How I’m Learning to Connect With My Challenging Child

When I first heard Dr. Karyn Purvis speak in a Focus on the Family broadcast. I was captivated as she described children with problems connecting and how she worked with them to establish healthy emotional connections. When she described the behavior she worked with it felt like she was in our home watching our child who has always pushed the boundaries. I began reading her book The Connected Child and felt like someone was throwing a lifeline to me. This has probably been one of the most influential parenting books I’ve ever read. For years I knew that one of our kids had sensory processing issues. As I read The Connected Child, it was like someone offered hope that we could work with this child. It would not be easy, but it would be possible for us to connect and have a better relationship. This book changed the way I behave and thus, changed the behavior of our children. 

Before I tell you more about the book, let me just say that when it comes to our kids, it’s vital to listen to your gut.  I tried to talk to one professional about what I was observing in this child only to have him shrug off my concerns with, “This child is just being a kid.” But I knew it was more than just being a kid. I helped raise several of my younger siblings and I was familiar with childish behavior. This child was desperately trying to connect, but not in a constructive way. I had a hunch that this was more than just being a kid. I didn’t really know where to turn, but God answered my heart’s prayer and sent this book.

I began reading The Connected Child because, honestly, I was tired of yelling and feeling frustrated and desperately wanted something that worked. Dr. Purvis shared, “The best way for you to avoid becoming a screamer or a grouchy whiner is to focus on re-do’s, which imprint correct behavior on your child’s motor memory.” This has been the most significant change in my parenting. Instead of constantly yelling, “Stop <whatever bad behavior is frustrating me>” I’ve been working to teach them how to say something correctly. “Shift your mind set so that you see misbehavior not as a headache but as an opportunity to teach a child new skills.” I have one child who is a whiner and cries almost every morning about the breakfast I have served.  The eggs are too cheesy….the eggs need more cheese….the eggs are touching my toast….the eggs are too far from my toast….etc. It’s honestly slightly maddening. When I stop focusing on how irritating the behavior is and instead direct my energies to showing empathy and teaching this child to be grateful and ask for change in a respectful way, it is amazing to see the progress we make. There are adults who moan and whine about every little thing. It’s not cute at 5 or 65, so I try to focus on helping this child become a person who is pleasant and can ask for change without being obnoxious.

Implementing do-overs has been the biggest change in my parenting and has made a huge difference in how our children respond. Instead of telling a child “stop <the behavior>” you show them how to respond appropriately.  It is similar to retraining motor memory. I’ve learned to show this child empathy and then help guide them in a way to express their needs appropriately. “Instead of crying about it could you say, ‘Mommy, I would like more cheese on my eggs, please.'” And then, once they have said it correctly I show them how I am happy to help with what they need. It is an ongoing process, but it works.

Before I read The Connected Child, I gave very little thought to the motives behind the inappropriate behavior my children displayed. I didn’t realize that children who act out are often feeling fear. Once I saw this in my own child it opened the door for me to to feel so much empathy. “Disturbing behaviors – tantrums, hiding, hyperactivity or aggressiveness – are often triggered by a child’s deep, primal fear.” When I stopped seeing this child as a borderline psychopath who was trying to make me have a nervous breakdown and instead realized how fragile and insecure and scared they felt, my heart softened and I could respond with kindness more often instead of simply reacting. Are there still times I react? Yes. I am human. This child often throws a tantrum when I’m exhausted.  Overall, though, I feel that my heart changed when I read this book. I felt so much compassion when I was finally able to see the feelings triggering the behavior.

Recently, after a long, busy day at work I was trying to get everyone to bed and this one child began continuously behaving badly – back talking, disobeying, etc. I was tired and felt increasingly irritated until my mom (who had watched them all day and said they were fine until I arrived home) suggested this child was trying to connect with me. A part of me wanted to roll my eyes. Why would I feel like connecting with someone who is being incredibly rude? But I went back into this child’s room, saw them glare at me and roll over in bed. I didn’t say anything. I laid down next to them and began asking about their day. Suddenly, everything changed. This child became animated and excited to share and talk. The bad behavior was a cry to  be noticed, to be valued, and for me to spend time with them. Was it an appropriate way to seek attention? No. But it helped when I realized what was happening. They don’t have the skill set (yet) to say, “I’ve missed you today and need to spend time with you.” We are working on that.

Sometimes, as in the above scenario, kids have a hard time verbalizing feelings. But when they do share it is important to, “Always honor and acknowledge feelings, and then if necessary show youngsters more appropriate ways to express themselves.” I frequently tell this child, “It’s ok to feel angry/frustrated, but it’s not OK to do <whatever inappropriate behavior that is occurring>.” I don’t want my kids to bottle up their feelings. They always come out later and most often in ugly ways. We try to find a way for this child to express their frustration in a constructive manner. Sometimes we’ve tried to talk through things. Sometimes I tell them it’s OK to punch a pillow. We recently created a “calm down box” (hopefully I’ll share more about that someday). The point is they are allowed to feel all the feels but not to act out in unhealthy ways.

A child may not dominate the family through tantrums, aggression, back talk, whining or any other tactic. Parents are kind, fair and consistent: they stay calm and in control.” I don’t always stay calm and in control, but that is my goal. Sometimes I fail. I have to give myself grace because I am growing too. I ask my kids to forgive me when I make mistakes. But we are teaching them they are not allowed to dominate. This child regularly challenges our authority and has expressed a desire to be the one in control. One of the most helpful things I took away from this book was to calmly look at this child and say, “I am in charge. You are not in charge.” When I say this I try not to sound like a dictator, but rather to let this child know that Mommy’s got this. Dr. Purvis explained that children need to feel secure that the grownups are in charge because “If I as a little kid can run all over you then how can you keep me safe?” This child may not initially like it, but I’ve noticed they seem more secure when we are firm with our boundaries. While I make sure this child has choices (what to eat, wear, how to use free time, etc.), I also remind them that I am the adult and I am in charge. I often remind this kid that “you are in charge of yourself and your behavior.” Recently this kid asked why parents get to be bossy. I tried to use the analogy of a football player. Right now I am your coach. Someday, when you are grown, I will be the cheerleader, cheering you on from the sidelines. But for now, I’m your coach and I’m helping you become a better player.” It seemed to resonate.

It’s easy to become bogged down in the day-to-day of parenting. Accepting my own lack of perfection, allowing my kids to make mistakes, but celebrating the wonder that they are frees me to find joy in parenting. “Celebrate the delights that are already in front of you, and forgive yourself and your children for not being perfect. You are precious and marvelous, and so are your children. Every day, work to appreciate the innate wonder of your unique perspectives, talents and joys.”

It’s still a work in progress. Some days I yell. Sometimes I am simply exhausted and overwhelmed and still find myself exasperated that this child. Then I remember the things I’ve read in The Connected Child and it makes me slow down enough to see what is really happening behind the behavior. It helps me to focus on training instead of reacting.

What strategies are helping you in your parenting? I’d love to hear your thoughts! 


  1. Adam Clark says:

    This was good. Nice article. I have the same issues (maybe we all do?)… Another great book you might want to read is Give Them Grace by Elyse Fitzpatrick. I found it really helpful in applying a practical theology to how I parent… I mean, it’s still mostly a mess, but it was helpful. 😉

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