Difficult children…

Difficult children and children’s difficult behaviour are very rarely the results of a single factor. Education does not explain everything!

What are difficult children?

Tom accompanies his mother to the supermarket. When she refuses to buy him a packet of biscuits, Tom demands them again and again, then gets angry and ends up hurling himself to the ground and throwing a tantrum. The other customers look at the child – and at his mother, who feels helpless and overwhelmed. Lisa is playing with her sister in the living room while their father is preparing dinner. An argument breaks out between the two children and suddenly Lisa violently pushes her sister, who falls backwards and hurts herself. Lisa refuses to apologise: she seems unaffected by her sister’s cries and her father’s reprimands, and not in the least bothered by the scene that has just unfolded. Tom and Lisa are often described as difficult children. Their parents wonder what they have done, or not done, to make their children behave in this way. They feel like they have tried everything: calmly explaining, shouting, punishing, even letting their tantrums take their course without paying too much attention. Nothing seems to work. They are out of ideas! The difficult behaviour continues, disturbing the daily life of the whole family. Some days, Tom and Lisa’s parents are at their wits’ end, ready to break down. Around them, their close friends complain about having to put up with their children’s unbearable behaviour. The children’s grandparents think that it’s the parents’ fault and that the children have simply been badly brought up. This is also what the customers of the shop where Tom had his tantrum think. Such criticism isn’t easy to bear as a parent… But is it really their fault?

Difficult children very rarely result from a single factor

The reality is never simple. A child’s difficult behaviour is very rarely the result of a single factor. It can be regarded as the only visible part of an iceberg. This visible part is a sort of barometer that shows us the state of a child’s well-being and mental health. Difficult behaviour is often a sign of a deeper malaise. We must then look below the surface to observe the invisible part of the iceberg. This may reveal the reasons why the child is acting this way and is unable to control his or her behaviour. There are many reasons why this might be the case. For example, language delay can lead to difficult behaviour because the child does not understand instructions or cannot make his or her needs and wishes clear. This leads to frustration and anger, which is manifested in bad behaviour. Difficulty in establishing a secure relationship with parents and close relatives can also lead to behavioural problems because the child constantly feels the need to show off and be heard so as not to be ignored. For the child, being difficult could feel like the only way to receive any attention. Finally, the maturation of the brain can also be the reason for problematic behaviour. The frontal lobe of the brain, which is responsible for self-control, matures very slowly and at a variable rate. That depends on each individual, up to the age of 20. A slower rate of development can result in difficulties in focusing attention on instructions and in difficulties in controlling impulses. The impulsiveness and agitation that results from this immaturity can lead to the child disobeying instructions, putting him- or herself in danger, causing accidents, and so on.

No magic formula will work for all difficult children

All those possible reasons for ‘difficult behaviour’, combined with the individual characteristics of each child and each parent, mean that there is no magic formula that will work for all difficult children. Something that could be helpful for one, could be problematic for another. The parenting of a difficult child needs to be calibrated according to the (usually multiple) reasons that cause the difficult behaviour and the character of the child, his or her parents and their relationship.
By Isabelle Roskam, Ph.D. and Moïra Mikolajczak, Ph.D.

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