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Wild Child

Some kids really are harder to handle than others. If you've got one of them, find out how a few simple changes can bring peace to your house.

There was a little girl who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
And when she was good
She was very, very good
And when she was bad, she was horrid.

I know how the parents of this little girl must have felt. My 11-year-son is that girl's temperamental clone. I remember one particularly difficult day: our son had defied me at church in front of my friends, refused to clean his room then lied and told me he had, and gone behind my back to secure a privilege from his dad when I'd already said no. The discipline we meted out seemed to leave absolutely no impression on our son. When the kids were finally in bed, my husband Steve and I straggled into the kitchen, beat. "I feel like we're failing him," Steve said wearily.

My thoughts precisely. How do two adults wind up feeling incapable of parenting a child half their size and who has a tenth of their combined life experience?

Not so long ago, child development experts believed that environment was the primary factor in shaping a child's personality. These experts would have concluded, as we did, that we were the real reason our son was acting differently from our other children. They would have agreed that we were indeed failing as parents.

But in the 1950s, psychologists began to study the temperaments of children and the impact different temperaments have on family life. They found that every kid comes individually wired. And some truly are more difficult to parent than others.

Interestingly enough, that's how God planned it. Each child, each person, is created in God's image, but as a unique individual with special gifts, abilities and quirks. While the differences among our children make family life lots of fun, these same differences also make it extremely challenging at times.

If you're dealing with a difficult child of your own and searching for answers, here are some ideas that worked for us:

Get inside his head. What makes some kids harder to manage than others? Studies have identified distinct temperament characteristics that distinguish a child's personality. They include: intensity, persistence, sensitivity, perceptiveness, adaptability, regularity, energy, mood and first reactions. When a child leans too far to the extreme in one?or more?of these areas, he may become more difficult to parent.

For a practical discussion of these traits and parenting, I found Raising Your Spirited Child (Harper-Perennial), by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, to be extremely helpful. Kurcinka recommends studying your child's behavior and asking the following questions to help understand the specifics of your child's extremes:

  • Is she loud and demanding? (intensity)
  • Is she easily distracted, always on the go? (energy level)
  • Is she overly sensitive? Does she hate tags in clothes or strange smells? (sensitivity)
  • How does she react to surprises? (adaptability)
  • Is she often cranky? (mood)
  • Does she resist trying new things? (first reaction)
  • Does she prefer a regular or irratic schedule? (regularity)

After further assessing my son's trait extremes, I found that he scored seven points over the "very difficult" range. But rather than feel completely defeated by the realization that our son had a high-maintenance personality, my husband and I felt relieved. Once I realized that my son's actions were more an expression of some of his extreme traits than simply bad behavior, I was better able to comprehend why he did the things he did. And I've been able to manage his environment so that we can avoid situations I know will cause trouble.

Consider the very bad day I mentioned earlier. I later realized that my son's high energy level made it tough for him to wait while I talked to friends after church. His intensity made his request to "leave right now" sound like a disrespectful order. His inability to adapt to change made him resist my request to clean his room on Sunday because, as he loudly pointed out, "We usually clean on Saturday!"

Now, he brings a ball to church that he can play with outside after the service. This makes waiting for the rest of the family much more bearable for him. He tries to talk quietly and I try to respond quickly. And when there's going to be a change in our routine, I try to provide plenty of time for him to adjust. And I pray. ? a lot.

Set clear limits. Of course, parents shouldn't adapt to their child's every personality quirk. And not every conflict can be chalked up to temperament. If your child seems to be constantly testing your limits, it's important to set some ground rules. Family therapist Mike Theurere encourages parents to pick out three areas of conflict that seem to recur often. Talk with your child about accept able ways to resolve these conflicts and then post them on the refrigerator or in her bedroom. If your child is able, have her write the rules in the first person: I will get up by 7:15 a.m. and make my bed. I will obey the first time. I will speak respectfully.

Determine a reward for following the rule and consequences for breaking it. I like to use rewards for issues of temperament and consequences when it's obvious my son is being deliberately disobedient. For example, I reward my son, often when he doesn't expect it, for waiting patiently. When he's done especially well, I'll say, "You waited so well, let's get an ice cream cone to celebrate!" However, if he lies to cover up his inability to adjust to change, like he did about cleaning his room, I make sure the discipline is swift and sure.

Keep in mind, too, that what works for one child doesn't always work for another. "The cookie cutter approach to discipline tends to cut off the best parts of each child," says Irene Blackford, clinical psychologist and mother of four, "It's better to adapt your discipline to each child's special needs and personality."

Try a variety of consequences. One child might be motivated by the possibility of no TV for a week. Another, by the prospect of going to bed an hour early. Listening to your child will provide insight into exactly what he finds motivating. Pay attention to what matters to your child?computer time, time with friends, phone privileges?and use those interests to encourage your child to follow the family rules.

Consider his perspective. Outside of the rules you've clarified, try to be somewhat flexible. Recently we avoided what could have been a no-win struggle when my son poured a glass of milk down the drain and declared, "I hate milk. I'm never drinking it again." I cringed. I certainly couldn't let him go without milk, but neither could I force-feed him. For three weeks, I imagined his bones dwindling away while he turned up his nose at milk?and every other dairy product I offered. As a last resort, I tasted the milk. It tasted horrid. I realized that about the time he announced his distaste for milk, I'd switched grocery stores and therefore the kind of milk we were drinking. We switched to buying fresh milk from a local dairy and now I can't seem to keep enough of it in the house.

When a conflict comes up, try to get your child to calmly tell you what she's upset about. And do your best to really listen. Your child might have a perfectly logical reason for not wanting to go to the mall with you right now. These conversations also give you the opportunity to negotiate a solution that works for both of you?go to the mall for an hour, then play at the park for a while. If nothing else, listening to your child's point of view reminds him that you really do care about his likes and dislikes, even when you can't change a situation to suit his needs.

Communicate effectively. How many times have you heard: "I didn't know I wasn't supposed to. ? " "I thought you meant. ? " "You never said . ?"

If you're like me, you rack your brain to remember exactly what you said when you asked your child to do something. I'm usually pretty certain I gave clear instructions, but I'm never really sure.

It may seem obvious, but we parents often forget that we need to communicate our expectations clearly in order for our children to meet them. What we think is a simple, direct instruction might not sound so simple to a child. It's worth taking a little extra time to make sure your child has heard and understood what you've said.

What makes for stellar communication with your child? Irene Blackford suggests the following:

  • Speaking matter-of-factly will help you avoid a power struggle. Some kids enjoy conflict and the sense of power that arguing with their parents gives them. Communicate that obedience is the only option by speaking confidently, decisively and avoiding phrases that sound wishy-washy. Say, "It's time for bed now." Not, "I think it's getting to be time for you to go to bed." Try phrasing requests so they can't easily be answered with a no. Instead of saying, "Go clean your room," try, "After you clean your room, you may go outside."
  • Don't shout across the room. Be within arm's reach when you talk to your child. Shut off the TV and make eye contact before telling her what you'd like her to do.
  • Give clear, simple instructions.
  • Ask your child to repeat what you've said so you're sure he understands.

By using these techniques, we now have fewer difficult days at our house. But we still have clashes.

Last week, my 5-year-old begged to stay up and watch a video. Our answer was no, and as I walked her to her bedroom, she kicked, screamed and yelled. Had my son reacted so defiantly when he was 5, I would have despaired. But experience has taught me not to judge the success of my parenting on my child's reactions. It might be one of those bad, horrid days. There will be plenty of better ones. It's a bumpy road to maturity with your difficult child. But with your understanding, guidance, unwavering love, and lots of prayer, she'll learn to temper her personality extremes.

Faith Tibbetts McDonald is a writer and the mother of three. She and her family live in Pennsylvania.

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