Maybe you feel like you’re having a different experience with parenthood than most of your friends. Their children seem to be polite and well-behaved. Yet you find yourself butting heads with your own child day in and day out.

Or perhaps you’ve recently had a baby, and you were hoping that they would sleep through the night early, feel comfortable in new situations, and easily adjust to your lifestyle.

But reality hasn’t turned out the way you pictured. You might not have the “easy” baby that all of your friends talked about, or your child might not listen to you the way you had hoped. You may be wondering if you have a “difficult” child—but what does this catch-all term really mean?

Let’s explore what parents are often trying to express when they say that a child is “difficult.”

Highly Sensitive

It’s important to clarify that referring to a child as “difficult” is not a diagnosis or clinical term. Young children who are thought of as difficult are often simply very sensitive to their environments. This can start when they are babies.

Other children might be able to handle changes in routine, a lack of sleep, or other environmental changes without much fuss. A difficult baby might be sensitive to all of these factors. Since they’re too young to clearly communicate their discomfort, their parents can get frustrated while trying to figure out what’s wrong.


As children grow up, some are naturally more strong-willed than others. They might question their parents’ rules, and even if they don’t go out of their way to cause trouble, they may not simply accept statements at face value. A strong-willed child may be eager to test the limits of their own independence, which means testing their parents’ boundaries.

They may have a greater willingness to voice their own opinions, even when they are very young, and push back on what the adults around them say.

Trouble with Emotional Regulation

Some children naturally develop stronger emotional regulation skills at a young age. Getting the hang of emotional regulation is a lifelong process for most people. It doesn’t always come easily to adults, either! But some children simply have a tougher time with it than others.

They might be more prone to tantrums or outbursts when something goes wrong. Parents will have to exercise patience and focus on proactively teaching this skill, and demonstrating it for their children in action.

Frequent Crying

A parent might describe their child as difficult because they cry often. Of course, all children cry at times, and parents of babies expect regular crying. But some babies cry far more often than others, especially babies with colic.

For many parents, frequent crying can be deeply distressing and exhausting, and this issue might be all it takes to use the term “difficult.” This behavior can also continue well into the toddler years, and even elementary school.

Difficulty Adapting

Overall, it can seem like “difficult” children have a tough time adapting to new scenarios. When parents describe an “easy” baby or child, it’s often because they feel like their child has adapted to their adult life, and they are able to maintain some of their old routines and hobbies.

But a difficult child might not adapt to so many different situations as readily. Parents might feel like their lives have changed more drastically than some of their friends after having children.

Are you struggling to parent a difficult child? Working with a therapist can help. Reach out to us to discuss your options for scheduling your first session.

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