When you have a child with a difficult temperament, parenting can often feel like a duel with no winner.
Children with difficult temperaments tend to be highly emotionally reactive and sensitive to their environments—and they let their parents know it from the get-go. Parents often feel overwhelmed or frustrated with their child’s erratic schedule and mood swings and may feel powerless.
Still, it’s important to work with your child to teach appropriate social skills—even if it takes time for him or her to master them. Your goal should not be to change your child’s temperament. Rather, it should be to help your child adapt to difficult situations and avoid classic power struggles and other pitfalls common to children with difficult temperaments.
Here are some tips for parenting a difficult child:
1. Read up on temperament. Temperament is not something your child chooses. It is a mixed result of hereditary and environmental factors. This can help you gain some understanding and empathy during difficult situations. While you’re at it, it can help to figure out your temperamental style.
2. Focus on the positive, and let your child know it. Whenever they behave in a great way, let them know it! Constantly reprimanding, correcting, or complaining about your child’s behavior sends the message that nothing they do is good in your eyes, and he or she is a “bad” child.
3. For children 3 years of age and older, try role-playing. This teaches self-awareness, taking the perspective of the other person, and problem-solving for new ways of reacting to situations or people.
4. Give them limited, age-appropriate choices. Strong willed or difficult children are more sensitive to being told what to do and are keen on contradicting authority. By giving them age-appropriate and limited choices, you foster their sense of independence and satisfy their need for control. Once they have chosen, do not complain, criticize, or mock their choice. Be sure of which choices you offer before you do so.
5. Plan ahead for difficult situations. Describe to your child where you are going, who will be there, and what kind of event you will be attending. This helps your child prepare mentally for what’s to come. However, teach your child that sometimes things don’t always go according to plan and that no matter what, you will be able to figure it out.
6. Keep routines predictable and realistic. When changes will occur, let them know it, and talk about it.
7. Difficult temperament children may be more sensitive to their surroundings. Take note of this when they start acting fussy or irritably. They may need a break. Offer to let them take a break from the loud or rambunctious environment in a more tranquil area until they can calm down. Ask them if they wish to be alone or want your company.
8. Take note of your child’s cues. Before it escalates to a full-blown tantrum, let them know that you think they need a breather. Ask them if they need to go to a quiet space or if they just need a hug.
9. Take a breather for yourself! Difficult temperament children can wear anyone down, and they don’t even mean to! It helps if you can take a bit of time to de-stress. Connect with other parents with similar situations and speak with a child psychologist if you find yourself having more unpleasant experiences than enjoyable ones with your child.
Difficult temperament kids don’t mean to be difficult! They deal with the world in the only way they know how. It’s up to you, the parent, to model great social skills, offer support and unconditional love, and take time for yourself to help them get through the more difficult situations.
Reviewed by Eva Benmeleh, March 2020
- Parenting is already a challenge, but some children with difficult temperaments can make it even more challenging.
- Children with difficult temperaments tend to be highly emotionally reactive and sensitive to their environments.
- Plan ahead for difficult situations, and do your best to keep your child’s routine predictable.