The Difficult Child

An example of an ankle sock

My son threw his sock across the room.  He had gotten it on as far as his toes this time.  “Hurry, we need to leave in five minutes,” I urged.  I tried helping him, and got the sock halfway on before he yanked it off and threw it again.  “It won’t go on,” he yelled.  I grouched back, “Well, it would go on if you wouldn’t keep yanking it off!  Come on, we should be out the door by now!”

It seems like a huge chunk of time in his early childhood was spent putting on socks and shoes.  The sock wouldn’t go on right.  And once it was on, it rubbed him the wrong way.  And we were late.  And he thwarted my attempts to help him.  And he wouldn’t wear the shoes “just this once until we get a pair that doesn’t hurt your toe.”  And let’s not even talk about underwear, shirt tags or loud noises.

Was it my imagination, or was I having a harder time of it than other moms seemed to be?  And was my son having a harder time of it than other kids?

It turns out, some kids are just more, well, difficult.  There, I said it.  He is spirited, he is intense, he is strong-willed, he is difficult.  He is much more difficult for me to deal with than my other child.  He is having a more difficult time than my other child.  Some people don’t like to hear me say a child is difficult.  But, it is the truth.

I don’t mean to say “difficult” as a value judgement.  Chess is more difficult than Candyland.  That is a good thing.  Wine is more difficult to make than grape juice.  It is well worth the extra effort.

The traits that make my son difficult will also be strengths as he refines them.  His gifts are worth an extra effort.   He is determined, he is high-energy, and he is sensitive.  I can’t be complacent with him.  I am a better person because of him.  When I handle things wrong, he doesn’t adapt; he freaks out until I pull myself together.  I can’t bark and expect him submit.  I have to dig deep down inside and make peace with myself, improve my interpersonal skills, and reduce my anger.

But what makes a child difficult?  I think the answer is two-fold.  I think I contributed to my son’s difficulties by being short-tempered and by failing to understand his moods and emotions.  But, I was relieved to find that there is an additional answer.  Some kids are born with a temperament that can be more difficult for parents to handle.

In her wonderful book, “Raising Your Spirited Child,” Mary Sheedy Kurcinka lists 5 characteristics of the “spirited” child: Intensity, Persistence, Sensitivity, Perceptiveness (aware of all sensory stimuli), and Adaptability.  Like about 10% of the population, my son has all of these.  He also has three of the four “bonus” qualities: Energy, First Reaction (negative initial reaction to something new), and Mood. (The fourth “bonus” quality was Regularity, and mercifully, he did keep to a regular eating/sleeping/waking schedule.)  I am not exaggerating when I call this the single most awesome book for understanding and helping a child who is frustrated and frustrating.  It helped me recognize the need to put myself in his uncomfortable shoes and see things from his perspective.
Raising Your Spirited Child Rev Ed: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic

I have to confess, though, that I felt validated when I read about psychologist Stella Chess.  She conducted a study of over 130 children in the 1950’s, and her research was a cornerstone of “Raising Your Spirited Child.”   However, she used the term, “Difficult babies” rather than “spirited.”  I guess hearing her use the word “difficult”made me feel less alone in my struggles.  My son wasn’t just spirited — that makes me think of a cheerleader.  We were seriously having real difficulty.

But, whatever you call it, “Raising Your Spirited Child” is an excellent resource for addressing each of the characteristics that presents a challenge.  Ms. Kurcinka encourages to the reader/parent and is respectful toward the child.  I tried to check out this book from my local library, and 11 people had it on hold before me.  That’s how good this book is.  And that’s how not alone you are, if this is what you’re looking for.  While you are waiting for the other 11 people to read it before you (or for it to come in from Amazon), I’ll tell you the most important thing I learned from the book:  Appreciate the challenges your child is facing.  Believe him when he says he can’t go on with that seam rubbing his toe.  Help him work through it, rather than fighting him.

In my case, I had the added challenge of being something of a “difficult baby” myself.  I am intense (quick-tempered), persistent (stubborn), and perceptive (distractible).  As I now read “Raising Your Spirited Child” for a second time, I try to apply the parenting techniques to understanding my own self.  I can’t teach my kids to manage their frustration if I haven’t figured out how to handle my own frustration.  And perhaps even more importantly, I can better appreciate their gifts when I begin to appreciate my own.


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One response to “The Difficult Child

  1. daniette

    I agree, great book. Helped me out a lot. I would highly recommend reading up on sensory processing disorder (used to be called sensory integration disorder) as well if you have not. Great info about the issues you mentioned your son having (tags, sock seams, loud noises) and many more you probably don’t realize are related. It literally changed our life for the better.

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