Just What Makes a Child "Difficult"?

Not wanting to have her picture taken.

Just what makes a child "difficult"?

I've been around kids all of my life, and I've pondered this question many times.  Some kids would be labeled "difficult" by some people, like elementary schoolers who spent more time with the principal than at their own desks, or kids who were aggressive and hostile to the point of being criminal.  There were also the so-called whiners, the spoiled brats, and the hopeless, and all of the other terrible labels that many children have endured over the years.

Then there was my little brother, twelve years younger than I.  Some would have labeled him as difficult.  He was also labeled "gifted" due to his high IQ score and "ADHD" due to lack of attention in the classroom.  My brother was restless, active, impulsive, fearless, defiant, aggressive, and seemed to be born angry.  He once threw his bottle from his crib so hard that he broke the window.  He would run and jump into anything dangerous, with no account for the consequences.  He would knock children down on the playground, and hit, bite, and kick adults - even strangers in the store.  He would throw wild, screaming, fists-wailing tantrums with plenty of profanity if he didn't get his way.  The cops were once called on him, at age nine, for pulling out a knife on another child.  It didn't help that he was huge for his age, and could intimidate other children with his size alone. 

It was like he had taken steroids and then was shot out of a cannon, or that he was a lion starving for prey.  Then when he realized that he had hurt someone and was getting called on it, he would break down and cry, saying what a horrible person he was.  He was incredibly sensitive, and yet it seemed challenging for him to be empathetic toward others.  It was a hard thing for his family to watch, and obviously it was hard for him to endure this pattern, day after day.

Yet I noticed that he was actually attentive, thoughtful, and downright sweet when you just spent one-one-one time with him and listened to him. Paradoxically, he also seemed to appreciate firm boundaries.  In other words, he would respect adults who were kind but who didn't put up with his bad behavior.  It was sometimes hard for him, and you could tell when he was making an effort.  We spent some really nice time together before I left home.  I gradually began to see beyond the labels for him... the labels that extended into his adolescence... the behavioral traits that greatly intensified after puberty and got him into major trouble.

This label of "difficult" followed him around for years.  I think that if we are assigned labels at a young age, we tend to live up - or down, as the case may be - to those labels. 

It did not help matters that my little brother had me for an older sister.  I was gentle, charming, cheerful, and people-pleasing.  The most trouble I remember getting into as a child was when I was seven, and I absentmindedly walked away from my afterschool program with a friend, and we went down to the corner store for some candy without telling anyone.  That got the cops called to the school, and a big spanking for me!  But it must have been hard for my brother to live in my shadow, even years after I'd outgrown it.  Even when adolescence was difficult for me, and I had my own pejorative labels assigned, it was still harder for my brother, a boy with a reputation for being difficult. 

I was reminded of labels recently when my grandmother witnessed the behavior of my younger daughter (2 years old) and compared it against the behavior of my older daughter (6 years old).  My younger daughter, scared of falling out of the tree that she'd managed to climb up, began crying for help.  My grandmother called her a "crybaby" for doing this.  I feel that part of my grandmother's reaction was because my younger daughter is admittedly more adventurous, demanding, independent, and outspoken than my older daughter, and thus has the reputation for being "difficult" in my grandmother's eyes.  My older daughter, on the other hand, has been labeled as cautious, responsible, and "easy" by my grandmother.  So, therefore, any behavior that would reinforce the image/label that my grandmother already had for each great-granddaughter would serve, in her mind, as further proof that she was right in her assumptions.  My grandmother has even said, on other occasions, that my younger daughter was mischievous for doing something quite age-appropriate and normal, and that my older daughter (who is her favorite, apparently) would never do such a thing. 

I don't believe it, obviously.  All of my kids have their good days and bad days, just like I do... like anyone else does, for that matter.  Some things are easier for them than others.  I sometimes wish that my grandmother could see the nurturing, maturing, and incredibly sweet nature of my younger daughter, who is neither mischievous nor difficult for me, whatsoever.  Truly.

My precious little elves!  They are best friends.  Just ask them!
  But again, I ask: just what makes a child "difficult"? 

Is it because a child is different when compared to other children?  Because the child can be heard?  Because the child is misunderstood?  Because the child doesn't learn as fast as we would like? 

Is it because we, as parents, just want to be left alone to get some sleep or keep our plans, and this child announces, "Here I am!  Pay attention to me!"   Is it because we, as parents, feel guilty for not disciplining our children better, or for not spending more time with them? 
Is it because we live with the labels from our own childhoods?  Because we want to fit people, children and adults alike, into neat, convenient categories and stereotypes that reassure us about our assumptions?  Because the child doesn't fit the mold that suits our desires? 

I answer that parenting can be difficult, period.  But children aren't.

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