Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Hard Ones: Parenting an Emotionally Intense Child

Let's talk about something no one really talks about: the hard kids. The ones people say are badly behaved, poorly disciplined, overly demanding, etc., etc.

The kids who don't offer a constant stream of easygoing smiles, giving hugs to any newcomer who asks, and who certainly won't just sit there and go with the flo in new situations.

No, they won't eat the new brand of pizza you bought, and no, they probably don't want to go to that new camp you've signed them up for. They have bad dreams, big worries, they yell and cry easily, they are often anxious or appear angry.

Intense is the best word to describe them.

I have two kids. One is hard, just like that. Yes, yes, people always say, "oh mine is hard too! They're all hard!" Well, sure, okay, to some extent, all children add complexity and challenge to our lives. Of course. But only parents with a child like mine really know what I mean.

Parents like me understand the heartbreak of watching their child's personality fall flat of a relative's or friend's expectations:

"Why wouldn't he give me a high five right off the bat?"
"Why won't she eat anything but crackers today?"
"There's something really wrong with that kid."
"Why did he yell at me when I won the race?"
"Why doesn't she want to run along and play with the dollhouse?"
"The kid just needs a slap on the butt; that's what he needs."

I know these sorts of things have been whispered about my son-- sometimes to my face, sometimes when they don't think I hear-- who is just 6 years old. It's exhausting, lonely, and hurtful.

Yes, I know these kids are intense. Trust me-- I KNOW. Not "tantrum every once in a while" intense. Not "oh, she gets fussy when she's hungry." Children like my son are constantly emotionally intense, almost right from the womb, if not before (I still remember the ultrasound technician chuckling at my roly-poly baby rocking out in my uterus).

Children like my son can be demanding, hard to please, anxious. The list goes on.

But here's the thing: they are still children, and if you take the time to peel back their crunchy exterior, they are sweet and have good hearts. Honestly, they haven't been spoiled rotten or ignored or overly-praised.

I don't think I did anything to "make" my son harder than your typical kid (though surely I've made my fair share of mistakes). On a good day, I call him my "grumpy old man," and find him quite charming and funny. In fact, anyone who makes the effort (which I know can be hard) to sit down with him for more than 3 minutes and tries to get to know him will find him to be just that-- a great little guy. A sharp-as-a-tack, interesting, affectionate, funny little person.

To the majority of the world who don't have an intense child, please consider taking a few extra minutes to embrace the quirks of children like mine. Please resist judgment. Resist thinking there's something wrong with them (or their parents). Try not to take their initial outer shell of protection personally; they've had to build that.

You might find they will surprise you. Most of all, please know your patience will not go unnoticed by the child or the parent. I can promise you that.

~Julia @ Frantic Mama

P.S. For further reading on emotional intensity and high sensitivity in children, I recommend: 

Emotional Intensity in Gifted Students by Christine Fonseca. Prufrock Press, Inc.

The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron.
Find more of Frantic Mama on Facebook.

Subscribe to Frantic Mama's mailing list!

* indicates required
Email Format


  1. Great piece. I love this line: "To the majority of the world who don't have an intense child, please consider taking a few extra minutes to embrace the quirks of children like mine." As a coach who has worked with all different kinds of kids over the course of 20 years, and a parent, I have to say, all kids are unique and all kids respond well to those "few extra minutes." Those minutes can make all the difference.

    1. Thanks so much for reading. It's really nice to hear from someone who works with kids and has so much experience with them. And yes, of course every child can use a few extra minutes-- you are so right. I just pointed it out because for these particular kids, it's often easier to shrug your shoulders and "give up" (I've seen it a lot) rather than put in the effort to get to know them.

  2. Beautiful piece. I've actually never heard a child's temperament referred to like this. It makes so much sense. I have a knew perspective now. Thanks, Julia.

    1. Thank you, Molly! I had never found the perfect word until this summer when I finally started digging into the parenting books I had avoided for so long (they typically stress me out, but I decided I needed to find some resources to help me help my son). I read The Highly Sensitive Child a few years ago and it was life-changing-- that is a huge part of who my son is. But now, when I add in the emotional intensity, I really get the whole picture of who he is, if that makes sense.

  3. My emotionally intense daughter is now 17. She's still intense. She will still occasionally say something very nasty to me or rebuff a relative. She started working at Starbucks and other moms tell me - "she's so different there - friendly and happy." That's mostly because she's playing a role. Drama and music were wonderful outlets for her all these years - a place to channel all that intensity. I'm not writing this comment to say it gets easier, because that's not necessarily so, but one thing I know about my difficult daughter who has not made my job very easy - she knows what she wants and will go after it in this life. Sure, things will hurt more and yes, she goes overboard with her plans/obsessions/expectations, but she is so alive and feeling everything. She cares about what's happening in our world, our election, our schools, even if she won't ask you how you are today.

    I'm rambling, so I'll stop. The line - "if you take the time to peel back their crunchy exterior, they are sweet and have good hearts." really hit me. I know that about my daughter and I no longer explain her or excuse her. The people who take the time will get rewarded and the people who won't are missing out.

    Thanks for writing this piece. It gave me a moment to reflect on how far we've come.

    1. Thank you! I really like what you said here: "I know that about my daughter and I no longer explain her or excuse her. The people who take the time will get rewarded and the people who won't are missing out." It is hard for me not to apologize to people who my son offends, though it is exhausting to constantly do so. I hope I can get to a place where I don't always feel the need to explain him/excuse him. After all, we can't really control what another person does or says. My son is a great person, but oh, it is so hard to watch when others don't take the time to see that! Thank you for sharing your story.

  4. Thank you so very much for this! In a small town with all of our very old fashioned family o hear those things alot. It's heartbreaking because some family members treat my other two so much better. At this point they don't have much of a chance anymore. It's nice to read that other normal people go through this. For the longest time my husband and I blamed ourselves, everyone told us we were doing something wrong. Then we realized that just how she is. Once again thank you so much. It's nice not to feel completely alone. 😊

    1. Oh, I hear you on people treating your different kids differently from each other. It is heartbreaking, isn't it? My daughter is very skilled socially and charms people in an instant, and I love that about her, but it is also a striking contrast to my son, and he knows this.
      You are not alone. I have just a small handful of friends (mostly writers I've met through Internet groups) who have children like this. It's HARD, but you are doing your best, I'm sure.
      Hang in there.

  5. Thank you much for this! I'm a small town with almost all of our old fashioned family around things can get really hard. It's really hard seeing some people treat our other two children so much better. They don't have the chance much anymore. Shea six now though and would notice and it's never easy to stop being around your family but it would make me crazy. It would make so angry. I wish more people would take our advise and just sit down and get to know her. She really is a wonderful, empathetic, fun , caring smart little girl. Thanks again it's nice not to feel so lonely. ��

    1. I think your message might have been duplicated :). But, yes, as I wrote to the other comment, you are not alone, though I know how lonely it is to be treading water, raising a challenging child.
      I highly recommend The Highly Sensitive Child and Emotional Intensity in Gifted Children. If you think your daughter might be off the charts, so to speak, IQ-wise, intensity is a very common character trait that goes along with it. It's a package deal ;). Even though everyone thinks you've won the lottery with a smart kid, it doesn't mean they're easy, right?! It can make them much harder!

  6. This has my heart. This is your most wonderful writing ever, Julia. Every word hits home. Rises and falls just like my little boy too. Those extra minutes, YES, only if. I have found it increasingly hard to deal with retorts and taunts that often come my way and sadly my son's too. He has this new thing, he shies away from people, relatives even and just yesterday when someone asked him why he wasn't talking , he said drily " I am thinking about something , can't you see?" I had to apologise and heard quite a bit about how I am letting him go. Ahh! He doesn't say anything out of sarcasm , it is just his way. Being nine years old, he has started to realize too, his oddities and though they can wreak havoc on a day and tempers, he knows he is loved. About how others will respond to him , I just go on worrying. �� This is amazingly powerful writing. Every word .

    1. Thank you very much, Swati. I find myself apologizing all the time for comments my son makes, and it is exhausting. I'm starting to get to the point where I am holding back from apologizing every single time. After all, we can't truly control another person's choices, right? And would that even be healthy for him in the long run? When I try to correct his statements (like, "I hate her!") in the moment, he only gets angry and shuts me out, but when I wait just a bit to talk it out when we are alone, he is a little more open to it. The WORST is when someone besides my husband or me tries to discipline/talk to him about his behavior. My husband and I pretty much think, "it's your funeral!" Haha, but seriously, he will not take another person's scolding to heart; it only makes things worse, and THEN that other person gets to shrug him off and walk away. Ugh...
      I know that deep down he knows he is hard, which is also kind of heartbreaking.
      Anyway, it's good to know I have a fellow Mama Warrior out there doing the best she can! I might even start a FB group for parents like us. Maybe we'll be the only two ;).

  7. Thank you for writing this. My hard child is sixteen now, and parenting him has gotten easier for the most part. It took me a long time to understand his intensity, and he has been like this since the moment he was born. He does alright in most social situations, he's gotten really good at holding in his true feelings and playing the part that is necessary to make it through his day. He no longer comes home and spews his held in feelings all over me, either, which is huge progress. For years, I was the one who took the brunt of this since I was the person he trusted most. He channels his intensity into his percussion playing. He is very involved in everything related to band and marching band, and that has helped him so much. When he is frustrated, he heads to the basement and takes it out on his snare drum. The best thing is, he is so directed, I don't have to worry about his future, he will make his decisions and then pursue them so he gets where he knows he wants to be. It is very interesting, his older brother who is 18 is the most laid back person. He has ADHD and Executive Function Disorder. There couldn't be two more opposite kids, but they are great friends. The older kid is the one I worry about, he is heading to college this week and we are keeping our fingers crossed that he will step up and do what is needed. This is long, but I wanted to let people with younger intense kids know that there is hope. It will get easier, or less intense as the kids grow up. I love my intense boy and he is really the most affectionate, funny person. You just need to get to know him!

    1. I can't thank you enough for your message! Even though all kids are unique, it is still comforting to think there is a little light at the end of the tunnel :). I can see the driven side of my son too, and as you said, I try not to worry about what he will "do" an adult or for his career; he will decide and figure it out. My worries are more related to what you said when your son was younger-- saving his feelings up all day and then unloading on me. Whew! It can be a stressful thing. But again, your thoughts help me! Thank you.

  8. Thank you for this. Found it via Scary Momma. Oh I just so needed it today. So exhausted. I have a strong-willed almost 5 year old boy who is adopted and a super personable smiley girl who is two. And I'm a people-loving highly sensitive highly emotional introvert who never ever planned on having two kids 17 months apart. It has taken so much work to understand my son. I loved your words. Family members have been so difficult. Just spank him more they say. They don't get it at all. And it's hard because they don't give him time to warm up, to figure out how to be comfortable, and they miss how smart, witty, goofy, lovable he is. And he's black and they treat my biological daughter so differently, and it's hard for me not to think about race. And at the same time I'm so exhausted from his tornado of will and demand for his own personhood every second, I want to vent, but can't so they don't think worse of him. Just thanks. It's a season where they've both been at home and I'm shot, and they're going to preschool and I'll deep breathe again and write and paint and find my soul and energy. But today I kicked everyone out of the house and say on the couch and read this and sighed with relief that I'm not the only one.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your story here. Oh my, I can relate. My two kids are very different that way too, and it's painful to watch how easy it is for my daughter to make friends/win over people compared to my more complicated son. When people put in the extra effort to work with him, they are rewarded with a loyal, affectionate little guy.
      You are not alone! I'm actually starting a secret Facebook group for mothers with emotionally intense kids. If you are interested just contact me via the Contact Me gadget and I'll add you. So many moms have reached out to me after I wrote this, that I'm feeling a calling to support as many of us as I can.
      My kids haven't started school yet either, and I really need the breather! I too am highly sensitive and emotionally introverted-- I totally get it. I need alone time to survive. Hang in there-- you are awesome for adopting and supporting the emotional needs of your son!


I love hearing from you, and I always try to respond, so be sure to check back.