Is there such thing as “problem child” or just poor parenting?

What's Covered

Parents often wonder if their child is born with a personality and how much can they change it or adjust it to ensure a better and fruitful future. There are always two opinions on this particular subject, some will say that parenting is important, some will argue that children are born the way they are and there is little to nothing parents can do to change them.

While we agree with both theories it is important to remember that parents are the responsible adults in that relationship and they should help the children the best way they know how.

What is a problematic child?

Some children are considered to be problematic from an early age because of their stubborn attitude, inability to control emotions, and overall hard to cooperate with. Parents with multiple children can say that parenting is not the only factor that controls the outcome, because sometimes children from the same parents show completely different characters and outcome. But is that true?

A study based on Sulloway’s niche model of personality development, as well as Zajonc’s confluence model of intellectual achievement, confirmed that order of the birth also determines the character and intelligence of the children.[1] The oldest child is usually the best one in the academic sense and the one with the most success, while the younger child is mainly liberal, independent, and stubborn.

Does this mean that the younger children are the ones who are considered problematic? Statistically, yes. In our research, we found that parents usually have doubts and concerns with the younger children, while the first-born are usually viewed as successful. Younger children are often described as independent, wild, and unable to communicate. They are harder to discipline and usually don’t follow directions.

If we take into account that the same parents are the ones who raised the older child, what is the difference? Many will notice and agree that second and later children are not only raised by parents but influenced by older siblings. The dynamic of the family changes when a new member appears and from then on it is a completely new family. This variable may be the crucial one for forming “problematic behavior” and “problematic children”.

What are the common behavioral problems?

Parenting any child is a hard task, but when it comes to parenting “difficult” children the burden becomes almost too heavy to bear, so parents often wonder is everything ok. Children up to 5 years are rarely diagnosed and labeled as “disordered” and that is for a good reason.

Developing years are tough on parents, but even more so on children who have little to no understanding of the world, their vocabulary is limited, vital parts of the brain are not developed fully while they have the full emotional capacity of an adult. Can you imagine all the emotions you feel like an adult, packed in such a small body and mind? It must be terrifying.

After the 5 year mark, we can discuss is the child developing properly or does he or she have any behavioral problems. It’s easy to assume that a two-year-old having a tantrum is problematic, but in all honesty, most two-year-olds are faulty this way. It is just too early to make any kind of assumptions, even though some parents will say that some children are more demanding from day one.

If not properly handled, and by that, we mean the parents have to take control over the process of determining does the child suffers from some disorder or is it just the way his personality is forming. The most common behavioral problems with children can be aggression, defiance, inability to control impulses and emotion, etc. Parents then decide whether to take further steps and find out if the child has some of the potential disorders like:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Bipolar disorder

It’s not easy to find out that your child may have some problems but this will mean that you can’t front problems head-on and resolve them in a timely matter. It is best to find out about and potential problems when the child is still young because this way you can help them understand the outside world better. Children are very flexible and they can learn how to accommodate the behavior for the best result.

If, on the other hand, the child doesn’t have any problems in developing then it is your duty as a parent to guide and teach your children how to become a decent human being who respects themselves and others without judgment. This sounds easy but actually, it is one of the hardest things about parenting.

How can I better understand my child’s temperament?

If we stand by the theory that every child and person is born different, we can assume that it takes time to get to know your child perfectly. In the beginning, their communication is limited and we have to be very intuitive to find out what is our child is like. There are some guidelines you can follow that can help you better understand what type of personality or temperament your child has.[2]

Activity level

You can notice almost from day one that some children have high energy levels, as they are very physically active and seem to need little to no rest. On the other hand, some children are much calmer and with fewer activities needed to tire them down. Knowing this you can help your child accommodate his or her energy levels to appropriate situations. Some will be great at sports but struggle to be patient in school, others will be superior in academics but pretty lethargic on daily basis. It’s up to you to guide them to the best of your abilities.

Sensitivity

All of us have some way to cope with the outside world and sensations. Some of us are bothered by crowded places, and others enjoy being in the center of attention. It is the same with children, they just don’t know how to show it and control it. Some children have a bigger reaction to certain situations, like bright light, too much stimulation, and loud noises. And other children don’t get bothered with those things at all. It’s important to see if your child is sensitive or not, to help them regulate those emotions and better understand some reactions.

Regularity

Most children thrive in routines, no matter how big or small they seem to us. But some children are more into the whole routine thing than others, meaning they might even have an emotional reaction when something unpredictable happens. Again, children who love routines usually have no problems at school but tend to overreact when things change. On the other hand, children who are not dependent on a routine are easier to adapt to new things but have a hard time accepting structure.

Initial reaction

Initial reactions to new things can be different for every child and adult. Some children are more courageous and don’t think twice before exploring new things. This can come in handy in later life as they are more open to new situations and generally take risks, but this can also lead to reckless behavior. On the opposite side are the more careful children who tend to think before jumping. It’s all about getting to know your child enough to teach them how to balance those traits.

Adaptability

After the initial reaction, how long does it take for your child to accept and move on when introduced to the new environment? Some children adapt very quickly and have no problems with new experiences, some need a bit more time. It’s important to honor your child’s personality and never push them too much out of their comfort zone. This might look like you are helping, but the reality is you are making it worse. Patience is the key!

Mood

Most children are pretty happy and carefree in the early years, but even then some are prone to negative and some are more positive when it comes to everyday activities. Both positive and negative moods have their purpose, but it becomes a bit harder to recognize the real emotion from the general mood of your child. A positive outlook on life is something you as a parent can influence, and this should be a daily task to ensure your child has a realistic and optimistic view of most situations. This will help him or her later in life and make it easier to solve problems.

Persistence

This is one of the most important character traits in any person, but it can be seen in early childhood years. Yes, most children are not known to be particularly patient, but some are more than others. The saying goes that patience is a virtue, and we agree. However, persistence is something that can be learned if appropriate measures are taken and parents dedicate time to this problem. Persistent children are almost always academically successful but tend to be perfectionists, on the other hand, children who lack persistency can give up easily and have more problems when dealing with tasks.[3]

Now that we covered how to recognize and evaluate your child’s temperament it’s important to remember that the combination of some traits can be considered as problematic. Some children are thus harder to discipline and have problems in school, but you can as a caregiver be the teacher and help them navigate through and with those traits, to make life just a bit easier.

What is the hardest part of parenting?

Parenting has always been a challenge and modern parenting is no different. Parents today have to pay special attention to every aspect of their children’s lives because even minor things can have a massive outcome in the future. The hardest part of parenting is realizing that you are the responsible one and the adult one in the relationship. At the same time, you have to accept that you are growing as a person and that you are going to make mistakes. It is sometimes hard to see yourself as a successful parent when your children make mistakes but this is all a part of growing together.

As a parent, you have to be able to see far in the future and predict if your parenting style is going to be fruitful for your children. This is sometimes the hardest part because you never know how well of a job you did until it’s too late. This on the other hand means that you be confident in your parenting skills and be able to foresee how is that going to reflect on your children.

There’s one thing you can do and that is to do thorough research and find the most comfortable parenting style for you. You can also change according to a situation be flexible but make sure to be consistent in your efforts. Here are some things that may come as difficult when you’re parenting:

Being afraid to say no

One famous pediatrician said that every child needs a healthy dose of vitamin N referring to parents that don’t use the word “no” often enough. Children do best when there are firm boundaries set and when they know what the consequences of their actions are. A parent who is not afraid to set those boundaries and say no when it’s needed is going to be more successful than a permissive parent. This will produce more conscious children who appreciate experiences and feel grateful.

Balancing work and family life

Today parents have a huge responsibility because the working hours are now longer and parents often spend less quality time with their families. This on the other hand means that the relationships are not built properly and parents overcompensate for their absence. It is very hard to find time to spend with your children when parents are spending more and more time on work. This delicate balance has to be achieved to produce healthy and happy future generations. Always prioritize quality over quantity of time spent together.

Overwhelming information

We have access to too much information today than let’s say 100 years ago. This can be a good thing if you choose carefully your sources of information. This can also be a bad thing because too much information from wrong sources can produce uncertain parents. Too much reading and not relying on your common sense and instincts can result in various problems.

Do parents influence their child’s behavior?

Yes, parents influence their children’s behavior as a natural consequence of being present and a role model for their children. Parents in many ways form the personality of their children with their behavior and parenting techniques. This is putting a lot of pressure on new parents and many studies have shown that parent’s perception changes the perception of children.[4]

Considering that the parents provide first social contact for children this means that the parents are mostly responsible and very influential on their children. Every child tries to copy the parents in their behavior and you can use this fact as a good base for encouraging good behavior in your children. Since they act like little mirrors it’s easy to see how we as parents are responsible for the reflection. Parents should provide a safe harbor but also strict boundaries to ensure the children are both nourished and well behaved.

Owning the fact that you are the responsible one makes it easier to see your mistakes and find efficient ways to correct them. It’s up to parents to predict if some behavior is just a phase or is it going to be problematic in the long run. Since all the children are born as individuals parents have to be flexible and accommodate parenting style to every child in particular. Some children are more easy-going and some are more stubborn thus parents have to adjust their parenting skills every day.

What are the signs of bad parenting?

Now when we know that parents are the responsible ones we can work on changing our attitudes and the growing with our children. Although “bad parenting” is a phrase we don’t use often, sometimes we need a bit of reminder for both good and not so good behaviors.

If we skip all the outrage of wrong parenting like neglect and abuse, which are present but too extreme for our topic today, we can concentrate on more palpable situations we see every day. How do you know if you are doing a good or bad job as a parent when the consequences are not yet visible?

Involvement

Parents are a big part of children’s lives and as such, they are involved in everyday activities, no matter how big or small they are. Some parents are too much involved and acting as “helicopters” monitoring every move and not allowing children to grow and be independent. The other side of parenting can go to too little involvement, where children are left to take care of themselves and border-line neglected. There should be a healthy balance, like with everything else in life. Parents should be involved just enough to provide a safe and nourishing environment, but not too much to prevent learning and separating.[5]

Discipline

Once again we should strive to make a balance when it comes to discipline, also. Permissive parents who seek to be friends with children, and set no to little boundaries have problematic adults later, who are prone to anxiety and depression. On the other hand, children who have parents that are too strict tend to be more secretive and mischievous, because they aim to avoid punishment.

If you can manage to meet your children half-way and create a space where boundaries are set and respected, while growth and exploring are allowed you will have more success. To discipline means to teach in translation, and this will mean you have to take charge and with love set some rules that have to be obeyed. Furthermore, a good parent will stand behind every word and act on it, being at the same time patient but not permissive.

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Affection

Using affection to get results is a wrong tactic. Affection should not be used as a manipulation device, rather shown every day and on every occasion. Children are very sensitive to parent’s behavior and they can feel the slightest change, so you being angry and withholding affection can be very contra-productive. Studies show that children react to affection with affection, and when they see emotions like anger and physical violence, they are severely stressed.[6]

Unconditional love is the only right way to go, even when they are making mistakes they must know your love is not conditioned by it. The only way to teach children empathy and acceptance is by showing them that they are loved even when the conditions are not perfect. This will make them more confidant and allow them to overcome mistakes and learn from them. The absence of fear will do wonders for their developing brains, and if they know they can count on you relationships formed will be much stronger.

Shaming

Making children feel ashamed for their actions is never going to prevent bad behavior for a good reason. Shaming children, especially in front of other people will make them feel horrible and distrustful in the future. Can you imagine being ridiculed for your emotions and actions?

Since children, especially toddlers don’t have the capacity to control emotions, they often have an outburst of it in the most unexpected way and situations. Something very insignificant to you may mean the world to them and make it even worse if you, their caregiver don’t understand them.

Making children feel ashamed because they made a mistake, or because they got angry will most certainly produce life-long scars. These children grow up to be very shy and introverted, simply because they are too afraid to try new things and make mistakes.

As always, we advise you to take a step back and realize that children don’t have humor developed and don’t understand irony. Thus talking to them should be done carefully and with compassion. This way they will feel safe to share secrets and allow you to be a part of their life. They will know that you will at least try to understand and comfort them, and they will do the same for other people.

Lying

Telling the truth can be a difficult task on a daily basis when your children have thousands of questions. But remember to always come from an honest place and limit the use of “white lies”, because they are all the same to children.

Not being honest is you teaching your child that it is ok to lie, and you can expect the same treatment. This might not seem like a big deal when they are young, but later when they are teenagers and adults, you will be better off if they are telling the truth.

This doesn’t mean that you should tell them the Santa is not real, rather insist on honesty daily. This will also mean there are no empty threats, no false promises, and no bribing. Tell them like it is, in a way they can understand according to their age. This will make a stronger bond and trust between you and your family members. This will also reflect on the behavior of your children as they will follow your cue and demonstrate the same abilities.

What parents should never say to their child?

There are a few things we as parents tend to say without much thinking, repeating the things we heard as children. But sometimes those few words can mean a world of difference for our children and innocent phrases become a weapon we use on daily basis. This will become a part of their inner monologs and in many ways shape their future and relationships.

Undermining emotions

The usual phrases are:

  • “Don’t cry”
  • “Boys don’t cry”
  • “It’s nothing, you are fine”

All of these and similar variations don’t look like a big deal, but if they are repeated daily they become a part of self-talk children later develop. Trying to dismiss emotions, like they are something bad or non-existing, will not calm the child faster. They will still feel everything but they will just learn how to hide it.

Hiding emotions is not a proper and healthy way of dealing with them. The first step to improvement would be accepting the emotions and the fact that they are all fine and normal. Boys are allowed to cry, and children are permitted to get angry. They will later regulate those feelings in the right way when they develop enough skills.

Blame

Children do not choose to be born, we as parents and responsible adults choose to have them, and thus they can never be blamed for their existence. Sometimes, when we are overwhelmed and tired we can say some things that cut deep and leave scars, like:

  • “I do everything for you”
  • “It’s your fault”
  • “I told you not to do that”

These simple words make children feel like they are guilty of being there, and being responsible for your emotions. For someone who still doesn’t understand their own emotions, it can be a big burden to worry about yours too.

Simply try to be more patient with yourself and your children. Learn how to control your words and try not to react right away. This way it’s far less likely you will make some random words into a hurtful sentence. Strive to forgive your children as mistakes are part of what makes us humans.

What parents should say to their children?

There are some words and expressions that should be a part of your daily communication to promote good relations and help your children develop into healthy and satisfied grownups. These words are not to be taken for granted as we sometimes do but rather promoted every day in the most natural and comforting way.

Here are some examples:

  • I love you
  • Thank you
  • Please
  • Sorry
  • I hear you
  • I understand you

Feeling like you are being heard and understood builds confidence and self-worth, and this is one of the main tasks every parent should focus on. Unconditional love and kind words will do wonders if you practice them daily. Your little mirrors will reflect all the positive emotions and they will continue to shine on to other people and situations.

How do you deal with a difficult child?

Now when we learned how to discover and see some traits that can be problematic, and when we acknowledged the fact that we are responsible for the future of our children, let’s see what are those exact steps that can help you on this journey. Some universal things can be applied to any parenting style and for most children, it is up to you to choose the right one for your family.

1. Be prepared

This may come as a surprise because most parents don’t really feel the need to educate themselves when it comes to parenting. But make sure to leave your pride in the closet and focus on the problem at hand. Since information is more available today than ever it can be easier to read and educate at home. This can be very helpful and teach you how to be the best teacher to your child.

2. Set boundaries

Boundaries are the ultimate tool for any successful parent who knows just how important for children limits can be. They are born to explore and test those boundaries, but it is up to you to keep them safe and at the same time educate them where that line is. Children feel safe when they know what to expect, and setting some limitations will help them navigate through life easier.

3. Attention

Children love adults and especially their parents, as you are the role model. This means that they will do almost anything to get your attention. If it is not given appropriately, they can get in trouble just to see you react. Thus, positive attention can be very beneficial when it comes to “difficult” children because they crave it even more. Make sure to spend quality time together and praise them when they are behaving well. On the other hand try not to react when they are not portraying desirable behavior, and they will soon realize that acting good means they have more of your attention.

4. Consequences

Make sure to listen to your children, because this means they will listen to you in return. When explaining something it’s wise to warn them upfront about the consequences and allow them to regulate their behavior. This way they will learn early on that certain actions produce reactions, and it is your job to make sure you are being consistent with this.

5. Consistence

As mentioned above it is not just about setting boundaries, you must make sure they are honored and act if they are not. Standing behind your word will show your children that they can count on you even if it sometimes doesn’t agree with them. Consistency is one of the most important factors in any parenting style.

Final thoughts

Parenting will always represent a certain challenge, but it can be a great opportunity to build better character and help your children in the process. Depending on the child at hand, some will be easier to manage and some will be a bit more difficult. But in either case, you can make sure to encourage good behavior and promote a better future for everyone. Be prepared and armed with patience and your children will thrive while being grateful they had you by their side.

[1] Paulhus, Delroy L., Paul D. Trapnell, and David Chen. “Birth order effects on personality and achievement within families.” Psychological Science 10.6 (1999): 482-488.

[2] Thomas, Alexander, and Stella Chess. Temperament and development. Brunner/Mazel, 1977.

[3] Lufi, Dubi, and Arie Cohen. “A scale for measuring persistence in children.” Journal of personality assessment 51.2 (1987): 178-185.

[4] Frome, Pamela M., and Jacquelynne S. Eccles. “Parents’ influence on children’s achievement-related perceptions.” Journal of personality and social psychology 74.2 (1998): 435.

[5] Pomerantz, Eva M., Elizabeth A. Moorman, and Scott D. Litwack. “The how, whom, and why of parents’ involvement in children’s academic lives: more is not always better.” Review of educational research 77.3 (2007): 373-410.

[6] Cummings, E. Mark, Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, and Marian Radke-Yarrow. “Young children’s responses to expressions of anger and affection by others in the family.” Child development (1981): 1274-1282.

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Author

Vivian Perry

Vivian Perry

Mother of 3 kids. Enjoy reading parenting books and studied child care degree. Vivian loves to learn and write about parenting tips and help her kids to grow positively with grit mindset.

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