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The Challenging Child: Nurturing Children Who Push Your Buttons

You've seen them in stores, in your child's school, your church, or, perhaps, in your family. Children who disrupt, act out, or behave without caring how their actions are affecting others. Or maybe they are sad, disengaged, indifferent. You struggle to get a response. Parents and teachers, there is a way to love these children well. Be encouraged!

You've probably heard it said that children who need love most will ask for it in the most unloving ways. There are very few old sayings that carry the weight of truth to the extent that this one does. Unwanted, neglected children can be identified most easily by how difficult they are to deal with. Children have limited ability to filter what they are feeling on the inside, and those feelings show clearly through their actions, words, and demeanor.

In a room filled with happy children, the one that is disrupting the rhythm or the flow is the child whose unmet need for love and affirmation is deep and painful. The same thing at home. Your unhappy, disruptive child is more than likely pushing your buttons because there is an unmet need. As a parent or teacher, we have the power to help.

Take a look at the pyramid chart below. This is "Maslov's Hierarchy of Needs". It is a list designed to help us all understand what humans need in order to thrive. These are the needs that motivate us to behave the way we do. We need these elements in our lives and we will do what we must to get them. Take a moment and look at this famous chart. Note that the most basic needs represent the base, or largest part, of the pyramid.

Children who are disrupting their homes and classrooms are, typically, stuck somewhere on this pyramid. I believe that, very often, these young ones are stuck on the the orange or the green spaces. What this means in practical terms is that they are reaching out the only way they know how to have their need for love and belonging or esteem met. They have limited ways to express themselves, and the most effective tool they have is to be loud or challenging or uncooperative or all three. They may also mope and disengage.

There is no doubt about it. Parents and teachers who deal day in and day out with children who defy all social norms are worn to a thread with the effort. It is hard to deal with children who have no vocabulary or insight to explain why they are acting as they do. You have tried all you know to try and, so far, nothing has helped. What is a parent or teacher (especially a volunteer church teacher!) supposed to do? I have a few thoughts.

  1. Notice only the behavior that you want repeated. A sense of connection (orange section of the pyramid), is easily gained by being the center of attention. Children who are behaving differently from the others are usually seeking attention. As long as everyone is safe, your first effective way to deal with the disruption is to ignore it. Don't even look at the disrupter. Instead, fix your eyes on the child that is doing exactly the right thing and comment on it. "Jasmine is really tuned in today!" "Michael is working super hard!" "Woah, ya'll! Chelsea got the table cleared in record time!" Avoid saying "thank you for..." unless what they have done for you is a personal favor or they have taken on one of your responsibilities. For example, if you generally clear the table and Chelsea took the initiative to do it, that is worthy of a thank you. If they are meeting their own responsibilities, simply acknowledge that. The instant (and I mean the instant) that the disruptive child does the right thing, comment on it exactly the same way as you commented on the others. Make sure that you don't throw a dagger in with your comment like: "You finally decided to do the right thing." In family settings, this works exactly the same way. Even if your little disrupter is an only child you can adjust this technique. The key is to be specific.

  2. Consider that the child is acting out of fear. What is going on in that child's life that you don't see? If this is your own child, ask about friends, activities, teachers, etc. Tune your heart and mind to your little one. Attention seeking behavior may very well be the manifestation of feeling insignificant. This is a terrifying notion that many children genuinely experience. Do I matter at all? What is my place in my family, school, church, community? Why am I not happy like the other kids? I am wanted? If this was your childhood experience, as it was mine, I challenge you to remember the fear that came along with feeling insignificant or undervalued. Make sure that your child or your student hears you say "I am so glad that you are mine!" "You add so much to our family!" "I feel so happy when you are near!" "You tell the best stories!" "That was a great joke! Can you tell me another?" Just as in step one, be specific. Saying "Good job, buddy!" is pretty generic and doesn't hit the spot the way a specific act of praise will.

  3. It's not personal, part one. I often remind mothers that when a child is not cooperating it is not a personal attack. It is a child communicating using the only tools they have. This is true with older children as well. Older elementary school children who are are stuck in the middle of Maslov's pyramid are functioning without the same tools as their peers who know that they matter. Children who have been accepted in their families and communities and have experienced approval, recognition, intimacy, and respect have what they need to succeed. The child that is rocking the boat usually does not have that level of support. Even if the adults around that child declare that they do give the child these things, the individual child hasn't gotten the message. Give these kids the tools they need to be free to learn and live in a community and the freedom to be heard and valued.

  4. It's not personal, part two. Give yourself a break. You are not a failure. It isn't about you. This is a long term task and you can only do so much. Focus on one technique at a time in your efforts to reach this child. Once you have touched their heart, you will see a change. Maybe just a little, but you will have gained a purchase in that young heart. Without winning the heart, it is impossible to reach their mind. Keep trying. Every encounter matters. You don't have to do it all at once, just keep on going. Every single child is worth every single effort.

There are so many children who do not have even one adult in their lives with the energy or capacity to nurture them. Step up and be that one adult. Even if you reach only one child you will have changed the world.

The writings of The Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) teach us that "Whoever saves one life saves the whole world". Save one child...start with your own. In doing this, you are also saving the wounded child inside of you.

I invite you to share my weekly newsletter with encouragement for dealing with children in all settings. School, church, home. Please comment or send suggestions about a topic you'd like to see addressed in this space. You may connect with me at;

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