Most parents have hopes and dreams for their children. We want them to be happy, to be emotionally balanced and successful in their lives, in their relationships, in making a living, in finding a place in a community. To get married, start a family. To find the same connection to G-d that we have.
Most parents also experience the frustrations of trying to mold and shape these small, sometimes (often?) headstrong, humans into functional adults. There’s a reason jokes and memes about parenting resonate so strongly.
It’s hard, often thankless work, and the moments of joy, contentment and satisfaction may be few and far between, but that makes them all the more satisfying.
There are some of us, though, who have children that are more challenging than the average child. I’ve heard it said that some children are the equivalent of three (or five, or ten) children, based on the amount of effort needed to raise them.
Maybe you know what this is like. The child that is more sensitive, more demanding, quicker to anger, slower to calm down, less likely to listen, more likely to insult you or respond with rage, inappropriate language, threats, the child who has a harder time focusing or regulating their emotions.
The child that we can love so fiercely and yet be consistently exasperated by and consumed with worry about what will be in their future.
Parenting any child is a journey, but parenting a child who has extra challenges is a whole different rollercoaster. These are the stages you might go through along the way. They are the stages I’ve gone through, so far, at least. I would love to hear any other stages that you have experienced.
1. Realizing that your child isn’t “typical.”
I still remember the first time a teacher suggested that our child, our brilliant, sensitive, adorable, quirky, funny child, might have some issues. Issues with a capital “I.” My first reaction was that the teacher was obviously wrong, was way off base, was inexperienced, was inappropriately diagnosing my child, etc. etc. But when I stopped and looked back at this child’s behaviors, I realized that maybe the teacher was more right than I wanted to admit.
2. Reading all the books and taking all the classes
Who knew there were so many different philosophies on how to parent? There was a decent amount of overlap in some of the classes/books, and they all claimed to be the way to be the best parent and get your children off to the best start in life.
3. Feeling like a total failure of a parent
I always felt so confident right after reading a book or taking a class, like there was hope for figuring out how to help this struggling child. But then trying to apply nearly any of the strategies inevitably ended in frustration and tears. This child was capable of pushing my buttons in ways I didn’t think was possible, and I more often than I would like to admit, I reacted poorly. It was hard on me, it was hard on my marriage, it was hard on my child.
4. Blaming myself for my child’s behavior.
“If only I had started taking parenting classes earlier.” “If only I had put this child on a more regular schedule from birth” “If only I had realized the signs sooner” “If only I didn’t have such a short fuse.” The list of recriminations is never-ending. I only realized that there might be more to the situation than just my parenting skills or my less than stellar character traits when I was expressing my regrets for being a “horrible mother” to a friend who was a more experienced mother. Her response was, “maybe your child is not that way because of your mothering. Maybe your mothering is that way because of your child.”
5. Find a tribe, get support.
Once I realized that my child’s behavior didn’t mean I was an unmitigated failure as a mother, but that there were deeper causes at work, I started opening up to friends about my challenges, and found that, as so often happens when we open up, I was not alone in my struggles. There was a whole world out there of parents who have children who don’t respond to the more mainstream parenting methods.
6. Start implementing action: therapy, diet modification, medication, etc.
And now began the long and often unclear process of finding the tools to help my child (and also to help us learn how to effectively parent said child). Finding a therapist, realizing the therapist isn’t a good fit, thinking about changing the child’s diet, realizing that it’s not something that is realistic for our family, find another therapist, get support from the school, discuss medication, stop therapy, restart therapy, look for a psychiatrist, start medication, stop therapy, restart therapy…
7. Realize that all that effort doesn’t make the challenging behavior disappear
It helps, for sure, and for that I’m grateful, but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t still supremely challenging moments. It just means we have more tools to manage them, and to manage our own reactions to these behaviors.
8. Be angry at your child for being who they are
I hate this step. Sometimes this parenting experience is more frustrating than words can express. Sometimes I just want to shout “what is wrong with you!?!” Sometimes I just cannot imagine dealing with this behavior for one more day, one more minute.
9. Be angry at yourself for being angry at your child.
It is a horrible feeling to lose my temper at this child when I know that they are also struggling mightily with their behavior and self-esteem. I know, deep down, that this child doesn’t want to have these issues, that this child wants to have more control, but is not capable of it right now. In non-challenging moments, this child is wonderful, enjoyable, delightful. So when I lose it and make subpar choices as a parent, I feel even more guilty than when I lose it at my other kids. Because I know this child will take it more to heart, that it will do more damage. And that is so hard to bear.
10. Work on yourself to accept your child for who they are, and to accept yourself for who you are as well.
The work of a lifetime. Accepting my child’s disposition, even when it is beyond challenging. Accepting that I need to consistently modify my expectations of this child, both in the short- and long-term. Accept that it may never be smooth sailing, that some of these behaviors will not be outgrown, but will develop into other, more mature but still challenging behaviors. Accept that I may regularly feel like a failure as a parent but that doing the best I can do has to be enough, always. Accept that I need to cut both my child and myself so much more slack than I am currently doing. Accept that G-d gave me this child and gave this child me as a mother, that we are together for a reason.
Here are some resources that I’ve found helpful:
Ruchi Koval introduced me to the concept of Parenting with Radical Acceptance
Classics like How To Talk So Your Kids Will Listen