How to handle a misbehaving child?
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Ask Aimee is a new advice column on navigating life as a parent with a disabled child.
How to handle a misbehaving child? My kid’s behavior sucks, what do I do?
Dear Aimee Abled Mom of a Disabled Kiddo,
You seem to have this all in hand.
My child has behavioral issues and is out of control some days. I just don’t have the patience to deal with her. Why is my child so horrible? I mean this in a loving way, of course!
How do you do cope day in and day out? I need to understand why my child’s behavior is so bad? How to stop bad behavior in my child? I need to know how to handle a misbehaving child!
How do you handle a difficult child?
Send help! Please
Xoxo Worn Out
Dear Worn Out,
I don’t. Believe me, I don’t. I am not a miracle parent. I’m not even that great a parent. I think I’m an adequate parent. What I am is a determined learner, so I will first tell you something my daughter’s neurologist said to us when we complained that our disabled child didn’t respond to the same structure and easy discipline that our typical daughter does.
“You will have to parent your children very differently,” he said. “You may just have to give in because it won’t be worth the arguments. It doesn’t mean you’re spoiling her.”
I took that to heart. Now, your child may have different behavioral issues than mine. But with her cerebellar disorder, she’s got a cluster of issues like ADHD and OCD that when mixed together add up to some pretty fierce behavior that can best any parent. So I share with you the things I do in order of efficacy for handling a misbehaving child. I do not necessarily endorse any of these. (Especially because some of these I am not super proud of.) You have to – and you will – find what works best for the dynamics of your family when a kid’s behavior sucks. I promise.
1. How to deal with bad behavior? I yell back. Sometime. Trust me, this is the least effective method . Yelling feels good in the moment, but I do it so rarely that it surprises her every time, and she cries in shock. Then I feel awful and I end up apologizing to her, which is also ineffective because we gloss over the fact that hers was the horrible behavior in the first place. I am not a punisher or time-out-er, in part because that’s just not who I am but also in part because that’s not who she is either. She is not a person for whom consequences are particularly meaningful. Sometimes we are able to talk through whatever is happening, and she apologizes as well. No matter what happens in the moment, the unintended long-term consequence is that the more I yell back and react to my kid’s horrible behavior, the more she feels empowered to behave that way.
2. How do you handle a difficult child? I put her in front of a screen. This works every time and I would like to tell you I save it for emergencies but I am tired and she is persistent and I give in a lot more than I wish I could tell you I did. But it works. Sometimes we set a timer. Usually, we try to time it with her g-tube feeds, which take about an hour. That way she can zone out and reset while she eats, uninterrupted, and then when her feed is done she can rejoin the rest of us with re-regulated mind and body.
3. When my child is out of control I hug her (I also hug at other times too!). Sometimes she scurries away, but that’s temporary, and usually because she’s hurt and trying to hurt me. She always scurries back into my arms, where we cry together. When I first had children, I told myself that even when I couldn’t fix their problems, I wanted them to know that they would not suffer them alone. When they are sad or angry or hurting, I will hold them as long as they want, as tight as they want.
4. One way to help a child with bad behavior is to call a family member or friend. We do. My father, her Papa, is elderly and has Parkinson’s. He loves to talk to her and is the one person we know who is never, ever in a rush to get off the phone. He has all day to talk to her, to listen to her, to let her calm down, to ask her about her day, to tell her about his. When he was well enough to visit, he used to let her brush his hair and practice putting eyeshadow on him. Now that he can’t visit, long calls brighten both her day and his.
5. We play a game or do a project. She’s easily distracted by the idea of getting to make muffins or cupcakes with Mama and not getting in trouble for spilling flour and being allowed to lick the bowl, or by a game of Tenzi or Sorry! or Uno.
6. I give in. Or ignore. This works. Not to say that I’m spoiling her, I don’t do that. But if I want to brush her hair before school and she doesn’t want to let me, insisting does me no good. Chasing her with a brush does me no good. Stepping away, brushing my other daughter’s hair, leaving the brush and the ponytail holder or the headband out where my younger daughter can see it, but not saying another word always works. She comes around. She knows we always brush hair before school. Sometimes it takes her longer than others, so there are days we run out of time, but on those days, I just drop it. It’s not worth the argument.
7. Sometimes when my child is acting out we get a change of scenery. This is the one that requires the most effort but it never ever fails. A change of scenery could mean getting her in the bathtub with a bath bomb or some color tablets, but it’s better in our household if it means bracing her up and getting her outside. I know some families whose children really can’t go anywhere because of their immune systems, but getting on the swings in their backyard or going for a walk up and down the street can work miracles. Pre-pandemic, my daughter was soothed just by getting in the car and going food shopping with me.
8. Her sister saves the day! This is a pulling-out-all-the-stops last-ditch effort. When I can’t fix it and Daddy can’t fix it, sometimes sister can fix it. She is a typically developing older sibling, one who is our disabled daughter’s favorite person and idol. Like all siblings, they fight hard and play beautifully. Like only typical siblings of atypical children can be, our older daughter is creatively playful and had otherworldly patience. When we are tapped, she can sometimes summon something we can’t, and save the moment for us all.
9. We sedate her. We do this rarely. And only on medical advice. Our daughter has medically related PTSD and becomes anxious and agitated when she’s having even minor medical procedures done. Bloodwork can cause her to become very, very upset. Changing her g-tube, a straightforward procedure that ordinarily takes less than two minutes and is done safely and at home can also be triggering. She has a standing PRN (“as needed”) prescription for a mild sedative that we use when we recognize she will be in distress. Her doctor prescribed her medication because she sometimes needs it, and we aren’t afraid to follow their advice
10. If want to know how to handle a misbehaving child when you don’t have any solution. Ride it out. I do. I know this was a list of things I do when I don’t have patience but even when I am out of patience I do have the tiniest bit in reserve. It’s taken me all her life to recognize that sometimes she just needs extra processing time. When I am in a rush to get out the door, to get her to bed, out of the bath, off the phone, out of the car, done with the meal, she seems to slooooow down. I just breathe and lean into it instead of trying to rush her, and we are all the better for it. I wish I could do this one all the time, because it might take what feels like forever, but this is the one that always, always has a happy ending for everyone.
Aimee Christian is a freelance writer published in The New York Times and The Washington Post, on Romper.com, and on Popsugar Family. Currently hard at work on a middle-grade novel about am 11-year-old girl with an unusual disability who is faced with a difficult choice.