Connecting with a Difficult Child

autistic-child-1066333-hIf you’re reading this I don’t think it’s necessary to define “difficult.” You know who you are. You are going through a major obstacle with one of your children and you feel hopeless. You’re doing everything you know to do and you’re coming up dry. You look around at other families and review their awesome pics on Facebook and it only isolates you further on the island you can’t get voted off.

Michelle and I feel your pain. Although we don’t pretend to have experienced the exact frustration you’re going through, we’ve had plenty of moments of despair. We’ve struggled with who and where to turn at times. We’ve had to weed through well meaning but not always helpful advice. We’ve seen what it can do to your relationship when you disagree on the best approach. Mostly we’ve had to lean hard on God and trust him more than ever.

Almost two years ago some dear friends pursuing foster care encouraged us to attend a conference that has been a spark for conversations on how to parent by grace and experience God in troubled waters. We have slowly been breaking deeply entrenched patterns and creating healthier ones.

For those it would serve, here are six principles we’ve been learning after eight years of parenting three fabulous (one adopted, two not) and very different boys. I would like to share more in depth on each one, but here is a condensed version.

1. Remember Grace. I know you know that, right? If you’re a Christian you’ve probably given amazing counsel along those lines. But as a pastor I know what it’s like to give that oh-so-encouraging-advice while struggling to believe the same truths. I’m learning there are times and seasons in which we really need be silent and sit at His feet and be reminded of deep gospel truths. These moments are times to get rooted in the person of Jesus and His love and faithfulness. We need to recall we are more than parents! Our identities are not our children. Our destinies are not hanging on the attitude of our little Precious or some weird glare from a parent who doesn’t get it (yet). We are known. We loved. We are His.

2. Think long term…really long term. Friends in our church have been a voice for us in this. We get so caught up in our children competing for these self imposed and arbitrary social prize of their age group that we forget to enjoy them in the moment. We have looked back at pictures of our boys when they were two years old and marveled at the fear we could recall feeling at their inability to hit the social markers we created (and some we were encouraged to create). We quickly forget that the goal is not a highly moralistic and perfectly adjusted eight year old, ultra mannered three year old, or academically excelling eighteen year old. The goal is be faithful to build a lasting relationship with our children so we bring them to Jesus from a place of trust. Getting a kid to perform can be easy–building a deep relationship of trust takes a long, long time. Take a deep breath.

3. Hit the breaks and focus on the relationship. With one of our children who struggles with anxiety when transitioning somewhere anywhere, we’ve learned that there will be times when we will be late for school, church or Chuck E. Cheese. Based on our upbringing, and most of the Christian parenting books and teaching we received, we assumed it was a breakdown in our ability to establish authority. Unfortunately with every step toward stronger measures of authority we stopped focusing on tools for communication and helping our children give voice to their struggles. Things just spiraled down. We’ve had to quit listening to some of the advice. Hitting the brakes and taking a few moments to sit and talk sometimes does far more than discipline.  Spending alone time with Dad even if for a few minutes playing cards can make all the difference between a morning of chaos, screaming, and tantrums before school or a morning of silliness and fun. Break the cycle by doing something fun and crazy with the purpose of connecting.

4. Get help…the right kind of help. There are lots of good books out there on parenting. Read them. Learn from them. But be sure to read outside your tribe. There are biblical principles to be found in a lot of sources that may help bridge the relationship through communication and avoid unnecessary impasse moments. Don’t fear seeing a counselor or doctor. Also, don’t avoid the advice of those who aren’t going through you’re struggle but put yourself out there and seek to learn from parents who have struggled with similar issues and know what you’re going through. You need help so go get it.

5. Stop caring what others think. If you want to connect with a difficult child there comes a time when you’re going to have to prioritize that relationship over every other relationship–including leaders at church, dear friends you love, and even what your extended family thinks. There may be times you have to miss church and play Legos. Oh well. There may be times your parents think you’re not doing it right. They will be okay. You may have to be late to every single appointment for the next year. Get over it. There will be times you worry over the opinions of a fearmongering friend. Remember grace. There are times to get advice–and there are times to stop listening to advice and do what it takes to build the relationship–at whatever the cost.

6. Pray like crazy. It’s okay to admit you’re in a battle and you don’t know what to do. The dumbest thing you can do is rely on your own strength and creativity. Moreover, it’s equally draining to scour the internet or call all your friends for the exact solution to your problem. God knows you and He knows all the intricate details of your child’s emotional and physical makeup far better than you ever will. He can move the mountains that terrify us. The best news of all is that the Bible says, “If any of you lacks wisdom let him ask of God who gives generously to all, without finding fault.” He doesn’t find fault in our total inability to know what to do! I’ve tried to play the role of Mr. Parenting Strategy only to fall on my face and discover the answer through prayer alone.

We are in this together my friend. Let me know you’re praying for me and how I can pray for you.

(photo by Lance Nielson)



  1. A standing ovation from me. Love #3. I totally believe “difficult” children need parents who are more sacrificial (kinda like God was for us, huh?) not parents who know how to hammer out some authority. So sad when we do that and miss opportunities for relationship. Thanks for putting down your thoughts! I’m humbled and blessed by how you guys sacrifice for your boys.


  2. Very good, Rob! Interested in thoughts of differences/similarities in approach for children (pre-and post-teen) who are “simply” difficult vs. difficult as a result, or as a manifestation, of learning or developmental disability(ies). Appreciate you, Rob!


    1. That’s a helpful category that needs to be considered I think. Something we’ve been learning both through resources and experience is compassion and patience often results when you discover that one of your children has a disability (whether mild autism or dislexia or a social anxiety etc.) …and requires special help and parental customized approach (not one size fits all). I think the same approach in some measure has to be considered for any kid at any age. I think there are legit developmental challenges that get overlooked or other disabilities that parents can mistake for pure stubbornness or “strong willed” etc. While you have to have general “house rules” everyone follows…we are trying to take into consideration the uniquenesses of each kid re how they are tempted and why.


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