Parenting: Hard Stuff

Parenting a strong-willed child is challenging work, even more so when a child comes into your family later in life. Parents have to be the boundary, the wall, showing children clearly what is right and wrong. But within the wall there must be a heart. Eventually, as maturity comes, our children will do right because (by God’s grace) they have decided to take our teaching into their own hearts. But teaching is not likely to ‘stick’ unless kids care about us.

Children who come to a family as infants usually fall in love with their parents quickly and naturally.  But with older kids, building that bond takes time. So in the midst of teaching the rules of the house, we are also trying to bind hearts together.  That balance can feel like a walk on a tightrope, especially when kids don’t particularly WANT to obey.  We have to set limits.   And yet we must also show kids over and over again that we care about them, even when they are resisting the rules, pummeling our wall, and along with it, our hearts.

Journey Mama wrote a touching post about pretending to fall into a creek as a child. For attention, she said. She wondered how people would feel if she died. Her writing made me remember a story my sister told of hiding in the bathroom for an hour as a child, wondering how long it would take for someone to come looking for her. No one did. I have to confess, when my sister told me the story I thought she was being overly dramatic. If she had CALLED, my mom would have come, said my practical brain.

But hiding in a bathroom or ‘falling’ into a creek hoping to be missed speaks to a longing we all have–that wanting to feel valued, to know that you are utterly priceless to someone.

As a human, I can’t ever affirm my kids perfectly– heck, on crazy days I struggle to do it even to a small degree.  It is darned hard in the busyness of life to really LOOK people in the eye, to make them know just how precious they are. It is doubly hard when 80% of the hassle in your day is coming from the kid most in need of affirmation.  I take great comfort in knowing that God loves my kids more than I do, and that He, unlike me, is a perfect parent.

But, wow, I want to be the best I can be for all my kids.   I want to be a cheerleader for all of them, even the ones who are fighting me tooth and nail, bucking rules, pummeling my heart with their fists.

Come to think of it, maybe all that pummeling is just another way of hiding in a bathroom or falling in a creek. They’re asking me if they’re important, if they’re valuable no matter what. And I am praying that somehow I’ll let them know, even in the midst of holding out standards, insisting on respect, enforcing rules, that they ARE precious to me.

Otherwise I wouldn’t be trying so hard.


  1. Your kids do know that you value them. But (I think) that kids learn how to navigate the world more through direct practice than through learning from someone else’s story. So they test. They learn how to fight fairly or to express their emotions appropriately through trial and error. And so I wonder if when kids do that a lot with the parents, it’s because they trust the parents enough to know that the grown ups will be there. It’s like, you want to learn how to ice skate, so you pick the thickest, strongest ice you can find to do the daredevil tricks. So rules can provide a sense of stability to a child, especially when they’re done with a sense of fairness and respect to both the grownups and the kids.

    The way in which you speak about the kids, yourself and the world around you indicates you have a deep respect for yourself and other people. So that’s going to be a part of how you interact with the kids, which is a way of showing them how valued they are. And the fact that you can see that they might have a unique need (I mean, that the kids aren’t interchangeable) will also demonstrate value.

    But I also think that it’s important for kids to eventually understand that mom and dad can’t meet 100% of their emotional needs. Eventually, kids grow up and make communities of their own. Part of that skill comes from realizing that one person can’t be all things to another. And as adults, they will have to be able to meet their own needs (and those of the people they love.) So if there is a time when it doesn’t seem like they’ve gotten the message that they’re loved, remember that this is also part of a learning process (IMO) for them: how to learn to appreciate the actions/limitations of others and how to meet their own needs in response to that.

    And I think that kids learn things in dramatic ways (like the falling in the river story.) But I think that it’s not a bad thing, in of itself – people have to learn how to identify and articulate their needs. It’s hard to do that with precision at first, so when you’re a kid, you imagine being in danger to see if people want you. But as you mature, you realize that you have a need to feel wanted. And then you learn the appropriate limits of those feelings and how to express them. But the first time you feel that need, you don’t have the concepts or the language to really know what it is you -truly- need. So it’s a really dramatic dream of being snatched from random danger rather than a short conversation with your spouse that you’d like to have a date night once weekly. It just takes time and work to develop social skills, and part of learning how to behave as an adult is through interactions with them. So it’s messy, until they get the hang of it.

    So I guess I’m saying to be patient with yourself, because I’m sure you’re doing an awesome job.

  2. Wow Mary. I’ve been reading your blog for a while so just wanted to let you know I am here and how much I get out of it. You are an inspiration. And it is very comforting to know that what seems like a super mum to me also struggles with the same issues. Of course you are still a super mum!

  3. Thank you I needed that reminder.

  4. great reminder. i often think of you when my daughter asks me to stop whatever i am doing and pay attention to her. my work life is so busy and hard to turn off when i am home from the office – but in the mornings before school and at preschool drop off i think of posts like this and take the extra moment (s) to go a little further. it is comforting in a way to know…that all parents have their own experiences with this. how can we not? thanks for sharing super mom!

  5. Amen to everything you said… thanks again!

  6. Oh, do I feel you, sister. My squeaky wheel was just two when he joined our family, and 11 years later is still a bottomless pit of emotional need. I have been doing Beth Moore’s Esther study and last week she talked about what a burden it is to feel like we are responsible for the futures of everyone we love. It has given me permission to focus on the now and let God carry the rest.

  7. Oh Mary, praying for you as I totally exactly understand what you are going through and how hard it is. I have one that does just exactly this, and it is one of my biggest challenges (perhaps I have another, ready to come home?)…All I can say is we hear a lot of talk about resilient kids (and thank goodness) but we dont’ hear nearly so much about the resilience of a mom’s heart. But it is. Even when it’s bruised and frayed, it is, and you have just what it takes to parent and love this child…even on those days when it feels like you have plumb run out of it. It’s there. You’re doing a great great job, hang in there!

  8. Oh. Wow.
    As I struggle minute by minute with our newest addition (20 months at gotcha – home for 5 months now) – I need this reminder… Some days I feel like his mission in life is to push my buttons; this is a wonderful reminder of my job as his mother. God did choose ME to fill that role in his life. I must be willing to fill it. And not only fill it – but do it well.
    Thank you for the reminder 🙂

  9. wow, thank you for another great post.

  10. amen.

  11. Thank you for that post. As a mom with adopted and birth children it helps to read “real” posts about struggles. It is refreshing to be able to have “conversations” where you can talk about the attachment journey and know it is okay. It can be hard to explain issues that children can have when people think these kids should be so grateful just to have a family. What they don’t realize is that some children don’t have a concept of family and have made it this far in life in survival mode.
    What I really want to say is admire your honesty and determination. Thanks

  12. You are an amazing mom and you do a great job! I know sometimes things get the best of us but the great thing is there is another day to start over and to bless our children just as they bless us.

  13. Funny. Not your story, the coincidence. I posted about the struggles of my eldest today, titled ‘Parenting the Hard Stuff’. I hear your struggles!

  14. Thank you so much for writing this. You put into words some of what I have been feeling. I have a ten year old that we adopted when she was 3. I love her to pieces of course. She is the one though who “takes” the most of me and while there are times that I just get tired, she truly is the one that needs me the most. I love how you said it is a tightrope. It truly is.

    Thanks for putting words to my feelings. We just keep on keepin’ on and trust God to fill in where we lack.


  15. Dawn in OR says:

    My 27 year old is my needy one. As she has grown I have stopped waiting for healing and just learned to lay her at the feet of Jesus and to love her continually and to keep loving her. I have found peace in knowing I am not responsible for her healing…

  16. This is such a great post and a great reminder. You are such an inspiration to me.


    p.s. would you mind e-mailing me again. I have lost your e-mail as we have a new computer and I am dying to read your book. Thanks!

  17. I loved this post. I am a custodial step-mom to a “difficult” 18 year old boy who resists the love and rules we have in our home. And you’re right, it is so hard to give the love when that kid is driving you insane, even though that child needs it more than the others.

    This is why I always say “parenting is the hardest job I have ever had” (and I don’t have 1/2 as many as you!!!!)

  18. wonderful Post. Thank you for sharing.

  19. Hi Mary.

    I’ve never commented before, but have been reading for quite some time. This entry really resonates with me – we adopted 3 from foster care last year, ages 12, 9 and 8. Our bio kids are 7, 5, 4 and 1. It has been an ongoing struggle for us, this transition and navigation of our ‘new’ family. As much as we try to tie those heartstrings, there are days that our hearts just aren’t in it. We love our kids, we are working so hard to make a great life for them and give them a chance at normalcy. It’s just probably one of the most difficult things we’ve ever done – laying our hearts out there for them. Right now, we’re just tired. Thanks for your honesty and encouragement. It lets me know we’re not alone in how we feel and that there will be reward for perseverance.

  20. Debbi Busack says:

    Mary, do I have your permission to print and read your post to our post adoption support group?


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