A lthough there’s a long-standing tradition of blaming parents for the behavior of their children, the truth is that genes are the more common culprits. Most parents do a human job of raising their kids — sometimes arousing unbelievable reserves of patience, love, and skill, and other times behaving like animals overcome with fight-or-flight chemistry.

Yes, abusive parents do harm their children, but the vast majority of parents raising troubled children in today’s parenting-conscious world are more the victims than are their kids. Perfectly lovely, imperfect parents who are managing to raise a houseful of well-adjusted kids often find themselves overwhelmed and confused by a single child — one who is far more challenging than the others, one who just doesn’t respond to the normal interventions that seem to work just fine with everyone else.

“The other kids in the family are afraid of him — and for good reason. Whenever he enters the room, a problem comes with him. Soon someone will be screaming and he’ll be yelling that he didn’t do anything and he always gets blamed for everything. We all tiptoe around him.”

Rather than feeling self-compassion, parents drained by the difficult, perhaps aggressive behaviors of their behaviorally challenged youngster, often experience guilt.

“I know he really needs my love and attention. He’s right when he says nobody likes him! But I find it very hard to say anything nice to him. He ruins my day from the moment he wakes up. I try to find something good to say, but while I’m racking my brains, he usually does something that requires immediate intervention, so I end up correcting him instead.”

A Rose by Any Other Name

Difficult children may or may not qualify for a mental health diagnosis. Some have bipolar disorder, some have depression, some have disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, some have OCD, ADHD, or ODD, and some have nothing but your in-laws’ genes. For most of these conditions and non-conditions, there’s no pill to make the issues all go away.

Some kids function well at school despite whatever ails them at home, and while this doesn’t help the parent much, it’s better for the child to have an area of successful functioning.

“She’s an angel in school. It must be our fault she’s like this at home. But knowing this just makes me resent her more. I feel like such a failure.”

Whether or not parents know “what’s wrong” with their impossible child often makes very little difference. No two manifestations of the same disorder are identical, and understanding that the child’s issues are inborn does not fix them. Lacking a “reason,” on the other hand, while leaving parents more vulnerable to self-blame, doesn’t render the problem easier to solve. Parents aren’t magicians. They can’t just wish their child into shape, nor can they necessarily manage them into a healthier way of functioning.

Surviving the Impossible Child

Parents will always look for solutions for their child’s intense behavioral challenges. Consulting professionals, taking courses, reading and researching, sending the child for help — everything that can be done will be done. In order to survive emotionally, however, parents need to adopt a healthy mindset about themselves, their child, and their situation.

First, reduce and eliminate self-blame by keeping in mind that truly impossible children are born, not made. Children who have better genes will stop being impossible once parents adjust their strategies and interventions; impossible children, on the other hand, are resistant to good parenting.

Reduce and eliminate the need to feel consistently loving feelings toward this youngster by understanding that all children do affect the feelings of their parents. Focus instead on decreasing harmful, negative communications (such as expressions of intense displeasure during moments of utter exasperation). Change your goal from needing to “like” this child to needing not to hurt him or her.

Arrange frequent breaks for yourself and other family members so that you can maintain the energy necessary to deal with this child and so that you can protect your other kids from relentless negativity. Consider this a necessary coping strategy for raising a very challenging child.

The challenge of raising a chronically difficult child is enormous; applaud every act of restraint and every positive strategy you manage to employ. Comfort yourself with the knowledge that you have been chosen to guide this soul on the first part of its life journey and that Hashem has faith in your abilities to do this well. (Originally featured in Family First, Issue 539)