Ask the Expert: How to bond with a ‘difficult’, negative child

Mood swings: what sensitivities or personality traits underlie your son’s bad behaviour? Photograph: Getty Images

Mood swings: what sensitivities or personality traits underlie your son’s bad behaviour? Photograph: Getty Images


Q I have three children, aged 12, 10 and six, and my problem is the youngest. He stresses me out in the way the other two never did. He whines and moans all day and is negative about everything. It can become a battle to get him to do the slightest thing.

Every morning I find myself dreading what mood he might be in. When he is a bad one, he can make it a terrible day for all of us. He started school last year and is doing okay but he is a bit of a “street angel, house devil” so other people don’t see the behaviour I get.

I have got some help for him through my public nurse, which has been supportive but it hasn’t changed his behaviour.

They feel the problem stems from when he was born. I was very sick after the birth and then suffered from postnatal depression, and they think that I never bonded with him.

To some extent that is true, because I have always found it difficult with him, which I didn’t feel with my older children. In some ways, he just winds me up: his whining gets to me and, though I feel really guilty writing this, I feel that sometimes I just don’t like him and the way he behaves.

I feel terrible that I feel so frustrated with him all the time. I want to do the best for him, because I love him. Occasionally, we have good days and I just wish it could be like this all the time.

A Though you say you feel guilty in what you have written, I think you have displayed courage in honestly recognising your feelings. Though it is often repressed and not acknowledged, it is very common for a parent to have a particularly difficult relationship with one of their children that can result in negative feelings and ongoing problems.

The good news is that all relationships can be improved, no matter where they start from. All it takes is the honesty to take responsibility for your own feelings, a desire for things to be better and a willingness to work at making changes. I have worked with many parents who bravely admit that they have got to a point of “not liking”their children, but such honesty becomes a turning point for them.

Take time to understand your feelings
The first step in moving forward is to understand the source of your feelings and the challenges in your relationship. You have already started this by understanding the problems in the context of your postnatal depression, but you may also want to seek further counselling to explore your feelings further.

There may be things in your son’s personality that particularly “press your buttons” . They might represent traits you share and find difficult in yourself, or which tell a story of your own upbringing.

In addition, some of the difficulties might be due to your own expectations of how you should be as a parent that might need to be relaxed or changed. Finally, some of your son’s behaviour might be understood in terms of family dynamics and his position in the family.

The more you can understand the sources of your negative feelings, the more you can put them in context and not let them dominate when reacting to your son.

Tune into your son’s needs
You may have already done this, but it is important to tune into your son’s needs and his unique personality. What sensitivities or personality traits underpin his whining and negative behaviour?

Perhaps he finds change hard or is a perfectionist, or perhaps he feels inadequate in relation to his older siblings? The more you can empathetically understand where he is coming from, the easier it will be to help.

Talk to his teacher and other professionals who might know him as to whether there are particular developmental issues that might underpin or contribute to his behaviour.

Seek formal assessment if this is indicated but be careful about simply looking for “what is wrong with your son” which could make the problem worse. Instead, it is more useful to focus on trying to find a positive understanding of his needs so you can help him.

Build on the enjoyable times
The sign of healthy family relationships is that there are regular times of “enjoyment” spent between everyone.

Even if enjoyable times are infrequent, these can be built upon and new ones started.

When do you enjoy being with your son? How can you build upon these times? What activities and routines could you start to improve things?

The psychologist Oliver James recommends using the technique of “love bombing” children who might have got into negative behaviour patterns as a means of repairing the relationship and resetting their “emotional thermostat”.

This means setting aside regular extended one-to-one times such as a trip out or even an overnight away when you can completely follow your son’s lead and give him your undivided attention and love.

Such special time will require a bit of planning as well as the co-operation of your partner and family, and is something you should plan for all your children to ensure there are no favourites.
Employ positive behaviour management
Reading your question I don’t underestimate the behavioural challenges your son presents.

The problem with difficult behaviour is that it can further damage the parent-child relationship, especially when incidents end negatively with either parent or child shouting or in a row.

The key to changing behaviour problems over time is to employ a range of positive strategies that de-escalate negative emotion and which invite the child to take responsibility for his

Progress takes time, but you know you are on the right track when you find ways of managing rows without getting angry and which allow you to remain calm and positive.

There are several articles describing such principles on and I’ll send you a copy of my book, Positive Parenting, which gives a step-by-step guide to setting up a positive behaviour management system with children.

Dr John Sharry is a social worker, psychotherapist and director of the Parents Plus Charity. His new book, Parenting Teenagers, is now out. See

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