My Child’s Behavior Is off the Charts – How Is it Possible to Parent Him​/Her?​

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Dr. Yossi Shafer 

Last month we introduced the “do nothing” parenting approach in which tuning into your children and their needs – while setting limits with confidence – is vital. 

While this approach can be life-changing for many parents, it can be significantly more difficult for those whose children are challenging due to emotional or behavioral differences. For these parents – who may be dealing with diagnosed conditions or simply a child with an impulsive, oppositional, or intense personality type – the same “do nothing” advice applies, but with tweaks to make it implementable under complicated circumstances. 

Understanding and parenting a challenging child can seem like an insurmountable obstacle. The good news is that it’s actually quite the contrary. With the proper knowledge and perhaps treatment, you’ll be surprised by how your child will not only thrive, but also that you can develop a loving and strong relationship with him/her.  

The more you learn about your child’s behaviors, the more you’ll discover what’s “normal” for a child like yours. 

There is typically a set of behaviors that we see in children who visit our offices. Though it may seem like your child doesn’t fit into a specific classification, there are common traits across the board, making the treatment plan quite similar. Many children present with few overlapping characteristics of three similar diagnoses – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), and Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD) – which unfortunately confuses parents (and some practitioners). For example, these children need more stimulation in non-stimulating environments (school, Shabbat meals, waiting rooms), they have trouble processing their surroundings, and they suffer from impulsivity (ADHD). These challenges are often compounded by clashes with authority, as these children don’t seem to process consequences (ODD) and are often highly irritable and angry as they have difficulties processing feelings (DMDD).  

Common patterns include: 

  • If they are not interested in a task, they won’t be able to do it for even a minute (e.g., cleaning their rooms), yet they can also hyperfocus on things they enjoy like playing with LEGO or watching movies for many hours at a time. 
  • Sensory imbalances: food pickiness (won’t eat their food if ketchup touched their plate or is even on the table), clothing sensitivities (constant coat-wearing, may hate tags and seams), a need for physical stimulation 
  • Anger, irritability, negativity 
  • Black-and-white thinking, literal thinking – if you say, “I need two minutes,” they’ll be back in exactly 120 seconds. 
  • Taking every “maybe” as a “yes.” 
  • Strong aversion to boredom and they seem to always be bored. 
  • Processing difficulties – may overreact to something small like a broken pencil because their brains cannot process, at that moment, that you can go to the store and get a new one. 
  • Lagging 30 percent behind their peers in social, academic, and behavioral areas. 
  • Persistent – will ask the same question 30 times until they get a satisfactory answer. 
  • Have a hard time falling asleep and often are awake and energized at 5:30am regardless of when they went to sleep. 
  • Creatures of habit – they’ll often eat the same foods, preferring not to eat if those foods are not available, and they wear the same style of clothing over and over. 
  • More challenging with breaks in schedules and with parents or teachers who are wishy-washy; they need firm expectations and routines. 
  • Display different behavior patterns in different settings – may behave perfectly in school and terribly at home or vice-versa.

A child may not display all of these behaviors, and other behaviors are indicative of similar personality types. 

These children have actual neurological differences and require constant stimulation in order to function. Neurologically, they are programmed so that they’d prefer to get yelled at, punished, or retaliated against rather than spend time understimulated and bored. It’s also why they often act without seeming to care about the consequences. They do care, deeply, but by the time their brains engage, it is too late. They have already hit their brother, or said something inappropriate in front of a group of people. They may express, “Why did I do that?” “I am so weird,” or “What’s wrong with me?” – constantly beating themselves up internally.  

As you learn more about your challenging child, you’ll also discover the more heartening characteristics: their creativity, spontaneity, enthusiasm, ambition, resilience, and energy. Successful adults with ADHD can run multinational businesses but be unable to pay their own electric bills. Life is frustrating because they can do what they’re supposed to if they really want to.  

Empower yourself and your child with knowledge and empathy, and you’ll unleash his supercharged potential for greatness.

Dr. Yossi Shafer, PhD is the clinical director and a clinical psychologist at Empower Health Center, a private practice of multispecialty psychotherapists. They have offices in Deal/Long Branch and Lakewood and can be reached at (732) 666-9898 or office@empowerhealthcenter.net.