Staying Sane with a Challenging Child

In Staying Home and Staying Sane, I gave parents strategies being stay-at-home parents. Readers asked me to expand the post to include tips when a child is especially active, social, or has other needs.

It’s hard to generalize, so I chose to focus on children who are very active, “oppositional,” or aggressive.

When children are challenging, all the tips I mentioned in the original post are even more relevant. Finding a support group, making time for yourself, gauging your moods, and involving your partner are critical, especially for immigrants without much family.

Here are other ideas that may help:

  • Keep the environment suitable for the child. If the child is very active, put your breakables out of reach. There are other ways to teach him self-control as he grows. These kids may need to spend a lot of time outside.
  • Stay away from people who give unhelpful advice, criticism, or blame you for the problem. Get together with like-minded parents frequently or at least stay in touch by phone.
  • Get help in dealing with your specific child’s issues. In some situations you’ll want to determine whether the child’s behavior is within the normal range. “Experts” can be wrong so don’t discount your instincts.

Parents are often advised to send children to gan (preschool/kindergarten) to fix any kind of problem. Gan is supposed to make life easier for the parent, while the child enjoys increased stimulation, friends, and a more structured environment.

The problem is that many children, even if they appear extremely active, curious, and social, are not ready to be away from their parents for so long.  (A standard Israeli gan lasts a minimum of 5 hours a day, six days a week.) Some children aged one to three or even four who eagerly seek out new children and new activities look like they are ready, but they are still counting on the fact that their mother is available nearby.

Parents aren’t perfect and it’s tempting to think that a trained teacher can do a better job. But parents  know their children best and they are more sensitive to their triggers, whether fear, frustration, or jealousy. And as much as we don’t want to admit it, sometimes harsh methods are used with “difficult” children in preschools.

Often the gan will not tell parents the whole truth about what is happening, because they are afraid they will be blamed, or that parents will pull the child out. Or they believe that the parents don’t want to know, which is often true.

So consider carefully before putting a young child with behavior challenges into a group setting. Some children will adjust easily and thrive, while others would be better off waiting a year or two.


Dealing with Challenging Children

Questions to Ask When Choosing a School

Is Preschool Necessary?

Stepping Off Your Teen’s Emotional Roller Coaster


  1. GREAT tips. As a parent, it’s important to develop a thick skin, but doing so can be isolating, so watch out for this pitfall.

    Keep things in perspective. It helps to talk to parents of similar children who are now grown. Your focus should be on raising the child to be a happy, functioning adult. Many adults who are just fine today were extremely challenging children.

    Although the child’s behavior may not be where it should be, take note of PROGRESS more than just worrying about today’s behavior. If there has been noticeable progress in the past year, that should be encouraging. When progress stops for too long of a period, it may be time to consider other therapies or educational options.

    Be prepared to spend money, and not just on therapy. This year, 2 of my boys have part time shadows in day camp. In the past we have tried to do without a shadow, but the camp environment is less structured than school and a shadow is more necessary. Not only does having a shadow give me peace of mind, but my kids will hopefully have a better camp experience.

    And be aware that studies show that many, if not most, children with ADHD outgrow it. My kids’ neurologist has told us that certainly by age 14, there will be A LOT of improvement. (Seems a long time to wait, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel).

    Focus on the good in your child whenever possible. If he’s cute and funny, enjoy it privately, even if he sometimes says inappropriate things. If he’s got a talent like art or music, develop it. Remember that the kid may have a self-esteem problem, so encourage him to see his own talents also.

  2. Permit me to add my (rather long, apologies) 2 cents worth to this discussion, even though my “challenging” child is now an adult. Our son, after a normal babyhood, began to regress at around 18 months; we’ve never found out the reason why. Every word he knew, every physical action he could do like stand or sit, he “forgot”. At first I was extremely frustrated, thinking he was just a naughty boy, but it began to dawn on me that this wasn’t normal, especially since I had 2 older children to compare his progress to. He was going 3 times a week to a playgroup at that time, and the playgroup teacher was too scared to tell me that something wasn’t quite right (like MII mentions that staff are afraid of being blamed by the parents) so she told my brother who passed on the message. Of course I didn’t blame her; her suspicions just confirmed my own.

    This was over 20 years ago and the field of child development was pretty new then, so we began a run-around at numerous hospitals and clinics until we found the people who would help us – the Child Development Center in the Sharon Hospital which has since moved to Schneider Hospital.

    Our son was diagnosed with ADHD and a delay in development. He had almost no communication skills, to the extent that at first he was diagnosed as autistic. Since the docs said they had no idea what the cause was, despite extensive testing, it was decided to treat the symptoms. He received occupational therapy, physiotherapy and most importantly, intensive speech therapy. At age 3 he was sent to a special ed gan specializing in communication problems. He received, along with other therapies, speech therapy every single day. Unbelievably (to me at the time) the ganenet declared him “a mild case” and “you’ll see, one day you’ll wish he’d be quiet”. And the day came 🙂

    He progressed rapidly from there to an integrated class (kita meshulevet) in 1st and 2nd grades, and from there on he was mainstreamed.

    He went on to yeshiva high school, did full bagrut, and has now completed 3 years in Field Intelligence in the IDF paratroops.

    The things that kept me sane through the “dark years” were a very supportive family, friends to whom I could vent day or night, and as Tesyaa said, watching for the positive signs and progress and taking heart from those. The special ed ganenet noted that those children with positive-outlook parents did much better than those with pessimistic parents.

    As to the ADHD, our son took Ritalin from age 3 till 14, at which time he declared himself “cured”, and with the doctor’s approval he stopped. He still has some difficulty concentrating for long periods but he succeeds when he is motivated (just like all of us, really).

    My advice to any parent in such a situation would be:

    a) Follow your instincts. If you think something is wrong, it usually is.
    b) Find doctors and therapists who are on your wavelength, otherwise you are in for a frustrating time.
    c) Don’t worry about the “stigma” of special education. It does absolute wonders and certainly saved my son.
    d) If you need to talk about your child, talk! Even to people who are not in your situation. A sympathetic ear can make the difference between depression and being able to cope.
    e) As MII recommends, don’t take your child to places where he or you will feel uncomfortable or stressed if you don’t need to.
    f) The special ed ganenet highly recommended keeping our son in as normative a society as possible. For example she recommended that he should go to a kaytana with children 2-3 years younger than him, rather than the kaytana in the special ed gan with his own age-group, so that he should spend the maximum time with “normal” children in order to learn to socialize normally. She was very insistent on the aspect of “socialization”, over and above other skills. Looking back and looking at my son now, I agree with her completely.

    Sorry for the length of this comment. If anyone wants to contact me about this, Mom in Israel has my email address.

  3. Annie, thank you for bringing up the point that I wanted to make.

    MII, you seem to be encouraging parents of special needs children not to send them to gan and I think that would be a big mistake in this particular case, since they would miss out on so much of the vital services and early internvention therapies that can make or break a child’s life. When my daughter’s metapelet’s son was diagnosed with autism at age 3, he was immediately (within a week) placed in a special needs gan that provided intensive speech and occupational therapies, much more than a mother can provide at home or in short sessions with a private therapist.

    I think even children with less severe problems, like ADHD or sensory issues, benefit greatly from the services and therapies provided in special needs gans. I think the child loses out more by being kept home because he’s not “ready” then if he went and had to go through a short difficult transition period.

  4. I just want to clarify an educational point. Although I have shadows for my kids in camp (because camp is unstructured and the staff is basically all teenagers), I’m not a big proponent of shadows as a way to make an inappropriate educational setting work. I’m more in favor of finding the right educational setting, where the need for a special shadow can be minimized or eliminated.

  5. mominisrael says

    Abbi, if a parent suspects the child has a serious problem, the child should be evaluated and get treatment in whatever setting is required. I wasn’t trying to say that parents can always do better than professionals–of course they can’t. I’m not opposed to special ed and wasn’t recommending keeping kids out of special ed kindergartens.

  6. You make very valuable points. I agree with you in that parents know their kids better than any teacher or expert ever will. To make a suitable environment for the child will keep parents and kid sane. Staying away from unhelpful advice is also a very good advice. If the parents are not so stressed, then they will be able to concentrate on dealing with the specific problem they have at hand, and it may not even be a problem after all. Thanks, I enjoyed reading your article.

  7. Great post and great comments.

  8. I agree with all of Abbi’s comments too, and have to say that sometimes the RIGHT group setting can work miracles where a parent can’t.

    I also want to put in a good word on behalf of the gananot – not all are afraid to tell the parents. Some do speak up and are responsible for getting a child the help they need. In our case, my daughter’s behavior in gan (private gan, in this case at about age 3, not kg) was completely different from what we were seeing at home. So much so that the experts were shocked when they came to observe and saw what was basically two different children.

    We would never have known to get Maya the help she needed without a ganenet who dared speak up, and I am grateful that she did each and every day.

    M just spent a year in a gan sfati where she made such incredible progress that she is being mainstreamed into the regular system for kindergarten next year. She is spending the summer in several different structured programs because that is what is better for her – to have that structure, that peer interaction and social modeling, and that stimulation. Staying home longer can be the right choice for many children, but equally it can also be the wrong choice. As parents, we know our children best and it is our responsibility to get them what they need, whichever form that takes.

  9. Good post. I have a now 9-year old grandson with Down Syndrome. It was not diagnosed until his “two-week-well-baby” checkup. We were in shock, although we had known there was something wrong, because he was not developing and responding as would a normal baby.

    My daughter & son-in-law have been the most wonderful, loving, proactive parents I have seen: they (after the initial shock and depression)rallied, contacted Down Syndrome organizations in their area, sought professional help and advice, became very active in their D.S. group and were actually recognized several years ago and received an award for their excellent volunteerism.

    My grandson has had physical, occupational and other therapies and academic tutoring weekly from a very young age, and is now mainstreamed in a wonderful school which has experience with D.S. and other special needs children.

    This summer he is in the YMCA day camp in their area, and enjoying it tremendously.

    We just returned from two weeks caring for all three of our grankids, and he was not the difficult child!

    In one and a half weeks he is flying with his aunt (our middle daughter) to spend a week with us in our city, where he has not been since age 4.
    All in all, I love my grandson and am very proud of my daughter and son-in-law, and happy that they chose to raise this wonderful child with love and action.

  10. Annie, your comments were excellent!

    My “challenging” kids are way beyond gan (the one in gan is probably waiting for later to expose HER problems!:-)

    My ADHHHD kid is 9, that age 14 possible light at end of tunnel point is great to hear.

    BTW, problems posting to your cooking manager blog..

    • mominisrael says

      Gidon, let’s hope your gan age child will have “normal” issues.
      Regarding CM, I have gotten comments as usual today. First-time commenters are moderated, but I didn’t get any notification. What error message did you get? You can email me at mominisrael at gmail dot com.

  11. Forgot to mention in my previous comment: my youngest daughter always had problems in school; even when I taught her in 2nd grade, she was incorrigible (I had to throw her out of class once or twice). What was never diagnosed in the States was her ADHD. I even had listened to the erroneous advice of a ‘professional’ (her kindergarten teacher)to let my daughter move up to 1st grade, although I had serious misgivings. I was right. Years later, she repeated 7th grade (her own decision; she had failed only 1 course, and could have studied it over the summer).
    Do you know where her ADHD was diagnosed? In Israel, when she was in high school! On Ritalin she was able to focus, and did not stay on it for long; now, she is blossoming in the IDF, of all places (combat engineering, Officer Training)! One can succeed in life with ADHD!

  12. mominisrael says

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience with your daughter. I had the opposite; an expert incorrectly told us that our child had “classic” symptoms and while we didn’t accept it, it sent us in the wrong direction for a long time.


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