How do you deal with a difficult child?

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So your child is being difficult? You’ve tried everything but their behaviour just seems to be getting worse. You’ve banned computer games, you’ve taken away prized possessions, you’ve lectured them, you’ve shouted at them, you’ve offered rewards but still your child isn’t doing what you want. You’re at the end of your tether and you just don’t know what to do.

Sometimes just connecting with a difficult child can improve things.  So how do you connect with your child if their defiant, aggressive and uncooperative?

Instead of seeing yourself as a parent that needs to control your child’s behaviour, see yourself as person who is helping your child to manage their emotions. Shifting your mindset to see yourself as an emotion coach rather than a disciplinarian can change the dynamic.

When children are being defiant, aggressive and uncooperative, it’s probably because they’re feeling angry and unloved. You might say, ‘How can my child possibly feel unloved? I adore them.’ However, if you’re not connecting with your child, they may certainly feel misunderstood.

Mirroring your child’s emotions can help you feel connected. This means that when they’re angry, happy or sad about something, you show understanding and empathy.


Recently, my son seemed angrier and more defiant than usual. It was the end of the half-term at his new school and he was tired. I had also started a new job and was stressed. I decided I needed to spend more time connecting with him. So when he said he was angry that his friends had messed up the Minecraft Lego models that he built, instead of playing it down, I showed him that I understood his feelings. The conversation went like this:

‘Last time my friends came round, they messed up my Minecraft Lego.’

‘That’s really annoying.’

‘Yes, and they took this bit off and I can’t find the piece to it back together again.’

‘How annoying is that.’

‘And now some of my Lego is mixed up,’

‘They mixed your Lego up.’

‘Yes, it was the worst day of my life.’

‘It must have felt like the worst day of your life if all your Lego got messed up.’

‘Yes, I never want my friends to do that again.’

‘Next time your friends come, we’ll have to put any  Lego sets away that you don’t want them to touch.’

‘Yes, we could do that.’


At the end of the conversation, my son seemed satisfied that he’d been understood. Sometimes, when I have tried to minimise any anger or upset he feels, it has fueled his negative feelings rather than diminishing them. Mirroring his feelings helped him to reflect on what he was actually saying and showed him that I understood how he felt.

It is also important to mirror positive feelings. For example, when he said he was excited about going to a restaurant, I showed that I felt excited too. When he talked to me about a computer game, I listened to what he felt about the different characters and tried to connect with what he was saying.

After just a few days, I noticed that he seems more cooperative and happy.

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Labelling Children’s Abilities and a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

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Secondary schools are under pressure from Ofsted to let children know what grades or levels they are aiming to achieve at GCSE based on Year 6 SAT results or CAT tests taken in Year 7 or 8. They argue that it helps children understand what progression they can make.



So what is the problem with labelling children?

Psychological research shows that when both children and adults are labelled, it can become part of their self-concept and this in turn affects their performance.


Steele (1997) wanted  to see if  negative stereotypes could affect test performance. In one part of their study they selected women and men who had excellent mathematical abilities to complete a maths tests. Half the participants were told that the maths tests would be better suited to males while the other half were told that the tests would be just as hard for both genders. Unsurprisingly, women performed much worse on the maths tests when they were told it was better suited to males. There was very little difference in performance when they were told that the maths tests would be difficult for both genders. This study shows that negative stereotypes and labels can affect performance. In this study, adult women were affected by the stereotypes but imagine how much more children might be affected by labels telling them they are intelligent or not intelligent.


females-and-maths black-professor








In another part of their study, Steele investigated whether self-labelling the ethnicity of the black students would have an effect on their performance i.e. would reminding someone of their ethnicity (being black) before a test reduce their performance? They found that when people were asked to write down that they were Black African American before the test, this reduced their performance on the test. While White Americans performance increased after writing down their race.

In secondary schools, children are constantly reminded about what grade they are aiming for often with a sticker inside the front cover of their books. Unfortunately, if the grade is low, this could reduce their performance on tests.

So far, we have talked about how labels can affect a child’s own self-concept but labels can also affect how teachers and parents respond to children.


Rosenthal and Jacobsen (1968) carried out an experiment to investigate whether labels could affect the way teachers responded to children.  As part of the experiment, teachers were told that certain students in their class had high IQs and should show good progress in the year ahead. The children were chosen randomly from the class and they did not have any higher IQs than average. At the end of the year, the children who had been labelled as more intelligent, showed greater increases in their IQ on tests than the children in the class not labelled as having a high IQ. Rosenthal said that this was because teachers had higher expectations for the children labelled as more intelligent and that they created a warmer climate for those children. For example, the teachers may have asked higher level questions of the children they thought were more intelligent.

Unfortunately, teachers are only human and they will be affected by labels given to children. Therefore, if children have high target grades/levels at GCSE, they will expect more of those children than those will lower target grades/levels.

Parents can counter the labels their children are given by explaining to them that IQ is not fixed and can change. Children who believe that the brain can grow are far less likely to be affected by labels and stereotypes.

At the end of the day, research shows that IQ can jump during the teenage years significantly. Ramsden and colleagues (2011) found that IQ can change in the teenage years as much as 20 IQ points. This suggests that the labels children are given based on early tests may not reflect the child’s actual IQ anyway.