4.10.2007

WTW: Difficult Personalities

This post is my two bits on this week's Woman to Woman topic:


Parenting or grandparenting children that have difficult personalities...be they temperamental children or children with issues like ADD, sensory dysfunction, or developmental delays. Share your hardships, share your successes. You mothers can vent away, and you grandmothers can encourage us to hang in there, and share your past parenting/grandparenting challenges and strategies.

Be sure to also click on over to Seeds from My Garden and My Many Colored Days for links to the other participants and more great insight and inspiration, Woman to Woman!

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In my boys' family tree, there are some telling childhood legends:

The little girl whose mom served her oyster soup. She asked what oysters were, and upon hearing that they were little fish, asked, "Are they dead?!" Then violently slid her bowl across the table in abhorrence at the thought of eating dead fish...

The little boy who gathered all the mail around the neighborhood and redistributed it so that everyone had the same amount of mail in their boxes...

The kindergartner who so persistently refused to speak at school that his teacher called his mom in for a conference to recommend speech therapy or special education. His mom, being baffled because he talked plenty at home, finally got to the bottom of the problem: He just didn't like his teacher, and wasn't going to talk to someone he didn't like...

The ten-year-old holding straight pins between her teeth while trying on a dress her mom was measuring for a hem. Her dad walked by and made a silly comment and she proceeded to yank pins from her teeth one by one and scream as she threw each of them like tiny daggers at him...

I don't have the challenges that come from raising children with developmental or emotional disorders, but my boys definitely have dynamic personalities and strong preferences. They roar, they run, they climb, they cackle and tease, they wrestle, they explore and "get into" everything, they are in perpetual motion. That level of constant activity and boundless energy, though not what I would call "difficult" in terms of personality, is one of the most eye-opening and exhausting parts of my life as a mom.

In addition to this busy-ness and curiosity, there are other things that I have discovered in my boys that present special challenges: a sometimes extreme aversion to change or transition; being easily overstimulated by sounds, lights, too much of anything at once; a regular need for "alone time;" quick frustration over an inability to do something quickly or well, like get a shoe on the right foot or make a smooth ball of play-do.

Some of these things I recognize in myself. Many of them are not outside the realm of normal childhood or even general human nature. But sometimes, just the fact that they are children, with limited language skills and short attention spans and a very small capacity to retain or practice what you tell them (over and over) is where the difficulty lies.

The one thing that I have learned from watching my children and coping with their behavior, as well as drawing from personal experience, is that the intensity of their emotions is something real and legitimate, and it's important to acknowledge it and help them gain control of themselves.

There are absolutely times when the best approach to outbursts is to quietly step over their tantrum on the floor and walk into the other room, not giving in to their demands, particularly if your stance as a parent is for their safety or health. And there may be nothing worse than a child who turns on the drama because it will get her what she wants every single time. That doesn't help the child learn emotional control, but rather how to manipulate.

But more often than not, validating and acknowledging what a child is feeling goes so much further in changing behavior. Emotionally shutting him down just because I don't like the mode of his expression or because I don't have time in my adult world to listen or care only creates more disruptive bids for attention and acknowledgment, or eventually to him not even bothering to communicate how he feels anymore.

I guess I might be super sensitive about this, but one thing I want to make sure that I do as a mom is to let my kids know that their feelings and opinions matter, that I hear them, that it's not just about what I am feeling or thinking as the parent. Sometimes it takes added work and preparation on my part, but the rewards of cooperation and communication that result, even with preschoolers, is worth the effort.

I know that some old-school parents and even some of my peers think that what is most needed is a good spanking, and my boys do get spanked on occasion, but I hope I am never guilty of spanking them because their feelings of frustration or anger or hurt were infringing on my plans for the day. If they get spanked or punished, it will be for something they did - a bad choice, an action that put them in danger, or a deliberate destruction or disobedience - not for something they felt and were trying to express. I don't want them to learn that feelings are wrong or that they are something to be ignored or stifled.

A man in our church who I really admire once told me that the greatest thing he's learned as a parent, something that changed how he parented forever, was the realization that when kids did messy or ornery or "difficult" things, they were not doing it to get under his skin. They were doing it because they haven't lived thirty years yet and are trying the world out - they were kids, learning. He said as soon as he realized that it wasn't about driving their dad nuts, and as soon as he stopped looking at their behavior as a personal affront, he was able to parent with so much more patience and understanding and maturity, and he started really getting somewhere with his children.

I am a firm believer in intentional parenting. Kids of course grow up, no matter what, and in most cases will be fine, regardless of little mistakes parents make, but patterns of emotional distance or dysfunction are really hard to overcome. I've put a lot of thought, prayer and study into the ways I can make my children feel "real," even when I don't fully understand the intensity or validity of their emotions or why they are acting the way they are.

I've actually found that much of the behavior I would have been inclined to label "bad" (or that was labeled "bad" when I was little) was actually part of normal development and just needed to be handled in a loving, age-appropriate manner. Or it is the result of a personality trait that in a child might fall under "incorrigible," but if channeled properly makes a successful and confident adult.

This is more of a ramble than I intended it to be, and I don't know how to really sum up...I guess what struck me most about the topic is that I am not raising extremely difficult personalities, but I was raised by one. And sometimes that leaves me a little bit adrift in the parenting world because I know what not to do, but don't have a clear idea of what to do when situations arise. And the funny thing about parenting is that even a difficult phase seems like it is never going to end, especially when you feel like you've tried everything and you are just emotionally and physically sapped. So I turn to prayer a lot, and I turn to books and insights from other people who have thought and dealt with similar things.

The one thing that comes to mind is a little piece of a letter that my granddad wrote when I was serving a mission. He said, "Just take it five minutes at a time, and be kind..." That advice is an anchor to me when I feel the most strung out about my children's behavior. Sometimes being kind means disciplining so that next time they will know better, but most often, it means just hearing and acknowledging and helping them work through what they are feeling or what they are trying to do. And taking things five minutes at a time is the only way for all of us to get through childhood in one piece.

17 comments:

Lisa M. said...

Thank you for your thought and feeling. I appreciated this read-

chris said...

excellent stuff! just what i needed this morning.

Jen said...

Nice Post! I loved the anecdotes you shared, especially the one about the mail. Thanks for the laughs.

An Ordinary Mom said...

Thank you so much for sharing this glimpse into your world and thanks for sharing how you were raised by a difficult personality. I gleaned a lot of pertinent information from this post and it resonated so well with me. My little two year old has had some speech delays, but for the most part he is a "normal" child who just has bundles of energy and marches to the beat of his own drum. I am learning every day how to validate his feelings which can be very trying since he doesn't communicate super well. But the Lord is helping me have patience and I am so eternally grateful to have this little guy in our family.

I also really loved your advice to "stop looking at their behavior as a personal affront." How true is that. It is easier to love our kids when we realize they aren't doing anything out of spite, it is mostly out of frustration.

I am excited to read your "books" post to get some new titles.

Sorry for the lengthy comment :)!!

Morning Glory said...

This is one of the reasons why I love your blog and keep coming back to see what you have to say. Your sensitivity is such a treasure. I loved this: "punishing...for something they did...not for something they felt and were trying to express."

The things I've read today, I've wish I had learned from someone 30 years ago. Thank you for an inspiring post.

Jennifer said...

What great thoughts--I like the man's advice, too.

I, too have kids who have personality. One book I loved was "Raising Your Spirited Child." My kids probably aren't textbook "spirited," but they have spirit. The book affirmed that they are who they are. Additionally, if we believe that they are created beings (as I do), that is how God made them. Yes, I have responsibilities as a parent, and yes, I probably don't live up to them all the time as I should.

A favorite teacher of my daughter's told me last year when dealing with her talking problem, "I talked when I was her age, and one time I was taken out into the hall and read the riot act. I never said "boo" after that. I don't want to squash these kids' personalities."

And that's what I strive for--to help them develop to their best potential within the realms of their God-given personalities.

Sunydazy said...

Well said! I enjoyed your post ~~thanks!

Lei said...

I also believe that children need to be heard. Their feelings are real and I want my children to feel like they can come to me about anything. In fact, my favorite words from my daughter's mouth are "Mom, can I tell you soemthing?" because I know she is about to share some intimate thoughts with me. And knowing that she feels comfortable enough to do that - not squelched, but welcome to be open with me, makes me so happy.

Julie said...

You had lots of wonderful thoughts in this post. I loved the stories at the beginning. They were a great laugh. I especially loved the bit of advice by the older father. That is just SO TRUE and something I need to remind myself of every single day. Thank you!

Janelle said...

I enjoyed your post today, both the funny stories and the serious musings.

It's just me... said...

When I think of what I loved so much about my parents, it rings true in what you said today. I loved your line of trying to be an 'intentional parent'. I love, love, love that. It is inevitable that my children will grow up and complain about my parenting. My hope is that they also love me still, and value most of what I did as a parent. That is how I know I'll have succeeded. Thank you for the thoughts today.

Montserrat said...

I'm trying to be an 'intentional' parent too. I really appreciate you pointing out not punishing a child because of how they feel. With six daughters emotions can run high at our house, and they aren't even teenagers yet!

Katrina said...

Great, really great, thoughts. I just had to remind myself the other night that my 8-year-old is not a grown up -- so why am I expecting him to act like one? My husband and I often joke, "He's acting just like a kid -- can you believe it?" to remind ourselves to keep the right perspective in the midst of everything. Thanks for sharing from your heart.

Randi said...

Great post! Realizing that our kids aren't out to get us is something that we need to remember. Just because i am feeling frustrated doesn't mean they are trying to make me frustrated--maybe they are just frustrated too.

Crystal said...

I just read this post and the one from April 17, 2006 in your archives. You are so wise and so real! I'm going to share your blog with our daughter who is busy (but lonely too) with her 4.5 month old daughter. I think it will be so good for her. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and humour!!

Jen3 @ Amazing Trips said...

This is a great post, CYM. It can be so extremely trying at times to be the best parents we can be ... but taking it 5 minutes at a time and always (trying) to be kind would have to be some of the best advice - ever.

I chuckled when I read about the little girl and the dead fish in her soup. Would she have ate it if her mother told her they were alive?? Hmmm. I wonder....

Zoe said...

I like the reminder that they are just children . . . without a lifetime of experience that we have on them! I need to remember that!