There's no easy way around a child who's 'difficult'

October 09, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

In Bill Watterson's comic strip "Calvin & Hobbes," Calvin, the little boy who is every mother's worst nightmare, tells his stuffed buddy Hobbes that he knows his purpose on earth.

That purpose, Calvin says, is to make everybody do what he wants.

"That about sums it up," a friend said to me. "That is a difficult child."

She is the mother of a "difficult child," or a "willful child," or a "challenging child," depending on the parenting book currently open on her night table. She has read them all, and none, she said, captured her child as crisply as that cartoon.

This 10-year-old dictates everything from the family grocery list to the family vacation. Why? "Peace at all costs," said my battle-weary friend.

He's starving when she is on the phone, not hungry when dinner is on the table. He will not give up his sweat pants in the spring or his shorts when the first frost arrives. "I don't like the way these things feel," he tells her, writhing as if his skin were on fire.

He doesn't want to do his homework now. He doesn't want to take a bath now. If it is Sunday, he doesn't want to go to church. "He's on an eight-hour delay," his father says.

If it is time for soccer, he doesn't want to practice. "What's the point?" he says. "We're going to lose." He's Mr. Negative.

Each morning he asks: "What is our plan for today?" And if it changes, he explodes in anger.

He badgers her constantly, renegotiating his punishments, the house rules, even dinner reservations.

"He is relentless. He never gives in. He never backs down," she says.

She is defeated, depressed, and her confidence in her parenting skills is shot. Her discipline is all up and down the scale. She is dizzy from her flights to anger and remorse and back again.

His father is baffled, she told me. He sees none of his easygoing self in the child. He is angry that she cannot keep the family peace. Every night, he comes home to the remains of a new battle -- a fresh set of tears to wipe. Two warring parties fuming at opposite ends of his house.

His sister is practicing to be the perfect child. She sees what happens when you are not.

He is not a bad seed. He is wonderful in school, a loyal friend and a delight around other parents. So insightful that his mother thinks he can see into the hearts of others. But their family life has always been a tangle of emotions, and now he is getting a very smart mouth.

"I have read all the books and tried all the management techniques -- the charts, the stickers," she says. "I have canceled everything in his life but Christmas. I have told him he is grounded until his senior prom. He never backs down, and nothing ever changes.

"I know I need to be 'consistent.' That's what all the books say. I need to follow through. But I can't take the battles. Then I start thinking about what he will be like when he has a set of car keys, and I panic and think I can never give in to him again."

She talks to every friend she has, hoping one will say something that will open a door to the solution: a new attitude she can take with him that will calm the storms between them. Finally, one does.

"She told me I have to look at consistency and control in a new way."

The rules don't change -- that is the consistency, her friend told her. You may fight about homework and back talk tonight, but tomorrow the same rules will be in place. You have to believe that he is internalizing these rules, even if all he does is resist them and try to renegotiate them.

Be consistent about fewer things, she said. Pick a few battles you have to win, walk away from the rest.

And you have to think of him the way you thought of him when he was 2, her friend told her. You can't control him any more now than you could then, but you did not blame him then and you are blaming him now.

It is his temperament. It is the way he came. It is the way he is wired. He is not doing these things to punish you or to drive you crazy. And, more important, he is not doing them because of your lousy parenting. He is the way he is.

"And she taught me a new way to look at consistency. That I have to make it clear to him that every tomorrow will be a new day, a new chance for success, a starting over. That the anger of the day before disappears in the night.

"She told me that I have to love him again every morning.

;/ "I can do that," she says. "I can do that."

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