ADHD: Challenging Children. Oh, What Fun!!!

Is your family always the one at the restaurant whose little darling opens the salt shaker, spills the ketchup and trips the waiter, embarrassing you to the point that you would prefer to undergo root canal without anesthesia rather than be there? Does your tyke purposely pull out the bottom box of cereal in a supermarket display, causing you such intense embarrassment that you truly wish you could disappear? Is your precious dear always saying "NO!" to you, seemingly just to watch the color of your face change as you become increasingly enraged? Read on for some helpful information and hints.

Often, a parent contacts me frantic and exasperated. "Jill just seems to do the opposite of everything I say," or "Chris never listens. He pretends that he doesn't hear me and then does what he wants," they say. To my understanding, a "challenging" or "difficult" child is one who consistently fails to respond to or initiate an appropriately requested behavior within a few moments. While these children's behavior can indeed be difficult to deal with, it's important to keep in mind that it is the behavior and not the child, that needs to be changed. In many cases it is the parents' behavior that needs adjusting, for typically such behavioral problems arise as a result of less than ideal interactions between parent & child from an early age.

Let's take a look at what non-compliance means to different age groups. In young children (up to 10 years old), non-compliance is a way in which the child attempts to delimit interpersonal boundaries. In other words, the child is seeking to establish a sense of self as separate from those around him or her, especially the parents. What is most important is that the child perceive support for those independence-related behaviors that are appropriate. In addition, young children are testing the limits of their personal power to control their world. This is perfectly appropriate; it, too, is vital in the development of adequate self-esteem and sense of confidence.

For those older than 10 (and especially those pesky teenagers), the child begins to challenge authority, which is appropriate and further aids in the development of self identity and direction for the future. This is why teenagers may suddenly become vegetarians, become politically active, often in direct opposition to their parents' beliefs, and listen to "awful" music (unlike those of their parents who grew up listening to classical music, such as the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin). What an adolescent requires is the reassurance, often implicit, that he or she will be loved no matter what their taste in music, clothes or boyfriends. Thus, non-compliance is often related to important life-stage issues that are critical to the development of personality and self-esteem. Often what appears "difficult" is actually a child's appropriate attempts at self- expression and learning. To reiterate, what is troublesome is not the child, but his or her behavior pattern, which becomes consistent.

Unfortunately, today's overworked parents often take little notice of positive behavior and instead only react when their child misbehaves. This sends a message that in order to be heard or acknowledged, children must do something negative in order to get their parent's attention. In addition, assuming that the developmental tasks described above are taking place, the child may be getting the wrong message -- that it is not acceptable to strive for independence, to test authority, to take risks. Also common is (in my opinion) the mistaken belief that punishment works, even when a child behaves age appropriately (though to his or her parent's dislike).

There are, of course, many ways to deal with behavior that appears troublesome. Parents may use intimidation, such as saying "Boy! Are you going to get it when your mother gets home!" or "You'd better do it, or Mommy won't love you anymore." Clearly these types of responses threaten the child's sense of self-esteem and even safety, if threats of physical intimidation or abuse are used.

Another common negative type of control is the use of guilt to coerce the child to do what the parent wants. Responses such as "I stayed up until three o'clock in the morning and this is the thanks I get?" or "You're driving me to an early grave," and my personal favorite "I carried you under my heart for nine months and this is how you treat me?" Such techniques of behavioral control teach the child manipulation and how to get what they want without taking responsibility and without regard to others' feelings.

On the other hand, an assertive but positive response by his or her parent teaches the child how to take responsibility for their own wishes while respecting other people. Statements such as "I realize that you'd like to go out and play without a coat, but it's cold outside and I want you to put one on" or I know that you'd like to stay up late tonight, but we agreed last week that 8 o'clock is your bedtime" demonstrate a variety of appropriate communication skills, such as taking responsibility for your own feelings ("I" statements) as well as disagreeing with other people without being disrespectful. In general such statements imply self-worth and bolster self-esteem, even though the child may be angry at the time.

Here are some other tips to help a parent take charge positively when their child becomes "challenging:"

  • Use consequences - Consequences, positive as well as negative, should be discussed at a time when everyone is calm and be applied appropriately and immediately after your child exhibits particular behaviors.
  • Use positive statements as often as possible.
  • Use praise and encouragement as much as possible.
  • Avoid labeling, comparisons and bullying.
  • Ignore negative behavior as much as possible.
  • Deny - Just say "NO" when your child demands something unreasonable, and stick to it.
  • Demand - Insist, and say "Please DO THIS" when something of benefit to the child or others is necessary.
  • Delegate - Communicate that it's alright for your child to assume greater freedom for his or her own life, but appropriately for their age and subject to parental discretion. Teach the child that along with greater freedom, which you are prepared to give, come greater responsibilities and consequences for their actions, both positive and negative.
  • Encourage choices - Offer your child several choices, any of which is acceptable to you.
  • Be consistent - Always follow through once you have made a decision and told your child. Successful and consistent follow-through communicates to your child that you are firmly and lovingly in control, reassuring him or her.

There are many more ways in which to you can change your child's troublesome behaviors into positive ones. In more troublesome cases, parents may need to contact a Psychologist. Above all respect, love and positive regard are the most important aspects in any relationship, particularly between parent and child. Allow your "challenging" child to be himself or herself and with some guidance they won't be "challenging" at all.

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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2007, June 6). ADHD: Challenging Children. Oh, What Fun!!!, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 21 from

Last Updated: February 13, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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