Raising Strong-Willed Children – Mel O’Shaughnessy
Raising Strong-Willed Children
Before I start I thought I’d give you a brief overview of my parenting experience. As the saying goes, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”.
My husband and I have three children. As I write this Emma is almost 16, Jordan is 14 and Nathan is 10. I’ll be honest – we are currently in a pretty good space, enjoying the teenage years and our older family. But it hasn’t always been like this and I definitely have not always felt this way.
I remember the early years like they were yesterday. Honestly, they were hard! My husband was starting his own business which meant long hours and I had three children 5 and under. I was definitely no Instagram mum. In fact, if I’m honest, I felt completely stuck in a life I didn’t sign up for. Let me explain further…
My middle son, Jordan, has ADHD. When he was younger there wasn’t the same information about ADHD as there is now, so all I knew was that it was a diagnosis for children who are hyperactive – and that wasn’t really Jordan. On the one hand he was particularly sweet and kind hearted, but on the other hand he was extremely strong willed and difficult (and I mean REALLY difficult). I spent many years in meetings with his teachers discussing his behaviour – His inability to concentrate. His need to assert his authority. His apparent disregard for others. But they all said the same thing: He wasn’t a bad kid. In fact, he was pretty cool. Something just wasn’t adding up.
To cut a long story short I found myself at Starship Hospital with not only a diagnosis, but a better understanding of ADHD. It had come to the point where picking Jordan up from school was heartbreaking. In his mind he had spent the whole day fighting the world and he carried his anger home; to his safe place. He was the kid who made friendships that didn’t last long and didn’t get invited to birthdays. He struggled to control his anger and frustration, which was having a significant impact on our family. It was utterly heartbreaking to watch this incredible kid struggle and I could see him slowly disappear before my eyes. His self-esteem was taking a huge hit and while he was losing his light, I felt like I was losing him.
And so I made one of the hardest decisions of my life. I decided to put Jordan on Ritalin. Why was this so hard? Because I was well and truly aware of the stigma that came with being on this medication and the potential side effects, not to mention the many well meaning people with all kinds of advice against my decision. At this point I had to go with my gut. Worst case scenario we could always take him off it, but we had to try something – anything! (Please know I spent a lot of time talking with specialists, researching the pros and cons, and praying. Fortunately for us, we saw an immediate change in his behaviour with little to no side effects. He was still eating and sleeping well, and he was still growing within the normal guidelines).
Let me be clear that this was no quick fix. Jordan’s medication enabled us to work with him, teaching him the tools he needed to manage himself – but the road was still long. Raising strong willed children is not for the faint hearted, but here are a few points that helped me along the way:
Point One – Dealing with the Practical
Understanding the strategies
Truth be told, I didn’t (and couldn’t) do this without help. There were many weeks my Gran stayed with us, offering encouragement and support. She helped me stay strong when all I wanted to do was give up and give in. She gave me some tools and strategies that assisted me in behaviour management and discipline and she stood beside me while I put them into action. There were many (many) tears and a lot of heart ache. I felt like the biggest failure as a mum and had no idea what to do.
One thing I found truly exhausting was that I didn’t have the luxury of ‘an off day’ when it came to behaviour management and Jordan. One day of relaxed boundaries could mean a week (if not longer) of reinforcing rules and expectations – and when I say reinforcing, I mean hours upon hours of tantrums, yelling and blatant defiance (for the sake of honouring Jordan, who has kindly allowed me to share this with you, I have refrained from going into details). Needless to say, it was no walk in the park.
If you’re struggling with a strong willed child (with or without ADHD) here’s a few things that helped me out:
No means, “No!”
Jordan may have fought the boundaries, but he was the most confident and secure having firm boundaries in place. Being a strong willed child meant he needed me to be even stronger in my will (not forcefully, but with loving authority). Jordan needed my no to be no at ALL times. In the early years this often meant hours upon hours of reinforcing boundaries and applying loving discipline. It was exhausting for me, but it was just as exhausting for him. Honestly, he needed me to win the battle.
Don’t stress the small stuff
By this, I mean choosing your battles wisely because once you start there’s no turning back. With the other two I was able to determine my battles based on daily factors, including how I felt at the time. With Jordan I had to pick my battles based on what was really important. This included the way he spoke to me, his behaviour toward his siblings (particularly his younger brother) and his ability to manage his anger.
This may seem utterly ridiculous, but I’m totally serious. I had to put my own tools in place to control my anger and frustration. It was okay to use a firm voice, but my yelling would only escalate the situation. In these times I had to breathe. I also had to tell myself, “You can do this!” I had to become my biggest cheerleader.
This allowed me to manage the situations rather than the situations managing me.
This also communicated to Jordan that I was in control, and coincidently, that’s exactly what he needed. Go figure!
Point Two – Dealing with the Mind
Understanding the superhero
There are a lot of words thrown around with ADHD such as, ‘hyperactivity’, ‘impulsiveness’, ‘attention difficulty’ and ‘troubled relationships’. Then there’s the medical terminology like, ‘frontal cortex’, ‘lambic system’, ‘basal ganglia’ and ‘reticular activating system’ (these are the four function regions of the brain impaired by ADHD). What the heck??? Now I’m no doctor but I’m going to try really hard to give an accurate account of what all this means in layman’s terms.
To begin with, we sat down with a specialist recently; one we had never heard before. Before hearing our story he shared with us what we might expect from a kid with ADHD (and hyperactivity was only a small part of it). As my husband and I sat with Jordan, our specialist proceeded to share his understanding, talking about ‘someone’ as if he was talking about our kid. I swear, it was if he had known Jordan for years the way he was communicating what we may or may not observe in his behaviour.
What we got out of this meeting is that our boy is a superhero. Why? Because all the things we take for granted require Jordan (and anyone with ADHD) to work overtime. It’s a little like an athlete who is in a long distance race. At some point he has to stop; he can’t keep running forever. Managing his behaviour and impulses requires a huge amount of energy and applying processes that may be natural for you and I. His frontal lobe, for example, is where he filters his emotions and communication system. It’s where his brain tells him that his immediate thoughts may not be appropriate and filters it into something that is more appropriate. Because Jordan’s frontal lobe is impaired, and his filter doesn’t function as well as ours, it takes a huge amount of effort to filter and process his responses meaning he is sometimes very impulsive and seemingly unkind.
Kids with ADHD are likely to have a high sense of justice and are extremely sensitive to circumstances in which they feel they have been unfairly treated. However they don’t generally have the ability to understand the impact their own behaviour has on others and therefore their social interactions suffer. So while Jordan is extremely sensitive to situations in which he feels he is right or something is unfair, he is unable to identify that his own behaviour may be having a negative impact on those around him. He is also acutely aware of everything around him which means he struggles in a learning environment as it is difficult to focus, especially where there may be a lack of interest in the topic. The teacher talking, kids doing sport outside, someone clicking their pen etc… are the equivalent of several big screen TV’s scattered round the classroom. Jordan doesn’t have a problem processing the information as such, but he has a problem with being able to focus on what is being taught with all the ‘distractions’ that most kids aren’t aware of. Because he is not taking in all the information, he doesn’t have all the information to process and later recall, resulting in his inability to remember strategies and teaching material.
Like I said, he’s a superhero! Understanding this better helped us acknowledge this. If I’m really honest, it helped us (dare I say it) to stop using the words challenging and difficult in terms of his behaviour. This has had a significant impact on how we approach his behaviour and not only did this help us – it helped Jordan too.
Point three – Dealing with the Soul
I think I can…
One thing I noticed in this journey was that somewhere along the way I had taken on a ‘survival mentality’. The problem with this mindset is that it suggests I am a victim.
Surviving each day took all the joy out of parenting.
I forgot to count my blessings. I lost myself and my ability to laugh. I forgot to celebrate the wins and rejoice in the good days. Surviving meant exhaustion and constant battles. It meant always being on edge and feeling completely and utterly overwhelmed by it all.
When I began to examine and adjust my mindset, I moved from, “I think I can” to “I know I can”. Why? Because I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t want to merely survive parenting, I wanted to be ‘More than a Conqueror’ (Romans 8:37). This simple yet significant shift gave me confidence to be the mother my kids needed me to be. Furthermore, I found myself and discovered I was stronger, braver and more capable than I gave myself credit for.
This has thrust me into a future of endless possibilities and a lifetime of risk taking – because I don’t think I can, I know I can (or at the very least, pretend I can 😂).
Point Four – Dealing with the Spiritual
On the frontline
Parenting means standing on the frontline and going into battle on behalf of our kid(s). Like a lioness with her cub, spiritual parenting takes one heck of a roar. The reality is that this is a supernatural battle. The enemy is after our kids, seeking to destroy any hope they have of a relationship with God and living out their God ordained destiny.
Having a revelation of supernatural parenting was the turning point in my life.
It gave me peace in the storm, patience in the hard times and hope for the future.
My inner self was no longer dictated by the day to day – instead, I dictated the day to day through God.
I spoke God’s word over my motherhood journey.
I declared strength and courage over my parenting. I cried out on behalf of my kids and made it very clear that the enemy had no hold over my children. I anointed our home and anointed our children.
I re-examined my God given authority as a parent, enabled by God to trust and hope in Him.
And in doing so, God became the centre of our home. Not stubborn, difficult and challenging behaviour. Not stress and anxiety. Not exhaustion and inner heartache. God, and only God!
As the saying goes, “It won’t happen over night, but it will happen”. I read every book I could get my hand on if I thought it would give me answers, but truth be told, these four personal revelations were the most significant and life changing tools in my parenting journey.
I would like to mention that my other two children were reasonably easy going, down to earth kids. They are by no means perfect, but there have been no major parenting struggles. I share this because it is so easy to point the finger. I raised, and continue to raise, three children. They have the same parents and the same boundaries. It has taken a very long time to realise that Jordan’s behaviour was not a reflection of my parenting. Even more so, to take a breath and pat myself on the back. Am I the perfect mum? Heck no! Do I have it all together? Absolutely not! But as I write this I am reflecting on my strong willed, energetic child – and I smile. He is becoming everything I hoped he would be, and more!
For those of you who relate to my story, struggling and overwhelmed, you are not alone.
Can I encourage you today to take a moment and marvel that of all the people God could have chosen to raise your child, he chose you. This was no accident. This was and is a divine act of God.
You are strong, you are loved, and you are MORE THAN A CONQUEROR.
Much love, Mel x