Parenting Challenging Children

By Elizabeth Abbruzza, MA, LMHC, CCPS-C

Why is it so difficult to parent a challenging child?

Why do some children have maladaptive coping skills such as self-harm?

Why do some children act out in verbal or physical aggression?

Parenting a child with challenging behaviors is overwhelming, exhausting, scary and can leave you feeling hopeless. It may seem like no medication, diagnosis, punishment or therapy will ever ease the explosive outbursts.

The good news is that these children are not inherently manipulative or unmotivated and their parents are not absent or passive. Placing blame on the child or their parents for these behaviors is misplaced and unhelpful.

Many believe that children are challenging or defiant because they are choosing to be or because they make poor choices which prevent them from reaching their full potential. As a Child and Family Therapist, I have learned that children don’t choose to ‘be bad’ or to ‘do bad things’ but rather they are lacking the skills to be successful. I believe that children do well if they can and if they are not doing well, they have not yet mastered the skills necessary to meet the expectations being placed upon them.

What if instead of focusing on a child’s ‘problem behaviors’ we focus on what the child is attempting to achieve with their self-harm or aggression? What if yelling, swearing, hitting, crying or withdrawing is their way of telling us that they are having difficulty meeting our expectations? What is missing from their skill set that we can help them develop?

Often the skills they need include flexibility, adaptive responding, distress tolerance and problem solving. Instead of being reactionary to these behaviors it is important to respond from a preventative and nontraditional parenting lens.

According to Dr. Ross Greene, Collaborative Problem Solving or Collaborative and Proactive Solutions is the most effective way to support parenting children with these challenging behaviors. This approach encourages adults to include children in the problem-solving process that so greatly impacts their lives, encouraging a collaborative partnership between parents and their children (Greene, 2014).

Rather than focusing on psychopathology or behavior modification, this non-punitive and trauma informed approach decreases conflicts, improves communication and strengthens relationships. It is amazing what can happen when we lean into empathy and embrace the mindset, all children do well if they can!



Greene, R. W. (2014). The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children. New York: Harper.


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