Inside-Out Approach to Parenting our Challenging Child

Feb 6, 2012

I’ve shared here before that we’ve been struggling with our middle child.  For all the negative I have said, to be clear, he is adorable, smart, sweet, funny, generous, and helpful.

Unfortunately lately we’ve also seen him frequently disobey (at home & school), purposefully hurt his brothers, cross well-established boundaries, and create unnecessary stress in our home.

Our response has been to increase the strength of those boundaries, respond more harshly to his behavior, remove privileges, ignore purposeful attention-getting behaviors…all the things the “professionals” tell you to do.

It isn’t working!

My mentor directed me to read ahead in our book “Seasons of a Mother’s Heart” by Sally Clarkson…I read words that I could have written:

“Every time he tested my patience, I responded by becoming even more strict than I had been the last time. Somehow, I had convinced myself that this increased harshness in discipline was the only appropriate response to his decreasing efforts at obedience.  If he would not control himself, I reasoned, that I would control him.”

I was frustrated like Sally. The approach she and I were trying was not working. I needed something different. Attempting to control him with behavior-modification techniques was not working.

God created all children unique. This little guy is unique from his brothers. Unlike a  rat learning to complete a maze, he has free-will. He requires an inside-out approach…focusing not on his behavior but his heart.

1) Study 

Instead of applying the “do this or else” discipline approach, I took a step-back and evaluated what made this little guy tick. I discovered the following:

  • He is extremely relational (his words: “I don’t like to be alone”) and an extrovert (getting energy from being with others)
  • He desires to please and gain approval
  • He is persistent in getting what he wants…even if it requires breaking a rule
  • He wants any kind of attention (positive or negative)

In studying him I realized he has some pretty great qualities that will serve him well as an adult. There are attributes listed here that I don’t want to change. Instead of breaking him…I need to work with these traits to help him become who God intends for him to be.

“God did not make a mistake in giving your child his or her personality, so don’t make the mistake of being critical of it. Learn to appreciate God’s handiwork in each of your children.” Sally Clarkson

2. Spend time connecting

I’ve shared my favorite behavior modification technique here: mommy time. Unfortunately, after studying my son, I realized he needs even more than the 20 minutes a day of mommy time to get his “love tank” filled (I actually don’t think I’ve ever seen his love tank 100% filled!).

One way I can give him the attention he craves in the midst of parenting 2 other children and keeping up with my home is by having a positive and loving attitude when I interact with him:

  • Smiling more
  • Hugging more
  • Listening more
  • Stopping and following him more

The biggest thing I’m working on is: CONNECTING more than CORRECTING!

Of course I still need to provide direction and discipline. However, personally, I tend to over-correct and direct. To keep things in balance I need to intentionally plan to stop criticizing.

Seeing who he is. Appreciating him for who he is. Using less words to control him.

As Ann Voskamp says in her “10 point Manifesto of Parenting”:

7. Today, the moment when I am most repelled by a child’s behavior, that is my sign to draw the very closest to that child.

3) Sympathizing 

Sympathy is “entering your child’s life at the level they are living it” (Sally Clarkson).

It’s the ultimate in humility. Stop being so self-centered and proud in my “mommy role” and instead look at the world through his eyes. 

He is ONLY FOUR!!! At this developmental stage he is becoming aware of the world outside of our house. His fears (which he has never demonstrated before) are increasing. We just had someone break into our home. Of course he does not want to be left alone. This pregnancy he is old enough to realize that a new baby is coming. He is reacting to all that entails.

As his mom, I am the one person who should not be yelling and criticizing him, but stepping down to his level and comforting him. Even if he is behaving in a way that is undesirable. 

Isn’t that what God did for us?

In our “undesirable state” he lowered himself to be born as a baby here on earth. Jesus walked in our skin. He sympathized with us…

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Hebrews 4:15

4. Surrender

I can’t control him. I can’t direct the decisions he is going to make. So I have to surrender him to God in prayer. This past week I have spent concentrated time in prayer for this child and for our relationship.

That’s our new “Inside-Out” approach...inspired by the wonderful Sally Clarkson who hosts a Momheart Conference that will be here in the DFW area in 2 weeks (have my ticket…planning to go unless baby makes his appearance).

Do you have a challenging child right now? What parenting strategies have you found helpful? Does “behavioral” discipline work for your child? Have you ever tried the “inside-out” approach? 

Linking up with:


  1. alice

    It’s hard for me to discern when my people are simply being punks or just want to be loved. Great post, Heather. Thank you for sharing!

    • Heather MacFadyen

      good point alice…and yet I feel like the more “punky” they act the more they are screaming to be loved! It’s me choosing to get closer instead of pushing them away when they are challenging.

  2. Ally Hedrick

    Oh Heather – thank you agains for your honesty! My challenging child is 10 and is testing me in every.area. I could relate to each word you wrote. I loved your suggestions and think that I will order the book you are reading. I wish you still lived in Indiana!

    • Heather MacFadyen

      Thanks for sharing your own struggle Ally. Glad you are benefitting from our challenges. Definitely get the book! Sally is incredible. The first book I read by her was “Mission of Motherhood”.

  3. Diane

    I am having challenges with my kindergartner. I have heard someone tell me before that you can drive kids towards rewards or away from punishment (in other words, emphasize good consequences or bad consequences to help drive behavior), but that hasn’t been working. I’m working on instilling in him respect for others, since when he acts up in class, its not showing respect for the teacher or other students. Sometimes he remembers and sometimes he doesn’t. However, I also know that there is definitely some childish foolishness involved and not always outright disobedience, so I’m trying to temper my reactions. Easy to say…. hard to do!

    • Heather MacFadyen

      I just read from a book by John Rosemond called “Parenting by the book” where he describes why the reward/consequence system doesn’t work for all children. He said that for 1/3 of kids it won’t work. That those kids will chose detrimental consequences…whereas animals keep “survival” at the core of their decisions, some kids would even chose bad consequences over obeying. Good luck with him and loving him through this challenging stage.

      • Julia

        My 2-yr-old son often chooses the negative consequences over the positive behavior, and I just don’t know what to do. Whenever I do have one-on-one time with him, though, I just love it to death and he is the sweetest thing. I will also have to get Sally’s book and try to fit in this parenting technique. Thanks for your blog. I really enjoy reading your work, and still don’t know how you find the time to read these books, attend these seminars, AND reflect and write about them. I’m glad you do it, though.

  4. Princess

    I would like to commend you on all your efforts to connect with your precious son.
    I am reminded of your post that speaks of the importance of loving our kids for WHO they are (sweet, helpful, smart) not WHAT they do (misbehave and test boundaries). This speaks volumes and its exactly what God chooses to do for us, each day. I realise He forgets sin, but I believe He chooses to not hold it against us.
    Your son may have a love language that his siblings do not have or one that you don’t speak. I encourage you to visit the website or check out the book The 5 Love Languages for Children by Gary Chapman. It makes so much easier when your child feels loved instead of corrected.
    I hope this helps. Let me know if you need more info about the book. 🙂

    • Heather MacFadyen

      Yes!! exactly! Loving him for who he is. I absolutely love the “5 love languages” books. My hubby and I read the one for adults early on in our marriage and it helped us put words to why I didn’t feel loved even though he was showing me love…he was speaking love through affection and words of affirmation and I needed quality time. I totally agree that my little guy is a quality time and words of affirmation fellow. Thanks for sharing that book here for the other readers!

  5. Ashley B.

    THANK YOU so much for this post which great has spoken and convicted my heart!! I have a very loving, charismatic, active and strong-willed little boy (3.5 yrs old). Because he is so different than his older siblings, both my husband and I are struggling/learning how to discipline w/out discouraging. Your post gives us some great foundation points, along with God’s Word & Prayer, to start with. 🙂

    • Heather MacFadyen

      so thankful that our challenges could help you out today. God bless!

  6. Meaghan Jackson

    Wow this post is exactly what I needed to read today. Our son’s must be twins or something because what you describe is my almost 4 year old. I am at a loss as to what to do with him. My husband and I are overwhelmed and our younger son is being somewhat ignored. I am inspired by your post to step back from the discipline and work more on the relationship. It is very hard to take my self and my emotions out of the picture but I know with God’s help we can connect better with our wonderful little guy.

    • Heather MacFadyen

      Thank you for sharing Meaghan. I hope and pray that you are able to connect in a deep way with the heart of your son. And that through focusing on your relationship his desire will be to obey out of love!

  7. Jana

    Heather, this is wonderful, as always. Our sons sound so much alike! Thank you for the encouragement to keep trying new ways of relating to him in a way that meets his needs. You’re always a blessing!

    • Heather MacFadyen

      Thank you for encouragement (as always!). These are special boys and God has a special plan…now just to make these challenging moments matter and not cause tension!

  8. Pamela

    Thanks Heather. Great encouragement for me with my sweet (difficult) kiddo. I shall be linking this to force daddy to read it 😉

  9. Clare

    My son is 4 and a half and we have been having a real struggle with him over the past few weeks with the arrival of a growth spurt and the 4 year old testosterone surge that his kindy teachers told me about. He went from being strong-willed but lovely to completely emotional, over-reacting, getting angry, not being able to sleep and just generally behaving like and alien had inhabited his body! I have been assured this testosterone surge doesn’t last too long, but it often explains why 4 year old boys become a bit of a problem (it’s like they have PMS for weeks one end. eek!!). I love your approach of getting behind his eyes and connecting with him more rather than being overly strict. We are doing that with our son and it is making things a lot easier (because if we growl at him he loses it and either becomes a sobbing mess or throws his light saber around!) and he is still happy in himself most of the time. I hope things get easier with your little one 🙂 and thank you for your words of inspiration 🙂

    • Heather MacFadyen

      Wow! this is huge! searched on google about “testosterone surge” after reading your comment. Very interesting indeed. Gives me even more “sympathy” for him…particulary since I feel I have had my own “testosterone surge” during this pregnancy with yet another boy! (aggression, anger, lack of impulse control, hunger!). Thanks for sharing!

  10. Robin

    Heather this is my first time to read your blog. What a treasure it is to hear about your journey to love your son. As you know little H is pretty young. She is starting to show some personality. Your words encourage me to see H as a unique person who God longs to speak through to me.

    • Heather MacFadyen

      Thanks sweet Robin for your encouragement! H is a sweet, sweet soul and what a blessing from the Lord!

  11. Sunni

    Hi! I know I’m late to this post, but I just found it, and I have a 2 and 1/2 year old son that is soo testing the limits right now. He is my 3rd child of 4, and the 2nd boy of 3. I had a question about what this “stepping back” from discipline looked like for you – how did you address his behaviour? Did you ignore it, or try to pull him in for some 1 – on – 1 time then and there? (Wouldn’t that encourage him in his behaviour because he was getting a payoff for it?) How did your other kids respond if he was able to get away with things that they couldn’t? I would love to be able to lighten up, but I’m not quite understanding the alternative I guess. Thanks!

    • Heather MacFadyen

      For me Sunni I had to continue to keep firm boundaries and give consequences (even if it was just sitting on the step or taking him up to his room). The change was in my attitude. Not seeing him as “challenging”, but finding ways to verbally encourage him or enjoy him when he wasn’t misbehaving. You are right that having one-on-one time immediately after a time of disobedience would only encourage the behavior. So I tried to stay as “unemotional” as I could during the times of discipline and make the most of the other times. Definitely helped to study him and realize he was a quality time guy. Also, maturity has helped him immensely…you are in the hardest season of “boundary pushing”. For me it was less of lightening up on the discipline but lightening up on the frustration and anger–making sure I connected with his heart and maintained a loving relationship. hope that helps.

      • Sunni

        Thank you Heather. This makes sense, and I appreciate you taking the time to get back to me. I think that my little guy is a quality time guy too, which is hard to come by for more than a 20-30 minute block that I try to give him every day. I will try to find some moments at other times of day to focus some positive attention on him. Blessings to you.


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