Welcome to the rodeo: What it’s like to parent a high-need baby or child who is just “more”
We all have an image of what parenting will be like. For me, it was those ads with a mom sitting peacefully in a rocking chair with the sun streaming in on her sleeping baby in her arms. She looks amazing and it’s all just so perfect.
No rocking chair for me, no peacefully sleeping baby. It was bouncing furiously on a yoga ball for hours with my Dustbuster buzzing on the floor. (White noise wasn't a thing back then.) Still, I couldn’t get my newborn to sleep more than 15 minutes at a time. I just kept thinking, “Aren’t they supposed to sleep a LOT when they’re this little?” What was wrong with her? What was wrong with me? What was I doing? What was I not doing that I should be doing?
It’s possible that one of the ten things I tried actually worked. It’s equally possible that I tried too many things and just one would have done it if I had hung in there long enough. Who even knows?
In twenty years, not a lot has changed for parents of children who just don’t fit the mold. What I hear from parents is remarkably consistent— their baby is incredibly alert, never wants to sleep, goes from zero to sixty with crying if they don't get there quickly, and needs a lot of carrying and movement, and help with soothing. Yet, these parents also are certain that they’re the only ones with a child like this.
Dear parents of high-needs babies and children: You are not alone and having a child that is so different from what you expected…isn’t easy.
Signs of Parental Burnout
Anxiety and self-doubt. Having an intense, persistent child throws parents off their center. It’s a shock. None of the parenting advice they encounter appears to be talking about their child and doesn’t work at all. Parents worry if they have done something to “cause” the intensity. “Am I too permissive?” “Am I too strict?” “Maybe I’m just doing it all wrong.” “Do I just suck as a parent?” With my own kids, I felt like I was winging it almost 100% of the time.
Shell shock. The intensity – all the meltdowns--- causes parents to feel just worn down to a powder. There are many things they do just to have things be peaceful for a moment or two. They may feel ashamed that they rock their baby to sleep or cosleep or use a pacifier… but, good grief, this is hard and sometimes you just have to do what works. It’s just self-preservation.
Running on fumes. The intense level of energy and thought and stamina required to parent these spitfires takes its toll. Plus, these are the children who aren’t sleeping. I know from working with them, these parents are TIRED. The fatigue (plus the shell-shock…) results in an incredibly low bandwidth for change. When I work with these desperately tired parents on sleep, it’s a tough sell to tell them that it’s going to get worse before it gets better. They honestly can’t take “worse.”
It’s also not surprising that they have difficulty sometimes setting limits. The blowback that comes with a change in routine or a limit can be really significant. If they struggle with setting limits, it’s not because they’re “weak” or “permissive,” they are exhausted. Others may say they’re “caving” (“You can’t run to them every time they cry. They’ll never learn to self-soothe.”)—but parenting a spirited, intense child is a whole different ballgame.
Isolation and shame or embarrassment. Many parents tell me that it’s hard to go to playgroups or moms’ groups. Theirs is the only child who seems to need so much more help or monitoring.
Or parents feel like their choices are scrutinized. “If you just let them cry it out, they’ll sleep! It worked for us!” This advice works for children who are not intense. (Honestly, most advice works when children aren’t intense.) However, suggestions like these often make parents of intense children just feel worse (“I tried that, and it didn’t work. What am I doing wrong?”)
What you can do to battle parental burnout
Give yourself a break. Empathize with yourself about how hard this is and how hard you are working. You are doing what you need to do to respond to this particular child. So, don’t feel bad or worried about anything you have done or have not done. Advice books weren’t written about your child. If you’ve tried things and they haven’t worked, this is why. It’s not you. You are on a completely different path and even though you can’t tell, you’re probably killing it.
Notice the good stuff. Challenging children have some amazing abilities that go hand-in-hand with the hard stuff. Acknowledging the positives may help you cope. At the same time, notice what you are doing well. Intense/sensitive kids force their parents to step up to the plate…and it’s likely that you are.
Pick your battles (but fight the ones you pick). You don’t have to follow your child’s cues every time. You will follow those cues right off of a cliff. Figure out what’s not sustainable and work on that…but really WORK on it. Don’t give up at the first sign of pushback. Be willing to allow protest but keep moving consistently forward. If you are supportive and consistent, your child will figure that out.
Get support. All this work and investment and stamina take a toll. In my survey of parents of intense young children, 79% admitted that they strongly suspected depression or anxiety in the first year and 61% thought they still might have it. Find support from other parents with similar kinds of challenges or find some professional support.
Put on the oxygen mask. Parents of these intense kids work harder all the time…around the clock. You need to have your wits about you, and you need to be able to function. So, whatever you need to do to get just a tiny bit of space/rest/peace, do it. Temperament doesn’t go away.
This is a long road. Pace yourself.