Dr. Kimberly Riley
If you are an adult reading this article, you may be wondering how to deal with a difficult child. This particular child could be your own or the child of another family member, a child you know from the community, or the child of a friend or co-worker, but somehow their difficult behavior has come to your attention and you are looking for a solution.Children are often misunderstood, so it makes sense that adults would describe them as being difficult sometimes, but the same could be said for adults whose children maybe do not understand. With a little help from a therapist, certain styles of therapy can help children become less difficult, at least in the eyes of the people who are caring for them.
This article can be used as a guide for you to decide which therapeutic approach might be best for the child who needs some help with something difficult in their life, which in turn has caused them to be seen as a difficult child.
Identification: Who is a Difficult Child?
As we begin to think about what type of child may be labeled as difficult, certain behaviors may come to mind. Most children in their early years express themselves in a way that anyone around them might say they are hard to manage or being difficult.
Some adults do not understand the stages of development that children go through, so they make judgments about their behavior. Either way, the child’s behaviors are not ones that adults easily know how to respond to and the frustration can be overwhelming.
Children who do not listen well to or respect authority can be difficult in public settings and at home. Several mental health disorders have symptoms specifically connected to respect for authority. Some of those disorders are; Adjustment Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Intermittent Explosive Disorder, Conduct Disorder, Pyromania, and Kleptomania.
Children who have been diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder may have behaviors that are a little harder to understand when compared to another child their age who has different ways of expressing themselves.
Two children who are just trying to figure out how to make decisions on their own and separate themselves from the rules that have been set by the adults in their lives may be received differently when one of them has big behaviors, although they both are at the same stage of development.
Of course, people who work with children may identify a child who asks too many questions or a child who wants to stay up late in the evening to play one more game as being difficult, but some of that is just a child being who they are created to be, which is a curious human being.
In those moments when adults become frustrated, they have to use their coping skills to manage their emotions and embrace the child from a different perspective.
Psychoeducation: Understanding the behaviors of a difficult child
It is possible that some adults just need a basic understanding of what the behaviors are that identify a child as being difficult or hard to handle. Psychoeducation is a part of therapy that is used to help individuals or others in their life understand a mental health diagnosis, as well as therapeutic interventions that are used to treat and manage their mental health diagnoses.
Some of these behaviors are seen in children 18 years or younger as symptoms and meet the criteria of the mental health disorders from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) listed above:
- Easily loses temper, is touchy or easily annoyed.
- Is often angry and resentful.
- Often argues with adults (authority figures) and defies or refuses to comply with requests from authority figures or obey rules.
- Often annoys others on purpose.
- Frequently blames others for their mistakes or behavior.
- Employs verbal aggression, such as temper tantrums or verbal arguments.
- Exhibits physical aggression towards animals or other individuals occurring twice a week for three months.
- Has three behavioral outbursts involving destruction of property within a twelve-month period.
- Often bullies, intimidates, threatens, or initiates physical fights with others.
- Has used a weapon that can cause serious harm to others or has been physically cruel to people or animals.
- Has stolen while confronting a victim, has broken into someone’s house or car, or lies to obtain goods.
- Has forced someone into sexual activity.
- Has engaged in fire-setting intending to cause serious damage.
- Often stays out at night beginning before the age of 13
- Has run away from home before the age of 13 at least twice while living with parents or being truant from school.
As you read the description of these behaviors you may immediately think of some child or children that you know or have experienced in some way before. Families and people in the community who work with children who have these behaviors may feel confused and hopeless.
However, by understanding the mental health disorders that are connected to these behaviors, they may feel like there is an action plan that they can take with the child to better days ahead. It is important to understand different therapeutic techniques and interventions that help children manage some of these behaviors and adults assist in the management of their response to the behaviors.
Anger Management Therapy: Coping Skills
Quite a few children who have difficult behavior explosively express their anger. It is beneficial to teach children how to healthily express their anger from a young age. With a lot of disruptive, impulse-control, and conduct disorders children are not able to explain why they do the things that they do, but can often say “I am just mad.” or “I don’t like it when people tell me what to do.”
Here are a few ways for adults to help children calm down when they are feeling overwhelmed.
- Encourage children to write or draw out their feelings.
- Provide children toys to play out their feelings.
- Allow children space to cool down and think.
- Give children time to process what is being asked of them and then quietly explain again if they say they do not understand or if they do not complete the task.
- Encourage children to come up with their own consequences to behavior that can hurt others or discuss some of the consequences they can pick from (do this when they are calm).
- Do not approach a child who has asked for time to be alone (if they are safe).
- Model ways to remain calm when feeling frustrated yourself.
Here are a few ways for children to remain calm or calm down once they become angry.
- Ask to take a break when necessary.
- Listen to a favorite song or watch a favorite show.
- Talk to a trusted friend or adult.
- Take a few deep breaths or walk outside and get fresh air (or both).
- Journal thoughts and feelings with words or pictures.
- Remember the rules and be ready for the outcome of breaking those rules.
As children engage in certain behaviors, adults tend to want to confront them, but that is not always the best choice at the moment, because the child then feels threatened and their behavior may intensify.
Adults should remain there so they can see what is happening and call for help if necessary. However, this can escalate the situation if the child is asking to be left alone and the adult still approaches them or continues to give them directives they are clearly not following.
Adults in this position may feel like the child is being disrespectful or is winning when they allow them to walk away from a conversation, but a lot of the time the child is doing that so that they can have control over their emotions and return to a more regulated state, which will then give room for the adult and the child to communicate with one another again.
Other Therapies: What’s Next?
Those are just two therapeutic ways to help deal with a difficult child in your life, but there are many more that exist too. Narrative-based talk therapy, play therapy, art therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, and others are effective for a wide variety of behaviors a child can display, either when diagnosed with a mental health disorder or not.
There are counselors here at Seattle Christian Counseling who can help you navigate your feelings or help the child work on managing their behavior. We would love to go on the journey to well-being and healthy regulation with you and your child.
“Flames”, Courtesy of Cullan Smith, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Shattered Window”, Courtesy of Zach Kadolph, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Little Savage”, Courtesy of Patrick Fore, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Fragile,” courtesy of Morgan Basham, Unsplash.com, CC0 License