Confronting resentment in parenting a strong-willed child

Yep, that was my child tantruming. Again.

Laid out, screaming. SCREAMING. Refusing to leave the doctor’s office.

It wasn’t my baby or my toddler (both of whom I was also juggling as we tried to make a much less dramatic exit), but my dear oldest, who was about five years old at the time.

The offense? A lollipop. Not that she didn’t have one; she had the WRONG one. She had removed the wrapper to a mystery-labeled dum-dum but wanted a DIFFERENT mystery-labeled dum-dum, and mean ol’ mom told her to keep the one she had already opened.

I won’t drag this story out for a fraction of the time the tantrum lasted. Let’s just say it included the full storm. Floor fall out. Fiery eyes. Screaming. Refusal to move. Defiance.

This was nothing new. Even now, when my child decides to bring it, she goes all out. No half-hearted fits (unfortunately). Pure dedication.

And then, of course, there is the other fun part of these experiences: stunned stares of everyone around us. They didn’t need to say they thought I was failing as a parent, I felt it burning on my cheeks.

And, as I often did, I thought about how their discipline tactics would work for ordinary children. But I did not have an ordinary child.

I don’t remember exactly how I got everyone to the car, but I do remember it involved some eventual arm-dragging, lots of hallway screaming (her), numerous attempts at reasoning (me), somehow reaching the elevator and surviving our way through the parking deck (sidenote about raising a strong-willed child in the city as opposed to a small town: it is much harder to get back to the car!) – and, of course, all totally public.

You can probably guess what I did when I finally got all children strapped into their car seats. I put my head on the steering wheel and I cried. Cried, and let waves of disappointment and embarrassment wash over me.

And there is another feeling that creeps in with those two, hitchhiking like a parasitic ivy: resentment.

I got an email from a friend last week about her own spirited child. It was a confession of sorts – the kind of things we whisper to an understanding heart to test and see if the waters are safe. The opposite of smiling social media posts.

My child is so overwhelming.

We don’t do certain things or go places because she can be so disruptive.

I thought we were making progress, but we’re having setbacks again.

My other kids don’t get their share of attention.

Do you ever feel resentful? I find myself resenting her – it feels terrible.

YES, my friend. Just – yes.

First, let me pull you aside and tell you that a parent who grapples with their child’s personality – struggling to find techniques that fit, recognizing that fire in the soul of a feisty child isn’t something to extinguish but try again (and again and again) to train them to use well – is a GOOD PARENT. It’s a messy business, these fiery ones. Good parents can be found down in the dirt (or crying on their steering wheels), dusty and tear-stained and exhausted.

But we know resentment is a deep divider; it creates crevices that don’t mend easily. We don’t want it, but it creeps in when we’re not looking. Slips through small spaces. Digs its roots deep in frustration, embarrassment, disappointment, and all of the other things you didn’t imagine feeling as a parent.

I only have my own experience to draw on, and the wisdom of people God has brought through my life, but here are the two things that helped me root out resentment the most.

Let go of expectations. Over and over and over. Every time you glimpse a leaf of resentment growing, unclench your hands. Examine what you’re holding onto.

Your family is going to look different than you envisioned…different than you envisioned before you had kids, two years ago, and maybe different than what you envisioned last week. If you have a titanium-willed child, it may look MUCH different, and keep changing.

For me, it looks like opting out of taking my kids places in the evenings if I don’t have another adult there to help me, even fun community things that other families happily participate in.

It looks like carpooling after school even though we are in walking distance because my girls are exhausted at the end of the school day and have had too many public meltdowns and shows of defiance in that simple 8 minute walk home.  It seems ridiculous, but I just don’t do it anymore. 

It looks like playdates last year limited to the wonderful mom of my daughter’s friend who knows and understands our family and invited my daughter over knowing full well that she is a work-in-progress on controlling emotions. Someone who came alongside us even in the harder moments.

I had to let go of images of me smiling and chatting on a picnic blanket at neighborhood picnics while my children ran happily around; images of sweet walks home after school; images of lots of girly playdates. But in the end it made our family happier and more peaceful.

Cut through the nostalgia of what you are holding on to. If you need to take a moment to mourn what you thought you would have, then take a moment, but don’t linger too long. Pack it up, acknowledge its loveliness, and ship it away – because, honey, it’s just not real.

Then take a breath and turn to the child(ren) you have, in their beautiful, exhaustive, feisty imperfection.

It is so much more effective to parent the child you have than the child you thought you would have.

I’d rather deal with my children realistically, with love, than keep trying to love what isn’t real.

Secondly, resist comparing your family to other families. Again, this is not a one-time thing either, but more of a continual practice.

I remember visiting a church once and a friend introduced me to another mom. As she kindly welcomed me, her two darling girls stood by her side and smiled politely THE WHOLE TIME. I internally gawked. Meanwhile, my kids are running huge circles around us, Tasmanian-devil style. You know when you’re trying to smile and look normal to an adult while grabbing children by the arm and anger-whispering “STOP RUNNING” between clinched teeth? There was lots of that.

Comparing my family or my parenting to hers would be a losing game. Our children were built with different elements, created and nurtured by two entirely different parents, so how can I expect the same results?

The more I look longingly at someone else’s path, the greater the chances that I will trip and fall all over my own. So I find a certain tunnel-vision helps: to stop looking left and right and focus straight ahead at my own family.

I take a deep breath (multiple times a day), put on my judgement-deflecting blinders, and work with my own wild ones.

If God had seen fit for someone on the sidelines to be your child’s parent, He would have done so. But He KNOWINGLY chose you, so get in the game and don’t worry abut being embarrassed in front of the spectators. I have found that the less I care what people think, the better I respond under pressure.

Resentment sneaks in, but don’t let it settle. Root it out by examining your expectations and loving the child you have, not the one you thought you would have, and resist the urge to compare to someone else running their own race.

The thing is, despite how it feels on the tough days, you are not operating at a loss. Your spirited child is going somewhere you couldn’t have expected. Somewhere off the map. It may be rocky, rough terrain. But there ARE others out there getting dirty and sweaty and struggling up those uncharted hills too. And – I catch glimpses of it sometimes – the view one day is going to be amazing.


4 thoughts on “Confronting resentment in parenting a strong-willed child

  1. brandyhynes2014 says:

    From one mama of a spirited child to another, this is one of the best posts I have seen on this, Jessica! Letting go of expectations and never comparing your family or parenting is key. You nailed it. We must remember we are the perfect mama for these kids, messes and all, hand picked by God. Beautiful! I’m stopping over from Christian Mom Blog Support.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lisa says:

    This is such an encouraging and helpful post. I like how you encourage us to not compare ourselves to others. You also share the importance of letting go of our expectations from what we had visioned. It is so important to see what is and not what we think should be. Resentment is a big one. I struggle with that. Homeschooling is not what I visioned. My kids have recreated homeschooling. Life got so much better once I stopped demanding that things be my way throughout the day. Now I understand their temperaments and learning styles. Study our kids and seek to use the language that speaks the most to them. Thanks for your post. I’m taking a break from a really hard day with the kids. God led me to your post.


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