Advice from a Family Therapist – How to Handle a Difficult Child
Okay, first of all, I hate the word difficult and thought for a while about what to call this. I want my kids to march to the beat of their own drum. To a point.
I honestly never thought I would share this struggle in such a public way, but we are seeing such incredible results that I feel like this needs to be said.
One of our kids has been struggling for a while for seemingly no reason. He would do things just to upset his siblings and then seem to take great pleasure in their hurt feelings and the screaming fits that ensued.
To watch him go from doting, loving brother to tormentor really upset me.
I’m an only child, so I have no context for understanding sibling relationships as it is.
Watching him go out of his way to annoy and frustrate his siblings (literally all day, every single day) was taking a toll on the entire family.
Finally, my husband and I had enough.
I contacted a family therapist and told her that I love my child, obviously, but I just couldn’t take it anymore.
I needed some real, actionable advice and promised to be her best student.
Where do I draw the line between letting kids be kids and letting one child torture the rest?
I didn’t want my kids to look at me one day and wonder why I didn’t do more to stop their sibling from ruining so many of their days.
I also didn’t want my son to feel like a bad kid, and I definitely didn’t want to fail to meet any of his needs.
The family therapist listened over the course of a few sessions and asked tons of questions.
Apparently growing up in a family with siblings close in age has been shown to create lifelong sibling friendships (I was sure we were on track to be a hard exception).
It also creates behavioral struggles other families with more space between children or just fewer kids in general tend to experience.
I explained to the counselor that our son is the perfect child – so funny and responsible, so caring and snuggly, so helpful – until one of his siblings wake up.
Then it seems to be a race to upset everyone as quickly as possible while I use every strategy in every parenting book to try to correct his behavior and save our days.
Tough Love from a Family Therapist
Much to my relief, the family therapist said she doesn’t think he’s a bad kid at all. Instead, she thinks his behavior is his way to establish a personal connection with us.
Now let’s stop right here for a second.
I’ve heard of kids that think “bad attention is better than no attention” and misbehave just to get a response from their parents.
Feeling like we were being lumped into this category, I quickly explained to the therapist that this wasn’t possible.
You don’t understand. We go out as a family on a daily basis.
We go for nature hikes, to playgrounds, we deep dive into any question the kids ask and research everything from space to ocean animals to geography.
We get tons of books from the library and read together. I’m literally never ever alone. My kids, including the son in question, are with me every waking minute of the day.
Not getting enough attention is simply not the problem.
Then she asked “what about one on one time? How often do you get to hang out with each of your kids individually.”
Well, that would be almost never.
When my husband or I leave the house for an errand without the kids, we always end up taking one of them with us for some quality time, but that’s the extent of it.
We take each kid out on a date now and then, but since 2020 and all of the shut downs happened, there haven’t been any dates out of the house.
An Action Plan for Better Child Behavior
She said she thinks our very first step should be to spend some time with each kid, alone, each day.
Some days that might be just 10 minutes, but ideally, we would pour 30 minutes into each of our children every day.
That doesn’t sound like much, but with 4 kids, the days seem to fly by and 30 minutes alone without any sibling interference seems almost impossible.
My husband and I decided we had everything to lose. The alternative was to continue dealing with these behavior issues and feeling like parenting failures.
The best part was when the therapist said I don’t have to wait until my husband gets home to start our one on one time.
She said to get creative.
Get everyone interested in something and begin to set the precedent that when mommy or daddy are spending one on one time with someone, you don’t interrupt.
Now is your time to dig into your passions while we enjoy some quality time with someone – and your turn is coming.
I try to be a pretty optimistic person, but I think I snorted out loud when she suggested I try this without my husband around.
This woman hasn’t met my kids yet.
They’re freaking awesome little people, but they’re also constantly hungry, thirsty, and poop at the most inopportune times.
They’re 5.5, 4, 2, and 1.
How am I supposed to leave the one year old alone while I spend quality time with one of the other kids?
She seemed so positive it could be done, so I decided to ive it a try.
The first time spent with my oldest went exactly as I expected.
Someone needed my help in the bathroom while someone else was starving to death and the baby refused to be put down.
I spent the rest of the night feeling completely overwhelmed and hopeless.
My husband spent time with our oldest that night while I entertained the rest of the kids.
The next day, the baby took a nap on time and by some miracle, I only had 3 kids to juggle.
Today is the day, little terrorists. We’re about to spend some serious bonding time together.
“Here is some water. Here is a small snack. Do you have to pee? Poop? Okay…You, sit here with play doh. You, here is your doll you lost like 3 weeks ago. I’m setting a timer for 10 minutes. Unless someone is dying, please don’t interrupt us!”
My oldest son and I played about 5 games of Zingo in those 10 minutes.
So, it CAN be done!
Since then, I spend every single day focusing on one on one time. Sometimes, it happens almost accidentally.
Everyone is interested in something and I can sit down with someone for a few minutes and just chat.
Last night, my 4 year old was the last to fall asleep, so we spent 45 minutes together just talking and playing and imagining what Santa is doing right now.
From the outside, it probably looks like not much about our days has changed.
It’s the intention in our days that’s different.
Somehow, trying to carve out this one on one time has forced me to really pay attention to what I’m doing throughout the day.
If I’m folding clothes while my boys are playing in their playroom, I’ll scoop up my 2 year old and ask for her help.
Instead of early Christmas shopping on Amazon while the baby nurses, I put down my phone and really talk to her and just take in the moment.
It’s only been a few weeks, but I’m noticing a real difference.
It’s almost like I’m trying to collect one on one time with each of the kids.
I don’t think it’s so much a change in my son as it’s a change in my husband and I.
It’s really hard for me to articulate what’s working, I think it’s just that we have been building this deeper bond with each of our kids, but in my son it presents as not wanting to disappoint us by infuriating his siblings for fun.
There’s been a whole lot more of “mommy, I helped Harbour get her toy down” and a whole lot less of Harbour screaming and crying as she chases him around while he hoards said toy.
I’m ashamed to say that before a family therapist pointed it out to me, I was with my kids constantly, but I wasn’t really present that much.
I wasn’t on my phone, I was in my own head worrying about what to do next.
What mess to tackle, how to squeeze in the next homeschool lesson, and dodging requests for snacks 150 times a day.
All of those things still happen, but now I understand that all of that is secondary to really, truly connecting with each of our kids.
Now, we’re intentionally focusing on building our relationships with each of them and cherishing the sweet little moments rather than just surviving the days and ending each evening shell-shocked.
If you’re going through behavior issues with your kids and you don’t know where to turn, my very best advice is to turn to your child and away from the sink full of dishes and the piles of laundry.
The best time you can spend is with your child. Who cares if the dishes sit in the sink a few more hours or even overnight if you get to hang out with one of your kids, really enjoy them, and get to know their ever-changing personality just a little bit better.
If you have multiple children close in age like we do, keep certain toys hidden away for only those pockets of time that you’re trying to spend with another child.
Our therapist said even screen time is okay if it means some real quality time happens.
Now is the time to bust out all of those documentaries on Disney+.
I’m grateful for this embarrassingly simple advice that I needed a professional to give me.
Just start where you are and follow through, every single day, no matter how tough. I promise, it will be worth it.