“When I have kids, I’ll never let them do that.”
Many parents have heard this line from a non-parent at some point. We smile politely and hold our tongues, knowing that the strain of raising human beings can’t be fully understood until you’re living it.
But there’s another level of understanding that comes to some of us, to those who have kids with extra challenges. Our kids may be categorized as “spirited” or “strong-willed,” diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder or ADHD, or identified with myriad other challenges. Whatever the origin of their issues, these kids don’t usually follow regular patterns or fit the bell curve.
Their relationships with siblings can be strained. Their behavior may be unpredictable or unusual. They may need extra resources, counseling, specialized types of therapy, and lots of extra patience. Whatever the origins of their issues, these kids can be hard for parents.
Of course they’re loved. But they’re also difficult.
In today’s world where picture-perfect family moments can be captured, curated, and published on social media in seconds, parents may feel like they need to hide the storm in their households. Our non-Christian coworkers and neighbors loudly tout their kids’ accomplishments whenever we see them; even fellow church members can hold up their family as a model of what “Christian” children should be.
Parents can feel as if navigating the challenges of medication, family therapy, meltdowns, school troubles, and relationship woes are taboos that “good Christian families” don’t encounter. Such parents can feel helpless, and sometimes hopeless. These issues are weighty and can affect the entire family. They can certainly exhaust and discourage you.
What you might not expect the struggles to do, however, is change you.
God uses all kinds of things in our lives to change us, including hard kids. Here are four ways he might be using yours to do just that.
1. Hard kids reveal the depravity of our hearts.
This depravity is always there, in both parents and siblings, but the difficulty of a hard kid reveals our sin more quickly and more often. Our selfishness, pride, unwillingness to serve, and arrogance are uncovered by the relentless needs of challenging kids. You may yell, shame, bribe, ignore, or do other things you never imagined you would do before you were a parent.
Our selfishness, pride, unwillingness to serve, and arrogance are uncovered by the relentless needs of challenging kids.
While our sin is ugly to see, it can also drive us to Jesus in repentance. And God uses this repeated process of repentance and faith to sanctify and change us over the long term.
2. Hard kids give us eyes to see God’s image in all people.
When we live with kids who have challenges, we learn to look for praiseworthy characteristics that may not match culturally recognized values. Maybe your son doesn’t relate well to peers but is outstanding at making small children feel comfortable. Perhaps your daughter struggles to get Cs in school, but excels in generosity toward needy people. We learn to celebrate all kinds of abilities, especially those outside the world’s small range of laudable achievements. We notice goodness—and reflections of God’s image—we would not have otherwise had eyes to see.
3. Hard kids teach us to have compassion.
Because their behavior can be extreme, we learn over time to look past what our kids are doing and be curious about why they’re doing it. Are they anxious? Triggered? Have they recently experienced a big transition? We consider their hearts, their environment, their days.
Over time, we start asking these questions about all of the people with whom we interact, both children and adults. Is the woman who sits beside you at work mean-spirited by choice, or does she have some trauma that manifests as anger? Is the lady behind the grocery-store counter trying to punish you, or is she working out her own frustration about some limit her body forces on her?
Because we’ve had to consider these struggles in our own kids, we begin to see them in others. When we recognize their unseen difficulties, compassion begins to grow in our hearts.
4. Hard kids teach us to pray.
We’re not truly in control of the lives of any of our children, even when they are small. We know this intellectually. But challenging kids can teach this to us in profound ways. Because their needs are big and often specific, we must pray big, specific prayers for them. Challenging kids also drive us to pray for ourselves. As their parents, we quickly come to the end of our own physical and emotional selves, forcing us to beg for patience, endurance, and wisdom—often on a daily basis.
The next time you stand in the kitchen with a dysregulated child yelling at you, take a minute after the crisis has passed to breathe. Think about what you saw in your heart in that interaction. It may be that God will show you your sin and enable you to repent, allowing you to express greater compassion the next time. It may be that he will encourage you that he is already at work. Change may be slow. But God will use our children to make us more like Jesus.