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Help - I Can't Control My Child's Challenging Behaviour

What do you do when your ability to eat a meal, sleep or go out are dependent on the stressful balancing act required to keep your child calm?

In our weekly series Christine Armstrong, the author of The Mother Of All Jobs: How To Have Children, A Career And Stay Sane(ish), unpicks the myths around being a working mother and asks: is having a work/life balance an impossible dream?

Laura, a working mother of a six-year-old girl says 'Obviously I love her with all my heart, she’s my only child. But I sometimes don’t like her very much.’ She goes on to describe a life so full of demands, tantrums and more demands that makes it sound like their household has been imprisoned by a short and very angry dictator.

Their ability to sleep, enjoy meals and go out are all dependent on the stressful balancing act required to keep their daughter calm. An act that seems to mostly involve bribes: if dad is driving, Laura has to sit in the back of the car with her daughter as she doesn’t like to sit alone. The car music is chosen by her. Her food choices are limited: they never leave home without the expensive baby pouches of sweet mush, in case the other options are furiously rejected. Despite all these efforts, the child is frequently up at night, wandering around the house, turning on lights and the TVs or, in the daytime, shouting and crying about minor injuries and accusing school friends of being mean to her. Laura has stopped accepting party invites because it’s so embarrassing to have to take her home halfway through when she hasn’t won musical statues and is tantruming.*

Parents of older kids also describe challenging behaviour that makes their lives more stressful than they would like. ‘I wonder if our son would have done better at a boarding school’, muses a mum of a fourteen-year-old boy who is always online gaming. ‘A school would have stopped him playing all the time but we’re so wrapped up in work that he just ends up mostly doing what he wants and now I am worried about him and am not sure how to stop it’. Another mother of teens describes the vile messages her teens send her frequently while she is at work. Calling her a bitch – and worse - when she won’t give them what they want: money, makeup, permission to go out at time and to places she thinks are not suitable.

One of the consequences of our ‘always on’ and dual-income working patterns is that some families have – despite their desire otherwise – struggled to give the focused attention to their kids they would like. Pressured by bills and escalating housing prices and insecure work, both parents feel under pressure to work fulltime and, in many cases, be available to work much more than the old ‘fulltime' of 9am-5pm. Now we all know that raising kids is tricky whether you’re at home with or out working but there are some specific issues that these kinds of working parents talk about.

One is that much of childcare has had to be handled by others: nurseries, childminders, au pairs, nannies or family members and of course school. In theory, this might not matter but, in reality, it can set up a series of challenges as is some parents haven’t had the chance to build up a big bank of childcare experience and/or cannot be closely involved. David Attenborough, for example, often observes those cubs who are lucky to have an ‘experienced mother’ to care for them.

Many of our children are less fortunate. Having spent ten or fifteen years working in a world where kids are rarely seen, many of us are far from experienced parents. Returning to work soon and working long hours all week can limit parental engagement to a few hours in the week and then weekends. This doesn’t necessarily build up the range of skills that effective parenting demands: predicting what the child is likely to do next, diverting from a welling crisis or being calmly present in an activity that doesn’t appear to have any point to it. Like pretending to be a lobster.

Another is that chosen childcarers may not have the same values/expectations we do: as one early years’ teacher says “when you lack consistency of care it can be very stressful for the child and lead to difficult behaviours’. If we’re not there to see our kids in nursery on a daily basis – for example, if we’re always the last parent to charge in as they are sweeping floors and running home sweating from the stress - we are not observing how they are doing or whether it is the right setting for them. We’re also not allowing any time for the carers to feed back to you on how they are getting on, which means we can’t respond to any brewing issues. This is especially important if our financial situation or working hours means we depend on informal care from family or untrained childcarers who may just be trying to get through the day rather than thinking about the long-term consequences of a child that never puts it shoes in the same place or picks up its toys. It also means that we don’t necessarily know what their peers are doing and whether their ability to manage their emotions is in line with all the other kids, or some way behind.

When things start to get difficult, we also may not notice initially. Parents may assume their child is just a bad sleeper, were hungry/tired/hot/cold/off-colour when they totally lost it or that’s its perfectly normal to only eat one food-type. Or celebrate that their child is ‘tenacious’ or ‘strong-minded’, when the reality is that they can’t compromise in group scenarios and are struggling socially as a result. When you only have one child, it can seem kindest to go with the flow and help them avoid the crises rather than addressing the underlying causes. But experts warn this is a high-risk strategy because they may not get better with age and, as above, angry teenagers are even harder to manage than angry little kids.

The good news is that, if we know our kids are struggling to manage their emotions, we can fix it. Child psychotherapist Sarah Clarke says:

‘One of the most reassuring things I can offer parents who feel they may have made a mess of things is that it’s never too late. Wonderful psychologists, psychiatrists and psychotherapists, such as Professor Dan Siegel and Louis Cozolino, have given us “neuroplasticity”. Whereas we used to think that attachment was something that happened (or didn’t) in those crucial early years of infancy we now know that the brains continues to change into adulthood and loving, well-attuned relationships can bring about a “re-wiring” that overrides any early fragilities.’ Sarah strongly advocates parenting classes for anyone finding it tough – even as a psychotherapist she found attending them invaluable.

This is welcome news to Laura who has spent the last few months dreading Christmas with her in-laws. Her partner’s sister is a teacher and cannot conceal her irritation at how badly her niece behaves. This always leads to tension: with her trying to use the festive period to ‘address’ a few things and the grandparents nervously observing it all through pursed lips. Laura says that 2019 will see some big changes in their house, including both her and her partner taking more control over the time they are available to work and prioritizing their relationship with their daughter. Her big goal is not to dread next Christmas for fear her family won’t be able to cope

*Note: obviously this isn’t about kids with special needs. If parents or carers suspect special educational needs, all the advice to seek help from educators/specialists to come up with a plan together to understand and help the child.