spitting, punching, and kicking you, you cannot fully grasp our feelings of utter helplessness. This is next-level parenting. This isn’t Pinterest crafts and homemade cookies. This is survival mode.
We have a pact in our home not to raise our voices and to tag out so the other parent can take over if we feel ourselves getting to that point, but our son is five and we have been dealing with this for three and a half years. You can imagine how many times we have failed more than succeeded.
SAY THIS: “We try. The number of times we don’t raise our voices are many compared to the times when we lose that battle. Thank you for reminding us that we can always improve.” It is a hard reality for us as parents, but it is true, nonetheless.
“He doesn’t need medication. Just change his diet, use essential oils, run him around in nature (insert any other crunchy, granola solution).”
In the last year alone, we have tried calming strategies, behavioral therapy techniques, occupational therapy, talk therapy, play therapy, reward chards, time ins, time outs, spanking, yelling, removing him to his room, taking all of his toys, removing privileges, a 60 day elimination diet, chiropractic care, essential oils, organic melatonin, two pediatricians, three referrals to pediatric hospitals, one 2 1/2 hour pediatric behavioral health evaluation, seven school meetings…all before we tried what is now his sixth medication attempt.
SAY THIS: “It is a process. No parent wants to have to medicate their child for any reason, but every good parent is willing to do whatever it takes to get their child’s needs met and this is what that looks like for us.”
This road, for us and for many parents raising children fighting similar disorders, is a long one. We are no longer parents of children whose biggest fear is blinking during school pictures or ripping their pants in gym class.
We are suited up in armor to protect ourselves and our children. We are calling doctors, beating down doors of therapists, checking in daily with teachers, principals, and guidance counselors to ensure that our child has their needs met. We are diffusing arguments, smiling through parent-teacher meetings, and fighting back the burn of tears from the stares and unsolicited advice of the well-intentioned.
This war is fought daily. There is no rest. There is no relief. There is no escape. There is no promise that it will get better. However, we are their parents and we march on.
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