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Managing the Difficult Child
Tips for Strengthening Your Family

Managing the Difficult Child
Our thanks to "Special Parent-Special Child" (practical pointers for parenting handicapped children) for allowing us to reprint this article from their Nov/Dec 1990 issue.

Some children are born more difficult to manage than others. Most mothers can confirm this pointing out vast differences in temperament and behaviour between siblings, even as infants. Current theory corroborates that some children, for whatever reason, are in fact born susceptible to environmental stress (noise, hunger, fatigue) and are in general highly irritable, sensitive and definitely harder to manage.

What is even more characteristic is that for many children the picture does not change. Hapless parents who wait for their difficult children to "outgrow" their unfortunate tendencies find themselves thwarted and frustrated at every turn.

Special children, perhaps because of their overall sensitive nervous system, are especially prone to hard-to-manage traits, presenting an even greater challenge to their parents.

In this issue we will focus on recognizing those aspects of your child's temperament that make her more difficult to raise and how to manage these traits more effectively so that each member of the family has the opportunity to enjoy family life.

Recognizing the Difficult Child's Traits

Many difficult children display such a confusing welter of misbehaviours that parents throw up their hands, describing their errant child as "bad," "wild" or "naughty." In order to remedy the situation, however, it is best to be able to have a definite picture of what actually occurs. Perhaps your child's teacher, or the child's grandparent or your spouse can help you draw up a list of what typifies your child.

Look for the following characteristics in your youngster:

  • doesn't listen
  • often cranky or irritable for no reason
  • distractible, can't sit still
  • bothered by heat, cold, hunger, fatigue
  • reacts poorly to noise, crowds, lights
  • high activity level
  • can't focus for any length of time
  • highly impulsive, unpredictable
  • whines, cries easily
  • reacts badly to changes in routine, sleeps or eats poorly, wants her own way
  • won't share, doesn't play, often moody or sullen, manipulative
  • stubborn, rules the roost
  • have frequent unwarranted or extreme tantrums

If your child has more than five of these traits and has had most of them from infancy, she can be classified as difficult. Children who persistently exhibit these displays of temperament are a puzzling trial to all. Most parents find themselves bewildered from the continual pressure of having to constantly monitor their child's every waking hour. As one exhausted parent commented ruefully, "I don't have a minute's peace to myself."

Reactions to the Difficult Child

The child who exhibits difficult behaviour has an impact not only on the entire family but on all who come in contact with her.

Husband and wife: The stress between husband and wife can become extreme. Marital discord occurs especially if the husband and wife blame each other, or have frequent disagreements over how best to manage their child's behaviour consistently.

Siblings: Problems arise with siblings who feel less attention is paid to them and that their needs are pushed aside. Their complaints are frequently justified, and parents often have to perform juggling acts in order to meet everyone's needs.

In-laws and relatives: While in-laws and relatives can be sympathetic, they too are often taxed by the difficult child's unmanageability. Relatives who make thoughtless comments about your lack of parenting skills, or who make it clear that "this didn't come from my side of the family" can add to the generalized woe.

Neighbours: By the same token, neighbours who observe your child's misbehaviours or hear the tantrums are often unintentionally cruel, especially if they speculate about your fitness as parents.

It is very hard to explain your child's difficulties to friends and neighbours when you have a hard time explaining them to yourself!

School is axiomatic that difficult children will have serious school-related problems. Their poor impulse control and difficulty in sitting still, paying attention or completing tasks invariably interfere with academic achievement.

Peers. The saddest fact of all is that the difficult child's temperament is a deterrent to making or keeping friends. The child's impulsivity and lack of awareness of social cues are manifested by an inability to share toys, take turns or partake of friendly interchanges.

Thus the world at large looks askance at the social behaviours of the hard-to-manage child. Families tend to isolate themselves, remaining in the confines of their own homes where the vexing behaviours of their difficult child can be hidden from raised eyebrows and caustic comments of others.

Evaluating the Situation

The best way of dealing with your child's offensive behaviours is to step back and make a careful, realistic appraisal of exactly when and where the offensive behaviours arise. Random or haphazard efforts to change your child's behaviours will not be as effective as a well-thought-out plan based on careful observation.

Ideally, the observation period should be one week long and include the weekend. Observe how your child's temperament varies from day to day and in a variety of settings. Note carefully, for example, how she behaves early in the morning or late at night, reacts to food intake, copes with fatigue. Find out if there are certain times when the offending behaviours occur more frequently than others. Take particular note if the child is more relaxed on weekends. Note if there are differences in behaviour when your child is in crowded rooms, or with other people around, or when it's noisy.

Make a list of all behaviours. Include any appropriate behaviours you have observed as well as those that are troublesome. Study the list carefully and ask yourself what your typical reactions are. Do you, for example, make no mention of appropriate behaviour and only pay heed when the behaviours are out of hand? Do you raise your voice, scream, punish, or threaten for all or just some transgressions? On the other hand, do you tolerate extreme behaviours until others react or step in?

Once you have classified which behaviours upset you or other family members the most and once you have determined when and where they occur, you can then realistically design ways of changing the situation.

Changing the Behaviours

Families should recognize that it will take everyone's cooperative efforts to remedy the situation especially when patterns of behaviour are long- standing. Here are some practical strategies that should help.

Make a list of all behaviours. Include any appropriate behaviours you have observed as well as those that are troublesome. Study the list carefully and ask yourself what your typical reactions are.

Build structure into family routine. Hard-to-manage children need to know what is expected of them.

Your child's daily routine should follow predictable consistent sequence: regularly-scheduled mealtimes, TV times, bath times, bed times. The difficult child needs concrete reminders of what comes next. For example, "After dinner you may watch TV for one hour, and then there is bath time, then bed." Any change in routine should be explained as simply as possible, for example, "When Grandma comes, dinner will be later, after TV time."

Modify the home setting to meet your child's needs. Your home should be as relaxed and tension free as possible. Go back to the observation list you have made about when and where your child functions best. If noise makes her out of sorts, or if she is excessively irritable when tired, modify the family routine to take this into account. Don’t, for example, expect the child who is particularly out of sorts in the late afternoon to feed the dog, set the table and finish her homework at that particular time.

Set some easy-to-follow consistent rules. Both parents should discuss this beforehand, making sure they agree on what rules are to be followed. These should be discussed with the entire family and all children should be expected to follow them. Consequences for breaking rules should be clearly stated, firmly but positive. For example, explain that running away from the table at mealtime is unpleasant for everyone and that therefore jumping up at mealtime will result in the plate of food being removed. Make sure your children understand what is expected of them and, above all, be consistent. Setting limits one day and making allowances the next is not only confusing but will tempt your child to test the rules you have made.

Start off with rules that are easy to comply with, so the family feels they can function successfully.

Consequences for breaking any of the agreed-upon rules should "fit the crime." In order to have maximum effect, rules should be fair, and consequences for minor transgressions should never be excessive. Itself should be something tangible and should be given out immediately.

Choose a troubling behaviour or habit that is fairly easy to change. For example, your child should be given a small trinket or desirable, inexpensive object if she complies with riding in the car without protest. In this way your child can build on a sense that she is a productive, successful family member.

Even though it is not always possible to erase the entire hard-to-manage child's difficulties, accentuating the positive is a better way of going about things than dwelling on what is wrong.

Once you have defined the problems, designed a system of dealing with them and made some efforts to provide a structured, nurturing environment, you can be assured your child is being given the best opportunity to thrive.

Do's and Don'ts

Build a system of rewards. Some parents are convinced that the only way to influence a child's behaviour is by punishment. Unfortunately, this method backfires. First, punishment does not show the recalcitrant child an alternative, positive way of behaving; so she continues to misbehave, mostly because that's all she knows how to do. Secondly, most parents become so guilty about having to punish their child that they either ignore the child's misbehaviours or punish them excessively.

The most effective method for encouraging good behaviour is the use of rewards. Rewards can be explained as a token or payment for good work, in much the same way as an adult's "good work" is "rewarded" with wages. The reward system should be planned in advance and should be meted out for a specific, stated behaviour, not simply for being "a good girl."

Do remember that holidays are over stimulating for everybody. All children react to the heightened excitement of the holiday season and can become cranky and overtired with the change in routine, late nights and extra visits. Your difficult child is especially vulnerable, so schedule quiet times, if at all possible.

Don't overload your child's susceptibility to environmental noise and confusion by long, tiring shopping expeditions to crowded malls. Go before the crowds and find parking close to an exit. Plan your shopping carefully; know exactly where you are going. Avoid browsing as this is likely to be boring and confusing to your youngster. Leave the mall early before trouble starts, and reward your child with a treat for her good behaviour.

Don't barrage your child with complicated verbal explanation or directions. Most special children find non-stop commentaries overwhelming and their inability to follow your requests may reflect confusion rather than willfulness.

Do resist the temptation to lash out at your child physically. Although this does not rule out a final tap, especially when moving your child out of harm's way, it does mean that physical handling often escalates to loss of control and can result in abuse.

Do use alternative methods. Sometimes acting out scenarios with the use of puppets or drawing pictures shows your difficult child how her misbehaviour affects others.

Do remember that one of the most effective methods of control is to remove your child from the scene. Designate a "quiet area' in your house where your youngster has no toys, TV or other diversions and where she must remain for a short period of time until she is ready to act appropriately.

Don't bring up past misbehaviours or rage about yesterday's misdemeanors. Each day should be treated as an opportunity to make a fresh start. Your youngster should feel that each day contains an incentive to act positively.

Do be a good role model yourself. Losing your temper, screaming, yelling, crying and other losses of control can frighten the difficult child to the extent that her misbehaviour escalates rather than diminish.

Don't lose heart when things don't immediately change for the better, no matter how carefully you've carried out your strategies. Remember, it took a long time for the misbehaviours to become implanted. Even under the best circumstances your difficult child is going to remain a constant challenge. The best thing to do is to choose a plan the family feels the most comfortable with and stick to it. Sometimes it takes a very long time for it to sink in that this is the way the family is going to function from now on.
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Tips for Strengthening Your Family

Every person and family has strengths. Sometimes we are not aware we have strengths because we are so busy dealing with life's every day problems and hassles. Sometimes we need to increase our perceptions of our strengths. Then when problems mount, we can use our own inner resources to help us handle our problems. What can you do to develop your perception of your family's strengths?

Talk with your spouse or with another parent.

List for each other what you see as the strengths of your or the other's child and/or of your or the other's family. You may be surprised at the insights that other people bring to your own perceptions.

Think of different ways to look at the positives of your situation. For example, when you hear people talk about their teenagers and driving problems, it may be a positive for you to think about how you will never have those worries if your teen won't drive. This is a major example of reforming and can help you be stronger as you face minor and major cases.

Strengths are sometimes very small things, but recognizing them can mean a great deal to your mental health.

Try not to compare what your child does with what other children can do. Look for and appreciate your child's own strengths and contributions.

Share care giving tasks; allow others to feel they are an important part of your life. Do not permit yourself to be the only one who can care for your child.

Take care of yourself so you will have more energy for all the things you must do. It's easy to neglect your own needs. Even 5 to 10 minutes a day for you can be beneficial.

Turn to others for support. We know that people, who have the support of others, whether in a formal or informal group, generally feel stronger about being able to cope with life.

Work on building your sense of humor. People who can laugh at themselves or at their situation usually feel stronger when problems arise. Laughing can sometimes release negative tension physically and psychologically.

Take time to talk with family members and friends. Schedule time with family members if there is no other way to do it.

Think about what you appreciate about each and every family member. A good time to let every family member know what you appreciate about them is New Year's Day. Write a note to them tell them what you appreciate about them.
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