I Have a Difficult Child. What Do I Do? (Part 2)

Posted February 12th, 2018 in Christian Counseling for Children, Christian Counseling For Teens, Family Counseling, Featured, Relationship Issues by

Are you the parent of a child whom you would categorize as being “difficult”? If so, you’ve come to the right place. As a father myself, there have been many times dealing with my own children, in which my patience has been tested.

To be quite candid, I must admit that there have been times in the past where I’ve flipped my own lid. After having talked to and counseled many parents though, I’ve come to one undeniable unmistakable conclusion – that struggles between parents and children are completely normal.

In Part 1 of this article series, we began taking a look at things that you, as a parent, can do to make your relationship with your youngster better. Remember that since the only person over whom you have power and whose thoughts, feelings, and actions you can control is yourself, interventions from you as a parent need to start there.

Don’t forget that you, as a parent, are in charge, not in control. You are neither in control of nor responsible for the thoughts, feelings, and actions of your children. So, here are some more things that you can do to take charge of your side of your relationship with your youngster.

Instill Character Through Effective Discipline

One of the biggest blessings in life that we can give our children is the gift of discipline. That’s become almost a bad word these days, so before we go any further, let me explain what discipline actually is. When some people hear the word “discipline” they automatically equate it with “punishment.” In reality, they are two different things.

According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, discipline is “training that corrects, molds, and perfects the mental faculties or moral character.” If one researches the etymology of the word, however, they will discover that the English word discipline comes from the Latin word “discipulus”, which means student, pupil, or disciple.

Disciple? You mean like Jesus’s disciples? Exactly. Jesus disciples were men that he mentored, teaching them all about the Kingdom of God. A mentor attempts to develop and instill character in those whom they disciple. The development of good character is the chief goal of all parents when it comes to their kids.

If you love your children, you’ll discipline them in order to mold them, shape them, and help develop Godly character within them. As Proverbs 3:12 tells us, “The Lord disciplines those whom He loves, as a father the son He delights in.”

How exactly can we parents look to instill good character in our kids? Here are some effective principles of discipline

Set Firm but Fair Limits and Boundaries

When it comes to your kids, don’t be either a doormat or a dictator. Two men in scripture illustrate the dangers of each of these extremes.

Scripture says of King David that he was a “man after God’s own heart.” (1 Samuel 13:14). For all his accolades though, David ended up being a fairly ineffective parent. The Bible paints a picture of him as being overly passive and permissive when it came to his kids.

Tamar, one of David’s daughters, ended up being raped by her half-brother Ammon. How did David respond to this heinous crime? In 2 Samuel 13:21 we read that he was furious when he heard about it, but there is no mention of him doing anything to Ammon.

Two years later, Tamar’s brother Absalom (another of David’s sons), responded by having Ammon murdered. David responded by tearing his clothes in anguish (2 Samuel 13:31), but again apparently did nothing to Absalom.

Four years later, Absalom (David’s own son), seized his father David’s throne in a military coup. David was forced to flee and in the end, Absalom was killed. A tragedy that forever illustrates the importance of having limits, boundaries, and consequences for wrongdoing.

Israel’s first monarch, (King Saul) demonstrates the pitfalls of the exact opposite extreme. Scripture indicates that Saul was angry and abusive towards his son Jonathan. As David’s favor grew, an evil spirit came upon Saul and he tried killing David because of his own jealousy of him.

After learning that Jonathan had befriended David, Saul responded by screaming at him, calling Jonathan a “son of a perverse and rebellious woman!” (1 Samuel 20:30). Their confrontation ended with Saul angrily throwing a spear at his own son in an attempt to kill him as well (1 Samuel 20:33).

There is no mention in Scripture of Jonathan ever disrespecting or dishonoring his father. It seems quite clear though that Jonathan didn’t feel overly close to him and that he was possibly afraid of him. That would be understandable, as Saul in his rage had 85 priests as well as all the men, women, children, and infants of the town of Nob killed because they had sided with David (1 Samuel 22:17-20).

In the end, it’s clear that Jonathan felt estranged from his father Saul and ultimately chose to side with David who he recognized was God’s anointed. Saul stands as an example to us all of the dangers of anger unchecked and the abuse of power and authority.

Have Consistent Standards

One of the biggest keys to effective discipline is not just having rules and expectations but enforcing them consistently. It does little to no good to have standards that you’re rigid on one minute but completely ignore the next. Inconsistency ends up sending mixed messages and making kids anxious because they don’t know what the rules are or what to expect.

Kids will say that they hate rules (sometimes quite loudly and quite forcefully). At times, they will fight you tooth and nail because of them. But I promise you that if get them alone, in an honest moment they will admit that they both appreciate rules and need them. Having consistent rules and standards makes them feel safe. Take it from one who’s personally been told this by many young people over the years.

When it comes to discipline, couples absolutely must be on the same page. It’s important to have the same or very similar expectations when it comes to rules, boundaries, and standards of the home. If the two of you have different rules, standards, and boundaries, that’s going to lead to a lot of confusion in the home.

If one spouse is known as the disciplinarian and the other one is basically passive or lets the children get away with everything, then that weakness will be exploited as kids play one parent off of another. That situation will also tend to create anxiety and chaos in the house.

If the rule is that if X happens, then the consequence is Y, then ideally that rule needs to be followed through on each and every single time there is an infraction. In order to carry that out, parents need to communicate all the time and present a united front. That’s the key.

Don’t Give in to Tantrums or Reward Bad Behavior (threats, ultimatums, yelling, etc.)

Don’t reward any of these from your child. Their bad behavior and tantrums will only get worse and worse over time if you do. This is because it allowed them to get what they wanted. Contrary to popular belief, tantrums don’t necessarily go away as someone gets older. The tantrums may look a lot more sophisticated and a whole lot more forceful or destructive, but they are tantrums nonetheless.

The bottom line is if people consistently get what they want as a result of yelling, screaming, and acting negatively, destructively, and selfishly, they will keep behaving in the exact same way in the future. There’s no reason to stop because, in their mind, it’s working, so why change?

Use Logical Natural Consequences

If people didn’t face consequences for killing someone, imagine what the ramifications would be. If there were no established laws and law enforcement in our society, then it truly would be anarchy. We scoff at the very idea of such a society, but many parents effectively have created that exact situation within the confines of their own homes. It goes without saying that whenever rules get broken, there need to be consequences.

How does one go about doing that? There is a natural human reaction whenever we feel pain. We naturally avoid things that we associate with pain. Let’s say a 9-year-old boy, accompanied by two of his buddies, begins shoplifting. That particular sin has some definite rewards.

The experience can be thrilling and downright exhilarating if he doesn’t get caught. He also gets a lot of praise from his buddies for his skill at sneaking out with the item, so he naturally feels good about himself. If this young man received no consequence, or if the consequences he received weren’t too painful, then there is a high likelihood that he will repeat the sin in the future.

People will tend to continue to act the way they do as long as the positive rewards they experience from the behavior outweigh the negative consequences that they experience or could potentially face, even if that action was morally wrong.

We in our society have an aversion to pain. We try to medicate pain away, to numb ourselves out to it, to avoid it at all costs. Yet, some measure of pain is a necessary component of learning. In fact, I would go so far as to say that without pain, people don’t learn and grow.

All of that naturally leads to the discussion of abuse. Many people hesitate to discipline because of fear of being accused by someone of abusing their child and being referred to CPS. For those who may feel like that, here is how CPS in Washington State defines child abuse:

RCW 26-44-020 defines abuse and neglect as injury, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, negligent treatment or maltreatment of a child by any person under circumstances which indicate that the child’s health, welfare, and safety is harmed. Abuse and neglect do NOT include the physical discipline of a child as defined in RCW 9A.16.100.

Source: https://www.dshs.wa.gov/ca/child-safety-and-protection/what-child-abuse-and-neglect

Notice if you will that under RCW 9A.16.100 that spanking is legal in Washington State, if it’s “reasonable and moderate” and is “inflicted by a parent, teacher, or guardian for purposes of restraining or correcting the child.” So even the law recognizes that some measure of pain can be useful in correction.

A quick comment on spanking – although it’s legal in Washington State, many studies and experts have questioned just how effective of a punishment spanking actually is.

As a counselor and a parent, I have come to believe that physical forms of punishment are often fraught with problems. Regardless of how justified the spanking may be, children are commonly left with feelings of unfairness, resentment, and desires to get even.

There are other tools in the toolbox besides spankings that are often far more effective. They still involve pain, but the pain is more psychological and emotional in nature. Examples of possible consequences include (but are not limited to):

Time Outs
Loss of Privileges
Confiscation of Toys or other Objects that are of importance
Grounding
Extra Chores

This is where you have to know your youngster. What do they like to do? What’s most important to them? That will give you an idea of where to start when it comes to consequences.

When you employ consequences, they should ideally be logical, natural consequences that are related to the particular offense. They should make sense.

For example:

“You didn’t pick up your toys like I asked, so they are now mine for one whole day since I had to pick them up.”

“Oh, bummer. Since you didn’t do your homework two hours ago and chose to play around then, it looks like you’re going to have to do it now instead of getting to go over to your friend’s house.”

“I only serve breakfast to those who are dressed and have made their beds.”

“I only allow TV to be watched when the living room is clean and toys are picked up.”

That said, the very best consequences that can be employed don’t come from without but from within.

Let Your Child Have Power and Control To Make As Many Decisions As Possible

A big reason that many kids sneak around behind their parents’ backs is a strong innate desire for power, control, freedom. People naturally want some semblance of power and control over their lives and if they aren’t given it or don’t feel like they have any, they will find ways to get it.

One of the many reasons that some young girls end up developing conditions such as bulimia or anorexia nervosa is that they feel that they aren’t in control of anything in their lives. The thinking is, “My parents can’t make me eat. At least I can control that.” (Note: if a girl has an eating disorder, it’s highly likely to require counseling in order to conquer it.)

So, give your kids some semblance of power and control over their lives. Allow them the power to make as many choices as possible and to reap the natural consequences from them.

Two books that I’m a particular fan of are Parenting with Love and Logic by Jim Faye and Positive Discipline by Jane Nelson. That’s the essence of those parenting models. I highly recommend reading these books for a more thorough understanding of their approach to parenting.

What if my kids make a mistake? What if they make a mistake that they’re going to regret? As Jim Faye says, “We want kids making those little mistakes when they’re young. We hope that they make them. ”

Again, the brains of young people (including the judgment centers) are still forming, still growing. Of course, it can be frustrating for us at times as adults who see things clearly with adult eyes. We shake our heads and wonder why our kids (with their young and still growing eyes) don’t. But making mistakes is a normal part of the process of learning for kids. Often, there is no better teacher for kids than the School of Hard Knocks (life itself).

We want to put the responsibility for as many choices as possible back into the child’s own lap. Allow your children to reap the natural consequences of their decisions (both good and bad). We want our kids to make as many of those little mistakes as possible and to learn from them when they’re young so that as they grow and mature they hopefully won’t make catastrophic ones.

Don’t be quick to rescue them every time from every potentially poor decision they could make. As a parent, you should be there for guidance and advice. When your children do make mistakes (which they will), come alongside them afterward to pick up the pieces, asking them questions such as:

  • What went wrong?
  • Why did you think it happened?
  • What are you going to do about this?
  • How are you going to fix this problem?
  • How are you going to make things right?
  • What can you do differently next time?”

Notice where the emphasis is – it’s the young person who is being given the responsibility.

That experience of coming alongside your child to help them to process problems is huge. That’s where a lot of learning, growing, and maturing takes place.

Will there be times when you need to control the situation and put your foot down? There most certainly are. But if you’ve been consistently loving them in the way described above, and giving them as much freedom, power, and control as possible, they will be much more willing to listen to you during those times.

Giving your kids power and control teaches them to become independent and encourages them that they can successfully tackle life’s challenges.

Employ Lots of Praise and Rewards for Positive Behavior

Effective Discipline is not just about delivering unpleasant consequences when your kids mess up. It’s also about rewarding them with good things when they do right. Many people underestimate the power of praise.

I cannot stress strongly enough just how much impact praise and positive affirmation can have on a young person. You draw far more bees with sweet-smelling flowers than you do with vinegar. An I knew you could do it” or “I’m so proud of you” are amazingly powerful statements if you consistently use them over time.

Be your kids biggest fan and cheerleader. Many parents are good at catching their kids when they do bad. But how about catching your kids when they do good? Train yourself to notice the good things that they do and when you see them, hug them and tell your children how much you appreciate it.

Be generous in giving out praise and watch their self-esteem rise and your behavioral problems with them go down. There is a direct correlation between the quality of relationship with your child and the behaviors they often display. Food for thought.

Some kids also need things to shoot for. They need the carrot as well as the stick. So, if you know that your kids like certain things, set up a system to reward good behavior. Consider using both small rewards that they can earn by achieving short-term goals as well as bigger rewards that they can earn over long periods of time.

Give Your Kids What They Need, NOT Everything They Want

Some people make the tragic mistake of mixing up a child’s needs and their wants. Believing that they need to make their kids happy, many parents end up bowing to their youngster’s every whim and wish, giving them virtually whatever they want. Where does that lead? Over time, it creates a child who is demanding, selfish, and without a lot of empathy for others.

Some kids are pretty good at this, manipulating parents into buying things for them. It might sound something like “I’ll do what you want if you buy me that toy.” But is that toy a need or a want? Don’t fall for such tactics which will only spoil your youngster. Don’t give your children everything they want in life. You’ll end up regretting it if you do.

Remember, values are far more “caught” than “taught”. (See Practice What You Preach from the 1st Article). When it comes to discipline, here’s the central principle to hold onto. Discipline is only effective if:

  • It helps instill Godly character
  • It helps cultivate the Fruit of the Spirit within our young people (Galatians 5:22-23)
  • It helps them Love God, Love Others and Love themselves the way God does more
  • It helps make them more like Jesus
  • Learning is happening. If your child isn’t learning over time, then it’s time to consider switching tactics.

Don’t Embitter or Discourage Your Children

A very common reason why many children act out, lash out, or shut down is that they are discouraged or exasperated in some form or another. A child that constantly acts up is probably a discouraged child.

So many parents weigh down their children by heaping impossible demands and unrealistic expectations upon their backs. The more these parents pile on their kids, the harder they ride them, the more they push them, the more discouraged, angry, bitter, depressed, and despondent their kids become.

It’s fine to set your sights highs, but as a parent, you need to take a step back and ask, “Can my child honestly do what I’m asking?” Many parents make the mistake of expecting way too much from their child. Age, maturity, and ability are all factors that always need to be considered.

Expecting a 3-year-old to vacuum the entire house is beyond their ability. So would be asking an 8-year-old with autism to write a college level paper. Pigs cannot fly nor can cows climb trees, no matter how hard you train them, or how much you whip them.

Others have a tendency to nitpick their kids to death, pointing out each and every little flaw and anything that they perceive they’re doing wrong. Is it any wonder kids eventually end up responding with phrases like, “I can’t ever do anything right. All I ever do is mess up” ? If all we parents focus on are our kids’ perceived flaws, our kids will grow up seeing themselves as flawed and inadequate as well.

The Apostle Paul specifically warned parents about this very thing. Colossians 3:21: “Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.” Also Ephesians 6:4: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”

34 times throughout scripture, the Bible talks about God being the potter and humanity (His creation) being the clay. That is a fantastic word picture that I’ve found to be 100% true of people. Your children are born clay. And no matter how hard you try, no matter what you do, you cannot turn that clay into gold, silver, or any other desired element. It’s clay pure and simple.

There is no such thing as alchemy regardless of whether we’re talking about lead or your kids. God made your children who they are. You cannot make your son or daughter a lawyer if their gifts, talents, personality, and deepest heart’s desires say that they’re a car mechanic.

God, the master potter, lovingly molds and shapes us throughout our lifetime. The same is true of you as a parent. All you can do is to help mold and shape your child, helping them to become the best version of who God created them to be.

Instead, “bring your children up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph. 6:4). What is this “training and instruction of the Lord” that we’re supposed to be “bringing them up in?” What did Jesus teach us? What did he do? Jesus taught us to “Love the Lord Your God with all your heart, mind, and spirit” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-40).

He also taught us what loving one another looked like: thinking of others before ourselves (Matthew 18:1-2), humbly serving one another (John 13:1-17), forgiving one another (Matthew 18:21-35), and caring for each other with reckless abandon (John 13:34-35), including our enemies (Luke 6:27-36), even to the point of death (John 15:12-17).

If you are being a servant leader towards your children, seeking to love and treat them like Jesus would, you will raise up confident, well-adjusted offspring who will be inclined to do the same as they grow up.

Handle Your Own Anger and Frustration Appropriately

Anger is a normal human emotion. Some people are surprised by that, feeling like anger itself is bad. The Bible teaches us, however, that God feels anger as well (Numbers 32:10-13, Psalm 30:5). Since you and I are created in the Image of God, we have anger too. It’s how we choose to respond when we’re angry that’s either good or bad (Ephesians 4:26-27; James 1:19-20).

It’s perfectly normal and natural to feel upset, hurt, and even angry when our children mess up, fall into sin, don’t do what’s expected of them, or are blatantly defiant and hurtful towards us. Do you know who it is that they are really sinning against when they sin against you? Your children are ultimately sinning against God, himself, and we parents are merely the authority whom God has placed them under (Romans 13:1-5).

When your children upset you don’t unload on them. You will only cause damage. It’s good for you to know your own emotional triggers and to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of your own anger. Then, if you feel yourself becoming heated during a confrontation, take a time out and calm yourself down before you deal with the issue at hand.

At the same time, if you see your youngster becoming upset, give them room to calm down before you continue your discussion. Venting that anger full force may cause emotional scars that can have long-lasting effects.

Always administer consequences in love and with care, understanding, and sympathy, never in anger. Never discipline a child when you’re angry. If you and/or your youngster are angry, take time to calm yourselves down before discussing consequences.

As Paul tells us in Romans, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17-21). In the end, no one wins in a power struggle. Talking through the issue calmly and rationally, and seeking a solution to it that is mutually acceptable, is the only way problems can be solved.

Ask for Forgiveness and Repent

What do you do when you realize you’re the one who’s messed up? What if you’re one of those parents who’ve realized that you’re the one who’s treated your child badly and that you’re the one with the problem?

The Bible is clear about what to do. If you believe you’ve sinned in your actions against your child, confess your sins (Matthew 5:23-24; 1 John 1:9), ask them for forgiveness (Matthew 5:23-24) and repent (Ezekiel 18:30-31). To repent literally means to stop, turn around, and go in the opposite direction.

Stop what you’re doing and make different choices? Is it really that easy? The short answer is no. Change is not easy at all, but it is possible. Change can be very hard because you’ve undoubtedly been behaving the way you have been for quite some time. You probably have some well-established patterns. But if you’re able to, think back to how your issues started in the first place. Therein lies the key to change.

It is true that we all make many choices in life, moment by moment, minute by minute, hour by hour, and day by day. It all starts with recognizing that what you’ve been doing has been destructive and to you and those around you, and then immediately making a different choice.

It’s saying to yourself, “This time I’m choosing to act differently,” and then choosing to actually act differently this time. Make enough of those choices on a consistent basis and you will start to form a habit. New attitudes, behavioral patterns, and new ways of feeling are formed over time. Habits, over time, shape one’s character, which in turn shapes one’s destiny.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be some bumps in the road and possible setbacks. But with the Holy Spirit’s help and guidance, and the ongoing support of others, change over time is possible. Jesus can and does loosen the chains of the captive and makes them free (Isaiah 61:1-2; John 8:34-36).

It also doesn’t mean that there won’t necessarily be consequences. When we sin, there are always consequences. If we want to heal, we need to forgive and let go of the pains of the past. Sometimes, that includes being willing to forgive the toughest person of all – ourselves. It may take time to heal the wounds that have been caused, but if you and your child are willing to forgive and let go, God is able to make all things new.

Conclusion

Realize that there are no perfect parents out there. Every one of us, as the sinful human beings we are, make mistakes that we later regret. We do the very best that we can. In the end, however, we realize that there is only one perfect parent – our Heavenly Father – and that’s who we ultimately need to be looking to for guidance as we raise our kids. If you are consistently doing the things that have been laid out in these articles, over time it’s going to help foster a good healthy relationship with your child.

That said, there are times that despite our best efforts, we need the help of others. You and I were not made to try to figure out and attempt to conquer all of life’s problems on our own. If you’re seeing a destructive life pattern within yourself or your youngster or if you’re finding that things just aren’t working in your relationship then you might want to consider seeking professional help.

A trained Christian therapist can help you identify the issues at hand, what things to take responsibility for, what things are beyond your control, and can assist you in charting a new course that will lead to a healthier (and less difficult) relationship between you and your child.

 

Photos

“Uh-oh,” courtesy of Patrick Fore, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Street scene,” courtesy of London Scout, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Together,” courtesy of Caleb Jones, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Reconciled,” courtesy of Eye for Ebony, unsplash.com, CC0 License

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Todd

Todd Webb, MA, LMHC

Licensed Mental Health Counselor

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(206) 934-1860 | toddw@seattlechristiancounseling.com

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