Dear Rachel,

My ten-year-old son, Mendy, is never happy. Everyone in the family knows about it; he affects the mood in the whole household.

I feel terrible saying this, but the best time of year for us is summer, when Mendy goes to sleepaway camp. We all can finally breathe! Until then, everyone has to tiptoe around him, because you never know when he’s going to explode, have a complete meltdown and scream his head off. He’s a terror to live with.

As his mother, I feel confused, guilty and sad. Is this my fault? Is it because we moved too often when Mendy was little, or because I sometimes yell at him? Or did I simply give birth to a monster?

Li’l Monster’s Mom

Dear Mom,

Here’s a few things to keep in mind that may help you in raising little Mendy.

Difficult Children

Don’t blame yourself. Children can definitely be born with difficult temperaments and personalities. These children are harder to raise than the “sunny-side-up” variety, and they often provoke the worst parenting—it’s just the natural result of being impossible to deal with. As a loving parent, you may always regret your lapses in self-control or good judgment, but unless you are chronically angry and negative, you certainly can’t blame yourself for your child’s difficult persona. Genes are the primary culprit, but what can you do to help?

Draw on Spiritual Resources

First and foremost, you need to realize that G‑d chose you to nurture the development of a special neshamah, soul. You have just what this child needs in order to best develop. Moreover, Mendy’s particular challenges are just what you need in order to fulfill the potential of your own soul. Like all shidduchim (marriages), this child-parent shidduch is a match made in heaven! Although parents need to access G‑d’s support, love and guidance along the journey of raising each of their children, they sometimes forget how close G‑d is with them in the project of raising a difficult child. As it says in Psalms, G‑d is very accessible in time of need, and answers all who call out sincerely.

Draw on Professional Resources

No one has to raise a challenging child alone. Children who are particularly difficult have been studied for decades, and we now have identified many causes for their behavior and interventions that can help. We know that such children are struggling inside—they aren’t trying to hurt their families! They may be suffering from various mental-health conditions such as bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, OCD, ASD, ADHD, and so on. Each disorder gives rise to the kind of excessive negativity that so confuses parents. Professionals can offer diagnoses and treatments that can help improve cooperation, mood and overall functioning. When conditions are left untreated, they are unlikely to just disappear on their own. In fact, they may worsen over time. Moreover, the child experiences the negative consequences of his behavior on family members, teachers and peers—often with devastating effects. It’s both preventative and healing to access professional help in a timely manner.

Upgrade Skills

A child who has a difficult temperament is a special-needs child by definition. Just as parents of a deaf child need to learn new things in order to raise that child properly, you will need to acquire new strategies to raise your difficult child. Professionals, books, online resources and support groups can all point the way. Learning leads to practice: you can provide significant education, training and reinforcement for your difficult child. For instance, why does one child become violent when something doesn’t go his way, while another shrugs his shoulders and moves on? Sometimes it’s because the first one gets emotionally stuck and doesn’t know how to “self-soothe.” You can learn a variety of techniques for self-soothing, and teach them to your distraught youngster. The more you know, the more you can help Mendy rewire his brain for healthier functioning.

Take Care of Yourself

Raising a difficult child is exhausting—the child’s unpleasantness is endlessly draining. It’s important that you look after yourself. Taking breaks, having fun, and replenishing spiritual, mental, emotional and physical resources is an ongoing responsibility to yourself and your family that allows you to do the best possible job of raising your difficult youngster. People don’t usually volunteer to raise a very difficult child—unless you include signing up for the task before coming down to earth. But then again, life is like that. G‑d makes us work hard here. It can help to keep in mind that there are rewards in this world and the next for doing the best we can with our challenges, including the challenge of raising a difficult child.

Rachel