10 Lessons from Raising a “Challenging” Kid


Maybe your child was an easy baby or a hard baby, it doesn’t matter. They are hard now. They have been for a while. Maybe it’s been a year, two years, longer. Maybe they
are 3 or 7 or 11. Maybe they have a formal diagnosis or maybe they don’t fit neatly into
any box. But for the sake of this article, I want to define “hard” or “challenging” as the kind of kid who is easily frustrated and inflexible, with big feelings and bigger tantrums. They can be loving, they can be funny, creative, brilliant, musically gifted—a million great things that will serve them well later in life—but boy, right now, what they are MOST is exhausting! So here are a few lessons I wish someone shared with me about raising a “challenging” kid, oh, about 12 years ago.

Lesson #1: Parents with easy kids aren’t better parents. They just have easier kids.

Obviously good parenting matters. But some parents just lucked out. They got an easygoing kid who can roll with things. The kind of kid who can be redirected, who can
handle changing plans or just a different brand of frozen pizza without losing his shit. It’s
not fair. But you don’t what? Everyone has something. Maybe they got an easy kid, but
they have a hard marriage. Or a long commute to a soul-crushing job. Or an alcoholic
brother who lives in their basement and steals stuff. You just never know. This isn’t a post about comparing struggles – we all have them!

Lesson #2: Don’t talk about parenting with friends who have those easy kids.

I remember letting off some steam with a friend about how it had been a hard afternoon
with my son. She told me that she, too, had a hard afternoon with her daughter. Her
daughter had rolled her eyes at my friend when they were at Target! My friend couldn’t
believe it! How disrespectful! Meanwhile, I had to physically remove my own 10-year-
old from our backyard where he was swearing at the top of his lungs and kicking over
our lawn furniture. While my friend was legitimately frustrated with her child, it’s just not the same. So instead …

Lesson #3: Make friends with parents who do get it.

There are a lot of parents out there who will understand what you are going through,
because they are also raising a “challenging” kid. Find them. Or at least one of them. What helped me more than anything was connecting with a mom who has a high-functioning autistic son. I walk with her nearly every day. It’s a combination of exercise and therapy. We can talk in short-hand because she lives the struggle, too. Incidentally, she has also shared the name of a great neuropsych, psychiatrist and therapist and schooled me on why
the school will try to convince you a 504 plan is fine, but you really need to fight for an
IEP. (Another article for another time.) Spend as much time with these friends as

Lesson #4. Let go of what you imagined.

Before I had kids, I imagined the happy family dinners we would have. Sitting around
the table, eating lasagna and sharing funny stories from our day. Reality: Mealtimes
suck. My son doesn’t like to eat anything except Dominos’ Pizza and I feel like it’s a
success if we just get through dinner without yelling and tears. I am still working on how
to keep him healthy and respect his taste and ethics. (Re: He became a vegetarian
when he was in kindergarten and asked me if the chicken we were eating wanted to
die.) So, I just try to appreciate my kind, deep thinker and make sure he takes a vitamin
at least most days.

Lesson #5. Learn and accept your child’s limits.

That birthday party that starts at 7 p.m. when your child’s bedtime is 7:30? It’s not going
to go well—and tomorrow will be worse. The camping trip with all those families who
takes turns cooking? Only if you want to spend three days apologizing. A grandparent’s
invitation to spend the day at a museum? Absolutely no way. You need to be honest
about what your child can handle and make your sanity (and his) a priority. The people
who love you will understand and the people who don’t? Let them go. Sure, of course
you should push your child a little, but don’t pretend they will suddenly be a different kid.
An older friend once told me, “Love the child in front of you, not the one you expected to
see.” I think of this often as I’m raising a challenging kid.

Okay, now let’s get concrete.

There are a lot of books that talk about self-care and how you need to spend one-on-
one quality time with you partner to reconnect. Mediate! Find a support group! Yes, all of
that is great, but having just wrapped up the elementary years what I really wanted was
some concrete actionable advice to help make my days a little easier when raising a challenging kid. So yes, definitely do all that other stuff, but here is what helped me the most.

Lesson 6: Get a professional neuropsych evaluation

Borrow money if you have to, because they are expensive, but so worth it. And think of
it this way: They are not nearly as expensive as getting fired because you’re too mentally exhausted from worry to do your job. Schools can do these evaluations, but they are not nearly as comprehensive (or reliable) as what a professional can do. And then you can either stop worrying or get an accurate diagnosis which will help you find the right resources—from an IEP at school to an OT to the right medication. (Side note: No one wants to medicate their kids, and I really wrestled with this. BUT once we found
the right psychiatrist and dosage, it made a huge difference—my son is still himself, but
he has more control over his emotions, has made real friendships, gained confidence
and improved academically.) Writer Amber shares some tips about navigating the IEP process!

Lesson #7: Speaking of medication, melatonin is a godsend.

My college roommate with older kids spent the night at my house when my son was 4.
He was having his usual dragged out, tantrum filled bedtime. The next morning, she told
me he reminded her of her own daughter when she was that age. “Have you ever tried giving him melatonin?” And despite my entrenched objection to giving children drugs
(something I’m way over at this point!) I was desperate enough to try it. Oh my God! He
fell peacefully to sleep at 7:30, slept 12 hours and woke up happy. I am not a doctor and
not pushing any particular brand, but I give him the 1 or 1.5 mg gummy 20 minutes
before bedtime and you’ll have to pry the bottle out of my cold dead hands before I stop. (Check out Arielle’s post because she has a different opinion about melatonin use in children than I do). 

Lesson #8. Get a trampoline.

All kids need exercise, challenging kid need A LOT of it. During the pandemic, against
the advice of lots of parents, we got a 14-foot trampoline for our backyard. Both our sons were out there for hours every day. And on rainy days when they couldn’t jump, I
realized just how much of a difference the trampoline made. If you live in an apartment
or just don’t have a backyard, get one of those little indoor trampolines. There is just
something about bouncing that is very soothing. And if a trampoline is out of the
question, find another way to wear them out.

Lesson #9. Let them watch TV while you have a glass of wine and make dinner.
(Lay on the couch while the oven heats up.)

I know, too much screen time is bad, but so is 5 p.m. I find the whole Mommy wine
culture kind of obnoxious, but I also know that at the end of a long day, a glass of wine
really helps. It takes my stress down at least a couple of notches and it gives me something to look forward to. I know how this sounds, but I don’t care. Just stop at one
(or occasionally two) because you don’t need to be dealing with any more problems than you already are.

Lesson #10. Do what works, even if it’s a little weird.

When my son started kindergarten, getting him to change out of his pajamas and into
his school clothes was a fight every morning. Despite all the tricks, like laying out his
clothes the night before, giving him “ten minutes ‘til we’re leaving” type warnings, etc. he
just hated getting dressed and it always started the day off on a terrible note. So, you
know what? He doesn’t wear pajamas anymore. After he takes a bath, he just puts on
his clothes for the next day and when he wakes up, he’s already dressed.

Final thoughts on raising a “challenging” kid:

Yes, your child is super hard. But assuming you aren’t a genuinely terrible parent, they
will probably grow up to be a really interesting person. Friends with grown-up hard kids
can tell you that. They will also tell you they wish they didn’t spend so much time worrying. Most kids grow up just fine, even the SUPER hard ones. And, honestly, because you have both been thrown into the world of therapy, coping techniques and the importance of prioritizing mental health, your child might be more prepared to deal with life’s ups and downs than that easy kid across the street. 

And one more thing … Listen to true crime podcasts

Sure, they are a great escape—and make folding laundry way more fun. But here is
what I really love about them: No matter how hard your life feels, how exhausted you
are, at least you’re not lying dead in some field with your pantyhose tied around your
neck. Writer Laura wrote about pairing wine with true crime podcasts… I’m here for it. 


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