How to Strengthen the Bond With Your Difficult Child - Baby Chick
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How to Strengthen the Bond With Your Difficult Child

Having a difficult child is challenging. As a parent, it can be hard to bond with them. But there is hope. Here are some tips that can help.

Updated April 25, 2024

by Kristen v.H. Middleton

Medically reviewed by Rachel Tomlinson

Registered Psychologist

Do you ever feel yourself on the edge of despair after having had yet another argument with your child? You asked her to do something simple like put on her coat (and you’re already running late). But your request resulted in a screaming tantrum, toys breaking, yelling, crying, and an all-out battle scene. Worse yet, you feel terrible about how you dealt with it. You may have a difficult child on your hands. But don’t lose hope. Sometimes, the most beautiful relationships are born out of struggle.

Tips for Strengthening the Bond With Your Difficult Child

There are many ways to strengthen the bond with your difficult child. For a moment, let’s consider what the term “difficult child” actually means. We sometimes find that conflict is often present with a particular person. This experience may be temporary. But it can also be challenging, exhausting, and even cause us to feel despair. This is true among family members and our relationships with our children.

It’s essential first to figure out what you mean when considering the term “difficult child.” This is likely to differ between people, but we generally refer to an individual’s character traits (in this case, our child) and their unique abilities and strengths, including empathy and reactivity. This refers to their capability of seeing things from another’s perspective, using that information in their social interactions and responses, and how strongly or intensely they respond to things or people in their world. Each parent will also be triggered by certain types of behaviors or attitudes presented by their child, and as such, the term “difficult” is as unique as our children.1

So, let’s look at some helpful techniques and solutions that may strengthen the bond between parents and their children.

1. Try to Understand the Root Cause

The first step in strengthening the bond with your difficult child is understanding the circumstances and causes of their behavior. Numerous things can influence your child’s challenging behavior. It could be their age and the boundaries they are testing as per normal childhood development. Or perhaps circumstances in the home or at school. Maybe even physical or mental health, developmental delays, social-emotional growth spurts, or a clash in personality with your own.

Whatever your circumstances, admitting that you and your child are struggling is a powerful and positive first step. You can take heart knowing that solutions do exist.

2. Notice What Triggers You and How You React

Believe it or not, this may be the hardest step of all. At times, it can be easier to look at the mistakes or difficulties of another person than to look at our trigger points and how we respond. What actions or behavior is your little one repeatedly doing that causes you to feel frustration, confusion, or despair? You may want to write this in a journal, keep a running list, or speak to another trusted individual about your feelings. It’s also vital that you find ways to cope with the behaviors you note (or times of day, your triggers, or challenges that make it harder to parent with intention) are particularly challenging, which might include taking calm breaths, talking it out with someone, removing yourself or taking a brief time out, or demonstrating to your child your coping strategies as you manage a big emotion.

Try not to be too hard on yourself as you uncover your feelings. Understanding and having compassion for your own experience is an excellent place to begin building a stronger bond with your child. Be sure to have these intimate conversations separate from and out of earshot of your child.

3. Tune Into Your Child’s Specific Needs

Once you’ve addressed your feelings and begun taking care of yourself, tune into your child’s emotions. This means actively working on being present at the moment with them. For example, imagine that your kiddo defies your instructions or a request you’ve made. You’ve asked your son to put on his shoes, but he runs away laughing or starts throwing toys around. Take some deep breaths. Then, try getting down on his level and examining what is happening to him.

Do you notice a pattern? What seems to be occurring here? Why are they feeling the way they are feeling? You can even ask him these questions in a kind and calm manner. It’s okay not to have all the answers. But trying to tune into your child can help you better understand what their specific needs are. This also helps your child to realize that you care about their struggle.

4. Slow down and Make Eye Contact

Supportive research suggests that making eye contact is a positive and important aspect of strengthening any human bond, particularly with adults and children.2 Taking the time to connect with your child and maintain a few seconds of positive eye contact can have happy ripple effects in your relationship. A child feels nurtured when you look at them with love in your eyes.

In the same way, if your child is a hugger or likes physical touch, make a point to snuggle with them at some point during your day. According to scientific studies, children who receive regular positive physical touch are physically and mentally healthier than those who do not.3 You may need to put your phone away (or anything that distracts you) to make these moments special and impactful together.

5. Use a Positive Tone of Voice

The tone of voice we use as parents and caregivers is essential. Children absorb our words, and more importantly, they absorb feelings from your tone of voice. Try to become more aware of how you speak to your little one. When your voice is full of contempt, this has a damaging effect on their self-esteem over time.4

If you are angry and your tone sounds critical or negative, gently guide your voice back to a neutral sound. Ideally, you want to use encouraging, uplifting, calm, and loving tones of voice with your child, even when they misbehave. When you yell at your child, this can further impair your ability to connect. But if you speak to them softly and encouragingly, this can strengthen your bond immeasurably. It’s never too late to start talking to your child more kindly.

6. Emphasize Your Child’s Strengths

Things between you and your difficult child may have escalated to a point where you expect bad behavior from them. While it’s important to acknowledge and work with your child on improving their difficult behavior, write down a list of your child’s strengths. What are they good at? Are there hobbies, games, or activities they enjoy or excel at? What kind of toys do they like playing with? What sorts of positive behaviors have you observed them engaging in? Once you’ve identified these, make a point to increase those activities and verbally encourage and praise your child’s strengths. Receiving this kind of positive feedback is enormously important in helping build your child’s self-esteem. It also encourages more positive actions from them and increases the strength of your relationship with them.5

7. Bond Through Creative, Affirming Activities

You can strengthen your bond with your child by playing with them or participating in fun activities that bring them joy. Enroll in a program together once you’ve identified some types of play, sport, or creative activity that bring your little one pleasure. For example, if your kiddo thrives in a pool or splashes in a bathtub, sign him up for swim lessons together. Sign up for a parent-child art class if your daughter or son seems drawn to painting, coloring, or getting their hands dirty. Is singing, music, or talking her thing? Perhaps a music class together is where it’s at for you two. Spend affirming time together by doing something that makes your little one smile. They will be thrilled to have you there by their side.

8. Get Support Outside of Your Family

Don’t fall into the trap of feeling like you must raise your children alone. Allow yourself to become vulnerable with people who feel safe. Don’t isolate yourself from people who can help you and your child. There are so many people out there who want to help you and your child flourish and who have the compassion and skills needed to strengthen your bond.

Professional behavioral therapists are excellent teammates who can help you strengthen your bond with your child. They may be able to guide you through exercises and techniques for turning challenging behavior around. You can also find support by joining a fun class, seeking out teachers as mentors, or engaging with other children and parents in a group setting. Joining a parent-child group can provide new friendships, advice, support, and encouragement to get through the tough times together and remind you that you are not alone.

These suggestions are opportunities for growth and positive change, which will result in more love between you two and a strengthened bond over time.

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Kristen v.H. Middleton is a Clinical Psychologist in training (PsyD), a Yale University graduate, former school teacher and administrator, turned stay-at-home mom. She lives with her husband and children in… Read more

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