Tools and Tips for Your Most Challenging Days

Debbie Reed

Wouldn’t it be great if kids came with an instruction manual?

There were many times when my husband and I were raising our two boys that I wished for such a manual … and I had a great support system and worked at a child and family serving organization! One thing I soon recognized was that many of the same strategies that worked for the children and families we served in our organization — who were struggling with significant attachment and trauma issues — also worked for the kids I interacted with day-to-day in 4-H, Bible school, band and sports teams. (They came in pretty handy with my eight nephews as well!) As more and more of our staff members began to share that they, too, were using these approaches with the young people in their lives outside of work, we decided that maybe we should write a manual. And so we did.

The 30 lessons in Raising the Challenging Child address everyday challenges that parents are likely to experience. Here are a few tips you can apply this week with your own children:

Invest in the relationship bank.

Think of your daily interactions with your child as a relationship bank. Are you making more deposits or withdrawals? Deposits are things like giving choices, praising efforts, and enjoying activities together. Withdrawals happen when you say no, ignore them, or have to correct their behavior. Every parent has to at times make withdrawals, however those are met with less resistance when you have lots of deposits to draw from. When your relationship bank is full, conflicts are fewer and simpler to resolve and day-to-day parenting becomes less of a struggle.

Balance structure and nurture.

Structure includes the rules and strategies you use to guide a child’s activities and behavior. Structure helps children know their world is predictable and safe. Nurture is the affection, kindness, warmth and love that all kids need to flourish. Nurture also helps young people accept structure more readily. Adults often tend to skew in one direction or the other — high structure or high nurture, however children do best when there is a balance. If you increase structure, you also need to increase nurture. How do you know if things are out of balance in your household? Here are a few clues: For children who become aggressive or act overly mature, try more nurture. If your child is hyperactive or controlling, offer more structure.

Look for what’s going on underneath the behavior.

A child’s visible behaviors provide clues to invisible emotions. Instead of reacting to the behaviors (which can be a natural tendency), try responding to the emotions driving the behavior. Ask yourself whether your child is mad, sad, glad or scared. In our experience, when a child is acting out it often means they are hurting inside. In many cases, “mad” is a cover for sad or scared. If you can get to the root of why your child may be sad or scared, the mad will often fade away.

Change your steps in the dance.

Babies learn at an early age, “if I do this, mom or dad will do that,” and over time both children and parents begin to behave in a predictable manner, like steps in a dance. When you identify an ineffective pattern of behavior, such as your child repeatedly forgetting homework and asking you to bring it to school, a common reaction is to tell your child that he or she needs to change their behavior. While that seems like a reasonable expectation, the truth is you really can’t “force” your child to change his or her behavior, however you can change your own behavior. For example, if you typically jump in to help when your child makes a mistake, you could change your steps by empathizing with “Wow, that stinks. What are you going to do about it?”

Every parent at times feels ill-equipped for the responsibility of raising a child. You can, however, add a few simple “tools to your toolbox” such as the ones noted here to make the journey a bit easier. And always remember, even on your most challenging days, what your child needs and values most of all is you.

Debbie Reed is the mother of two grown sons, and President/CEO of Chaddock, an organization that serves kids and families struggling with attachment and trauma. She and Karen Doyle Buckwalter, along with Wendy Lyons Sunshine, are the authors of Raising the Challenging Child: How to Minimize Meltdowns, Reduce Conflict, and Increase Cooperation.