09/25/2018 12:04 EDT | Updated 09/25/2018 14:30 EDT

More Discipline Isn't The Answer For A High-Maintenance 'Orchid Child’

Harsh consequences, punishments and warnings may backfire with challenging, highly reactive kids.

The other day I was hanging out with a family that has a very interesting, cute, bright — and challenging — 14-month-old. This little girl is definitely one of those kids who I think of as "more." They are like other kids their age... except more.

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More easily upset and cries more (and harder to soothe).

More reactive to stress (and takes longer to recover from stress).

More busy and more likely to get into things (and spends less time playing quietly on their own).

More shy or anxious about new people and situations.

More difficult to get to sleep and more likely to wake in the night.

In short, these kids demand more of their parents.

I could sense what the parents were going through.

As always is the case with "more children," some of the visit was taken up with conversation about what was going on with this child. Having been in these parents' shoes myself — one of our boys was a less intense version of this girl — I could sense what the parents were going through. How exhausted they were. How much time and energy they had put into looking for answers and simply coping with the situation. And boy, did I ever wish I had the answer to why their kid was the way she was and what to do about it. I didn't offer any advice because they didn't ask for it. What they needed most at that moment was friendship, support and someone to show appreciation for their child's good qualities.

But if they had have asked for advice, here's what I might have said.

Whatever else you do to try to manage, shape or influence the problems you see in your child's behaviour and development, try not to make it worse.

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It's not that hard to make "more" children and the challenges of raising them worse, even though you're trying to make it better. I've seen it happen a number of times.

One pitfall is that people sometimes focus too much on trying to "fix" what's "wrong" with the child's behaviour. That's understandable. "More" children do more things we don't want them to do, and fewer things we want them to do. They seem to need more discipline. And the discipline we try doesn't seem to work. So people often up the intensity — more and harsher consequences, punishments, criticisms and warnings. So the parent-relationship and a lot of the interaction can become negative. At times it feels like a series of battles. That's not good for parents or kids, and it's not good for the parent-child relationship. And if there is one thing that "more" children really, really need (even more than other kids), it's positive, supportive relationships with parents, family members, caregivers and teachers.

Don't count on discipline being a dramatic fix for your kid.

This is tough one. Because, if you have a "more child" you can be sure that people will line up to tell you you're not being firm enough or consistent enough, or that a certain technique worked like magic with their child. But the hard reality is, that even the best discipline techniques don't work with these kids a lot of the time.

I don't mean that you should never do discipline. You'll do it, alright. You'll have to stop your kid from doing things. You'll have to say "no" (and follow through). You'll be watching them very closely. But don't count on discipline being a dramatic fix for your kid. Improvements in behaviour can happen. Your child can learn. But it will take longer and change will happen slowly and gradually.

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Another challenge is that "more children" tend to have more than their fair share of negative interactions with people. The danger is that the child gets treated like a "bad" kid, so often they start to see themselves as a "bad" kid. And we really don't want that.

So, as you're trying to shape your child's behaviour, keep them safe, supervise them and deal with their negative emotions, don't forget to put as much energy as possible into sharing good times and positive interactions with them. (This is true for all kids, even more so for "more kids.") The parents I saw the other day were clearly doing this, and I could see the positive effect it was having on their challenging daughter.

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In the end, what you want to do, along with everything else, is stay positive, and work with the child's natural development and learning as they grow. That can take longer that it does for other kids.

The other danger is that there is so much focus on the child's problems that he doesn't get a chance to learn what his strengths are. Every kid needs to learn their strengths, and, sorry to repeat myself, these kids need to learn about their positive qualities even more than other kids.

And they do have strengths and positive qualities. In fact, a fair bit of research now shows that challenging, reactive kids can actually turn out well, sometimes even better than "regular" kids, when they get positive parenting and have good relationships with dads, moms and caregivers. Researchers call these kids "orchid children". They can turn out amazing, like an orchid. It's a nicer name than "more" children, isn't it? So let's go with that.

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But back to my bottom line. If you have a potential orchid child who is in a difficult stage, as you search for the strategies that will improve your child's behaviour, remember this: Above all else, your goals are to not to make it worse, and also be patient and enjoy and nurture your child's strengths as much as possible. And, of course, remember that more than anything else, they need our love.

Lastly, take care of yourself. Take breaks when you can, and get all the support you can get from family and friends who care about you and aren't going to judge you. These kids are "more" work and they need us firing on all cylinders as much as possible.

A version of this blog was originally published on Things Dads Do.

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