Challenging Child

Dear Claudia,

I’ve got four a number of children. Three of them are easy and I have no problem with them, so I know it’s not me, but the fourth, my oldest, gives me a really hard time. He is very temperamental and challenging. He does not respond to being punished, and sometimes, I really feel at the end of my rope with him. I wish he could just be like other kids. Any tips on discipline would be appreciated.

Devoted father in Canton

Dear Dad,

Explosive, sensitive, gifted kids are the subject matter of many books, my favorite pics of which I will be happy to provide for you, and everybody, for that matter, upon request. 

What I think always helps the most, however, is to conceptualize your child as being like an emotional thermostat. And most of the time, the temperature is set  an “high”. This means your child has a lot of emotional “heat.” He is probably intense, angry and tense more often than he is calm and happy. 

Thinking of him in terms of an internal, emotional thermostat (rather than in terms of his behavior) may help, because you may gain more power to influence him. This is because with these children, behavioral approaches don’t usually work. You may have noticed that while your other children respond to consequences, stern voices that show you mean business, limits and expectations, this child does not. The reason the usual techniques for discipline don’t work with him, is because they raise his emotional temperature, causing more “heat” and making it even more difficult for him to cope. Then, the battles and power struggles usually begin.

Helping your son to lower his emotional temperature, however, is extremely challenging. This is because when we are near these children, we get what are called “induced feelings.” In other words, we too begin to feel tense, or negative, or explosive, or angry, or whatever it may be. I’m sure you have noticed this. To add insult to injury, if you have not always had the experience, in your own lifetime, of feeling soothed and calmed during times of tension, it is going to be even more challenging to be able to consistently provide these feelings for your child. However, he was given to you for a reason, and perhaps, this is it; to help you better understand the world of tension, negativity, anger, or whatever you want to call that emotional “heat”. In my mind, this is one of the richest journeys you can travel emotionally, and, as we gain mastery, one of the most personally rewarding. 

It may help your son if you can find things to say to him, when things are “heated” up, that could soothe him. For example, if he is angry, you may need to say to him “it’s hard to be angry. I know. What do you need from me?” When they are un-cooperative they need neutral communications like “I know you don’t want to do your homework, but you have to do it now or in 10 minutes. I’m sorry. Can I help you to complete it?”

There are always moments, with these children, when they try our patience beyond reason, and we go over the edge into anger, when what is really required is not only a soft tone and gentle voice, but a genuinely neutral attitude. This is why, with these children, it is so vital that parents have a good life, with lots of enjoyment, rewards and good feelings, as well as good places to drain the negativity. Many parents with children such as yours need to completely re-define their notions of selfishness, and learn to take care of themselves in truly innovative ways so that their children can’t succeed in driving them to distraction.

All children go through phases during which they don’t feel in balance – when they feel upset, tense, anxious about something and easily frustrated. In fact, we all do. I’m sure many, many readers will be able to relate to you and your son, and if I hear from those readers (readers, let us hear from you!) I will prove to you, that you are not alone!

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