Extreme Parenting for Extreme Children

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Image: Karen Walsh

    Image: Karen Walsh

The first time I “Extreme Parented,” my son was 2. He was dawdling walking back to the car from the playground and wandering away from me. I walked ahead of him, got in the car, and started the engine. He freaked out.

The second time I “Extreme Parented”, my son was 3. We’d been swimming at the local indoor pool, and when I told him it was time to get out, he swam further away from me. Our normal Friday routine was an hour of swimming together, him taking his lesson while I changed, then us going to lunch. On this particular cold, February day, he refused to get out of the pool. I warned him that if I had to get in the pool with my clothing on, he’d be a sorry little kid. He swam further into the pool. I jumped in fully clothed, grabbed him, walked him out, drove us home, and sent him to his room for the rest of the day.

The third time I “Extreme Parented,” my son was five. We were at a playground, and he wouldn’t join me to go to the car. He stayed at the playground while I walked to the car. He ignored me. I got in the car, drove up the street half a block, went into the parking lot, and waited. He came screaming out of the playground a few minutes later.

The fourth time I “Extreme Parented,” my son was six. He had been mean to a friend at school, taking the side of the bully because he’d rather tease a friend than get teased, and the mom had texted me. I drove the mile to school breaking every speed limit in town. Squealed into the parking lot. Called my son to the office from his classroom and growled at him to never do that again. I hissed and growled. If fire could have spit from my mouth, it would have. I became Dragon Mom.

The fifth time I “Extreme Parented,” my son was seven. During a tantrum about a game, he called me very inappropriate names and started to poke me with a toy. I picked him up, carried him to the sunroom, and locked every door that would allow him back into the house. When he screamed an apology with tears streaming down his face, I refused to let him back in until we had both calmed down.*

My son is a strong-willed, extremely stubborn, bite-your-nose-to-spite-your-face kind of kid. In adulthood, this will prove well for him. He will successfully assert his own desires and be confident. He’d better not try to go corporate, though. I fear that will bode poorly for him (says she for whom corporate boded poorly).

Strong willed children test our boundaries as parents on a regular basis. They test our abilities to assert authority. They challenge us to be creative.

I often think back to the time when my son, at 2, lost every ounce of composure possible in a grocery store before Thanksgiving. He hit me, tantrumming, and I smacked him back, not hard, to get a rise out of him. He had already run away from me, causing me to chase him. All of this was Typical Two. Finally, I picked him up, left the groceries, texted my husband who was in the freezer aisle to go pay for them, and walked out. As my husband went to pay, he over heard the cashiers saying, “Some people just shouldn’t be allowed to have children.” He informed them that they were talking about his wife and son, left the groceries, and walked out. (In his defense, he only told me about this because I pushed him to tell me.)

That was the day that changed me, I know it was. I remember coming home and typing on Facebook a post something to the effect that “we cannot be defined by the behaviors of others, only our reaction to them. Children are people with their own minds.” That is how I have treated my parenting for the last five years.

These are the things they don’t tell you in the prenatal parenting classes or child rearing classes. Those classes and all of those books taught me to parent with love, to set boundaries, and to encourage with rewards. I do all of those things, honest. Cross my heart, and kiss my elbow.

However, what they don’t tell you is that sometimes you will say to your child, “If you do X you can earn Y” and your child will look at you squarely and say, “I don’t care. I don’t want Y.” They don’t tell you that you may have the child who stubbornly looks at you and says, “But, if you give me Z-The-Much-Bigger-Totally-Outlandish-Reward, I will do X.” They don’t tell you that some kids were born with minds of their own. They don’t tell you that you might end up with the Spirited Child. They don’t tell you how to create all of those boundaries when your child pushes them like they’re nothing more than the ropes surrounding a boxing ring.

Am I proud of all of the moments where I have parented to the extreme? Both yes and no. Am I embarrassed by my behavior when I have parented to the extreme? Both yes and no.

Outsiders looking in probably view me as a psycho mom. Tires squealing or dripping wet, inevitably with a child screaming. I look unhinged, unbalanced, out of control. They probably think that I am unfit to raise a child. To them? I say, resoundingly, “*!#$ you.”

Because you see, if you have an extreme child, the child who will say, “No, I don’t care if you take that favorite toy away, I didn’t like it anyway” just to keep you from feeling you’ve made an impact, you are forced to be a person you never thought you would be.

Extreme Parenting is the result of desperation. It is the result of needing to ensure that my son learns boundaries, authority, and respect. He knows that when I tell him a consequence, that the consequence will occur. I do not threaten lightly. I do not ever threaten something I’m not willing to do. If there is one thing in seven years that my son has learned, it is that when mom says she’s going to do A Thing, she does A Thing. For better or, in many cases, for worse.

Extreme Parenting both is and isn’t a choice. That’s what people have to understand.

I wasn’t given a choice about my child’s personality. I mean, not that I don’t love him with every breath in my body, but no one asked me, “Do you want the compliant-follows-your-directions kid or the kid who’s going to test every boundary?” I’m pretty convinced that I’d have answered the compliant kid. I mean, life would be easier. I wouldn’t look like a psycho to the outside world. I wouldn’t constantly question whether locking him out of 90% of the house or jumping in the pool fully clothed was going to psychologically damage him. I’d probably be saving more for college instead of the inevitable therapy fund he’s going to need.

I do have a choice about how I respond to my son. I can let him get his way and never learn lessons just because I’m afraid.

Or.

I can Extreme Parent. I can make sure that in the same way he pushes boundaries, I push right back with an equally iron will. I can make sure that he knows that whatever outlandish thing he decides to do, he will be presented with an equally outlandish response and consequence. I can ensure that I meet his strong personality with one equally strong. I cannot control my son’s actions, but I can control my responses to them.

Extreme Children require Extreme Responses.

So, for those parents with Extreme Children, I give you Extreme Respect for your Extreme Parenting.

* In the interest of honesty, before I posted these stories, I spoke to my son about whether it would be ok. I made sure to gain his informed consent and permission as follows:

I told him the stories I was going to include:
Kid: “No. That’s mean.”
Me: “Ok, but I’m not writing about you being a bad kid. I’m just talking about what I do in response. It’s not about you, I promise. It’s about the things I do as a mom.”
Kid: “Oh. Ok. That’s fine.”
Me: “You’re sure?”
Kid: “Yeah. It’s totally fine.”

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20 thoughts on “Extreme Parenting for Extreme Children

  1. Oh man. I read this and I feel like I’m looking into a crystal ball and seeing my future with my son. He’s 2, nearly 3, and sometimes my wife and I feel like *nothing* we do impacts him – we’ve tried timeouts. He just laughs and walks away. We drag him back. He laughs and walks away. We take toys away (he loves trains and cars, and they frequently disappear for 24 hours as a punishment). What does he do? He *gleefully* acts like he never needed them in the first place and starts playing with something he hasn’t touched in 2 months. We can’t win. He tries to run away from us getting to, or exiting the car. He climbs the outside of our stair well. Climbs into window-sills. Up onto the counter to GET INTO THE MEDICINE CABINET.

    We end up flying into fits of frustrated rage – not because we’re prone to losing our tempers, but just because we feel like we’re out of options. How do you discipline a child who actively opposes the rational parenting responses to their behavior?

    Like you, I love my son’s drive. I can see that he’s going to be strong-willed, and more than capable of standing up for himself, something that I always wanted for myself in my introverted, go-along-to-get-along personality. But GODDAMN if I could just figure out how to get through to this kid, and my wife and I were constantly 2 steps away from screaming, our lives would be so much better.

    Not to sound unhappy, we’re not. I love my son, I love my wife, and 99% of the time we’re a very happy family. But that 1% of the time we’re not? Ugh, it’s like my blood is boiling and I’m going to explode. And most of that rage is self-directed – I don’t want to be this kind of parent. Neither does my wife.

    So, I guess this a long-winded way of saying – I feel your pain, I think Extreme Parenting is going to be my way of life for the next 15+ years, and Lord above, I get it. I totally do.

    1. I laughed out loud at your capitalized “GODDAM” because honestly? That’s how I feel about 50% of the time. I’ll be honest with you, man, 4 was …painful. 5 got better. You’re pretty much 50% of the way to having a small human instead of a really feral two legged wild thing. 😉

      No one wants to be this kind of parent. But, here we all are, for better or for worse. And you know what? The more we band together, the less lonely we feel.

      Cheers, man. Cheers.

        1. I put my then-20 month old into both swim and gymnastics. She was BORED. Classes were too balcony for her as she is quite advanced in her motor skills. We shall try again at 3 (11 long months to wait) when the Clare’s become more advanced. Fml lol.

  2. THANK YOU for this article. I also have bouts of extreme parenting with one of my kids and I am so conflicted over it. Nothing else works though! He is such a bright funny and dynamic little thing and I love him to pieces, but he is tough to parent. I am glad to know that I am not the only one out there.

  3. I have had to do this with all of my kids, and my parents had to do it with me. I thought this was normal parenting. I guess you learn something every day.

  4. Hmm. I try to be the parent who doesn’t judge others, because I have a six year old who has one way: Her way.

    I hope the author realizes the following things, things I’ve learned:

    1. Your child learned all these things from you. Yes, their personality is their own, but only to an extent. So you have to learn how to control your emotions too.
    2. Extreme parenting only teaches the child how to creatively up the ante. Because that is what you are doing. You are winning arguments by power. Let me repeat that another way: Your child has learned that the person with the most power wins. Soon, they will have more power than you. So your method works now, but it is not sustainable.
    3. Then how the hell do you ever get your kid to do what you want? I say this in my head 14 times a day: You do not have to attend every argument you are invited to. Just walk away. Repeat their choices. “I’m sorry you don’t like breakfast. But you can have a bagel or yogurt or choose nothing. Come tell me when you’ve picked.”

    Look, I have a kid that doesn’t respond to punishment either. She is the last person on earth I would describe as obedient. Could I grab her and force her to get out of bed and get dressed? Sure. But instead, we focus on how her actions affect others. Guess what, if mommy is late for work every day, I will lose my job, and we won’t have money. How will we buy food or do fun things? Yes, let them answer. How does that make me feel when you scream that you hate dinner? Let them answer.

    And sometimes, just sometimes, you have to give in. It’s okay that kids win sometimes. Especially if they DO make a good, reasoned case. Let them be the one to offer the compromised solution. If they ask for a pet Zebra, make them think of another option. Share the power. That’s all they want.

    I find it sad that you’re okay with a whole huge portion of modern life possibly being off limits (corporate jobs) because you guys won’t work on controlling your emotions.

    My kids will have self confidence, respect for others, and above all, empathy. These things aren’t mutually exclusive. I’ve absolutely done the things you’ve mentioned, because I burn very hot when I’m mad. But that’s why being a parent has made me learn to be a better and more empathetic person.

    1. I never meant to say it’s the way to parent and apologize if that is how it cake across. Extreme parenting also for sure isn’t the only tool I use. And, to be honest, I am never proud of the extreme moments. Many of them come after over 20 or more minutes of talking through things.

      I didn’t, for what it’s worth lock my son in his room. I locked him out of 90% of the house with access to a full complement lf toys and the backyard.

      1. Frankly, Karen, I’ve walked out of a grocery store, leaving the shopping there, and made them eat what we had for 3 days before I’d go get fresh veg, etc. AND I once took every book, art supply and bookcase out of their rooms for a week, because they had ‘tv mouths’.(talked to me like I was a sitcom mom). I wouldn’t let them read, no bedtime chapter…they HAD to watch only tv when homework was done.No family board games, no reading, nada. By 3 days they were begging for their ‘good stuff’. Twins, eh?

  5. I just want to add so I don’t sound like a huggy hippie “let’s talk about how this makes me feel” kind of parent – all this talking to my kids makes me SO FREAKING SICK of the sound of my own voice. I’m not sure I could do it if my husband didn’t take half the burden.

    And leaving a grocery store because your kid is screaming isn’t extreme parenting, that’s just courteous. I was referring more to the driving off or physically locking them in their room.

    Anyway, just wanted to clarify. Because I CERTAINLY do all those things when I lose it, but the tone of the article seemed like “Extreme parenting is the correct way to manage extreme kids.” I see it more as a “shitty moment I just get through and try not to do again.”

  6. I read the first part of this and thought “You’re out of your mind!” and then I remembered the episode last night where my 4 year old kid had an irrational tired tantrum and forcibly put him in pajamas and put him in bed.

    I’m learning my kid is a really nice kid but if he is tired or his blood sugar is low all the boundaries and logical constructs and “consistency” in the world mean nothing. When I first figured this out I forced my kid kicking and screaming to the dinner table and gave him a handful of M&Ms which he ate while screaming “I WILL NOT EAT THIS!” and I had to do this in front of my in-laws who thought I was insane. “Are you sure you want to reward this behavior?” my Mother-in-law tentatively asked. “He really isn’t in a state of mind to be capable of piecing together ‘If I throw a fit I get candy.'” It took ten minutes of being the crazy guy and then a light switch flipped and my kid decided he wanted to eat dinner after all. And then I was a wizard.

    Man Facebook blogs that promise consistency as the cure all for everything drive me crazy.

  7. Well done!
    I was raised by a very strict mother who would even pull my ears or spank me if I did something wrong. I grew up into a very respectful kid and very responsible grown up. If I ever have kids, I’ll do as my mother. I will be as strict as her. I now have the best relationship with her and I always had. I never had any resentment and I was never out of control thanks to my mother who did extreme parenting all the time. Kids now are over parents heads… it’s a shame…

  8. Happy news from the future:

    My iron-willed, cheerfully defiant little hellions are now 29, 26 and 20, and you will not find more pleasant, confident, reliable, compassionate and kind citizens.

    Our mottoes were “if you cannot control yourself, we will control you, probably in a way you won’t like” and “actions have consequences.”

    Always remember, you are not raising children, you are raising adults. Wimping out and giving in produces overgrown children, not adults. Stay strong and be as extreme as you need to be. They will thank you for it. Especially if you pay for the therapy bills.

  9. I have done pretty much all of these things in my 12.5 years with my extreme son… the familiarity of your stories made me smile! The good news, for those who haven’t made it 12 years yet.. my son has proven to be SO RESILIENT and he laughs at all of the crazy antics I tell him he used to do. He is still extreme, but it’s starting to work to his benefit. Stood up for what he believed BIG TIME at school (with no butterflies), a terror on the football field, a straight-A student who can’t stand to lose anything or have the second highest score in class. He’s made for something big! He won’t take no for an answer, and he will NOT be influenced by his peers. I actually get compliments from his teachers and leaders all the time, because he is so confident and has no trouble communicating his thoughts. Strong-willed kids are not a mistake! Our world needs them! And so our world needs YOU, MAMAs! You gotta hang in there because you’re raising a fierce world-changer and that kid needs you to NOT GIVE UP. Mad love to all of the extreme parents out there.

  10. It’s awesome in the long run to have a “extreme” child – they really are going to move mountains when they grow up! Even though I know it’s so hard now. I really identified with your story about jumping into the pool fully clothed! When my daughter was 3 (she’s now 7), she was taking roller skating lessons and had a drink at out table in the lobby – which she proceeded to carry out on the skating floor. After yelling for her to come back and put the drink down, I proceeded to walk out onto the rink floor with no skates on and seize the cup – she was appalled “You can’t come out here without skates on!” I replied “Yup, that’s the rule, but the rule about no food and drinks on the floor is an even more important safety rule”.

    Since you mention these moments come out of desperation rather than how you want to respond, I’d like to recommend a different type of “extreme” parenting that sounds crazy, but honestly is just so crazy that it really works. My headstrong daughter would not respond to threats, punishment, timeouts, etc. and I think if I continued escalating my responses, she’d just continue escalating too and we’d be stuck in a power struggle loop (and I’m basing this off of my own memories of how I responded to my mother’s best attempts to respond to my headstrong behavior). So I found another type of “extreme” response – parenting without punishment/consequences/rewards (yes, no rewards – weirdly they’re the flip side of punishment and can cause escalation or disinterest in cooperation for cooperation’s sake). I still enforce limits and boundaries, but remove the retribution portion – with the skating situation, the setting of the limit was with me proceeding to remove the cup from the floor. That was enough that she never tried to do this again – even though I never punished/consequenced her afterward. This may sound permissive, but I think perhaps responding with matter-of-fact enforced limits only and no punishment/consequence afterward helps keep a extreme child’s dignity intact, letting them “save face” without feeling so much pressure to prove that they’re stronger by She knew that Mom would come out and enforce the limit (in her shoes, no less!), and she didn’t want that happening again! I was so pissed that I was embarassed in front of all the rink parents and coaches that I felt like sending her to her room the rest of the day, but that would have been less about teaching her and more about me relieving my uncomfortable feelings of anger and embarrassment at her “defying” me – but when I remember that she’s 3 and a creature of impulse with very poorly developed frontal lobes to overcome her impulses, it’s easier for my anger to dissipate. I’m not saying this to judge your reaction of sending your 3 year old to his room – just that knowing the neurodevelopmental reasons why kids are acting the way they act at certain ages has helped me (usually at least – I have my moments too!) to remember that the way they are acting isn’t personal, and it doesn’t mean that if I don’t nip this in the bud this very second they will be a spoiled brat who does what they want all the time – no matter how peaceful/not peacefully we respond, the truth is that the majority of kids are going to grow out of these immature behaviors.

    Anyway, if I haven’t completely alienated you at this point, here’s a link that shows what a different kind of extreme parenting looks like in practice.

    http://www.ahaparenting.com/parenting-tools/Discipline

  11. I just have to thank you for writing this.
    I have never felt so lost as when I went to the pros and explained that their “If you do x, you can earn Y” just wasn’t working because not doing x was much more important to my child than Y or Z or even ABC with a little D thrown in for good measure. And that I’d already taken away every possible privilege and she still declared she didn’t care, and then resiliently went to work **proving it**; or would withdraw into a shell that scared me to watch. And the pros told me that meant I was doing it wrong, because they could guarantee that the real, true problem was parenting related.

    Then I read the Explosive Child, and started looking at the meltdowns and reactions differently. I started honoring my child’s needs instead of expecting her to adapt to the world’s expectations. And while we are still working out the kinks (because you do need an education, and you do need to do some things you don’t feel comfortable doing in this life) all in all things are going phenomenally better. And we don’t get to a battle of wills because we both respect one another.
    The pros still tell me I did it wrong.
    But the right way was killing both of us.

    It’s so good to hear other people share their stories; ones I can actually relate to! So thank you!!!

  12. I have one “perfect” child. I assumed that I had something to do with her being perfect. I figured that I had this parenting thing down.

    Then I had my extreme child. I quickly learned that, if you do your job right, kids are about 99% just what they are, about 1% how you raise them. Really, the only way to skew that ratio is to really f*** your kid up.

    My extreme kid is now 13. I’d love to tell you that it gets better, but I’d hate to lie to you. I can say this, though: it is a wild ride, and often it is a really good one.

  13. We have one of each type child–extreme and compliant. I tell people that the compliant one makes us look like good parents (he has since the day he was born), but our extreme child will make us become good parents. That is, if we all actually live through his childhood (the coming teen years strike terror into my heart at moments!).

  14. I’ve been there and done that. Not all the time. But, my child is a challenge to parent. He was expelled from Montessori school because they couldn’t handle him. I’m always fearful of another expulsion. There is nothing diagnostically wrong with him, so professional help is mostly talk therapy which doesn’t help, really. In any case, I saw this posted on fatherly and saw the commentators ripping you to shreds. I wish I could talk to you privately about this, just to share stories and commiserate. Perhaps you have the time. Ignore the haters, trust me, they have nothing to offer. *even the professionals, because like my kid’s Montessori school, they always have a way to get out of the situation*

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