Nature or nurture; born or made?

Call them challenging, difficult, spirited, or strong-willed. I’m often asked how a challenging child happens. Nature or nurture; born or made?


I think the answer is mostly born, sometimes made. Honestly, it is probably some of both. The best evidence I have that they are born is a family of several children with 1 challenging child. You have the same parents using the same parenting techniques and you get 1 child who pushes the boundaries.


I believe that humans come pre-wired. We can adjust and fine-tune the wiring, but essentially we are born with many of our traits established. These kids come here with more intensity, sensitivity, and creativity. All can be managed, expanded, or minimized.


If you are the parent of a hard child, you have additional responsibility and additional rewards. In addition to all the usual parenting tasks, you get the extra work of helping your child manage strong and difficult emotions. It may be tough to realize the rewards some days, but they are real.


Keeping yourself mentally and emotionally fit is critical to being a successful parent.


You can’t help your child if you are on edge. I know it is hard. Raising a challenging child is exhausting. You feel as if you are never “off.” It requires diligence 24/7.


I urge you to make connections with other parents who have difficult kids. The understanding of a parent who faces similar struggles is invaluable. They will relate in a way that other parents of “normal” children just will not. They understand you are not a bad parent and more importantly, you don’t have a bad child. Having another parent who can trade “off” time can offer a short but desperately needed respite.


Be kind to yourself and be kind to others. Look, I know it’s hard. You are on the receiving end of judgment, gossip and condemnation. Try to remember that these people just do not understand the struggles with your child. They are viewing you and your child through their own limited experience. Try to extend a little grace to them although they may not offer you that same grace.


My parents believed in strong discipline. They were not overly strict but there were clear rules for behavior that were established and enforced. I would hear my mother comment upon seeing a misbehaving child in a public place that the parent needed to take that child out to the car and “burn their legs up.” My parents spanked and believed it to be a part of effective discipline for young children. They believed trying to reason with a young child is impossible, and I happen to agree with that even today.


After many years of watching my struggles with our son, my Mom’s view has softened dramatically. She now tells me that when she sees a parent struggling with an out of control child, she prays for them. Her grandson taught her to see the situation very differently. She is quick to feel compassion and slow to be critical. What a beautiful transition.


Take charge and be confident.



If you still believe reasoning with and explaining your position to a difficult child is effective, I urge you to reconsider. What they need is calm leadership and an understanding of your authority. You have to be in charge. Your job is to let them know you set the terms of the relationship, not them.


Calmly and clearly state your expectation. You don’t owe them an explanation and only confuse matters when you do explain. If you establish your authority when they are young, you will lay the foundation for successful behavior management for years to come.


I’m not a therapist or a parenting expert. My advice is worth exactly what you are paying for it; zero. I do, however, have the benefit of experience and wish I had done many things differently and better.


So again, are challenging children born or made? I fall on the side of born. Try to manage your emotions and expectations so you don’t contribute to escalating their difficult traits. But rest assured that you did not make your child a challenge, nature did.


In the end, does it matter how you got a challenging child? What matters is that you have one.
You have a test, and you have a gift. You have been entrusted with a human who has amazing potential. Take a deep breath. You will be given the strength you need to do this. You will gain the skills you need. I promise you can do this and do it well. Hang on!

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