Motivating Your Intense Child

big emotions | homeschooling ADHD | homeschooling | motivation

My kids have BIG EMOTIONS. All three of them are what you’d call “intense” children. And while our lifestyle change and food eliminations have definitely taken care of the more violent feelings and rages we used to deal with, it hasn’t changed my kids’ personalities. They still feel things in a BIG WAY, and sometimes, that can be a BIG distraction to homeschooling, especially when those feelings have them completely unmotivated to learn.

I wish I could say I always handle this the right way and patiently walk them through these moments. I don’t. But I’m learning. Here’s some of what I’m learning—from lots of trial and error—works best to motivate an intense child.

5 Ways to Motivate your Intense Child

  • Help them calm down first. Oh, this is so hard for me. Most of the time, I just want it to stop. (Make the noise stop!) It takes all the Holy Spirit power to keep me from launching into a logical discourse on why their feelings don’t make sense. But I’m learning. I know this isn’t helpful. It doesn’t matter how correct I am, logic is NOT what they need. Those conversations must wait until later, after they are calm. First and foremost, I have to discover what my child needs to calm down. And it seems that different children and even different situations sometimes call for a different answer here. Sometimes, the child needs space from the situation or the offender to calm themselves. Sometimes, it’s a creative outlet to work through or distract from the anxiety. Other times, they just need me to hold them and tell them everything will be okay.  No logic, just reassurance and prayer.
  • Have a conversation (after they are calm). And what I mean by a conversation is still not the logical discourse I’m tempted to lay out. Instead, what I’ve found works best is to ask questions, specific leading questions asked in a patient, calm, friendly way (not an accusatory way) to help draw them out. I give them possible responses. I assure them that their honesty will not hurt my feelings and explain to them that I want to help them but need to know exactly what kind of help they need from me. If there is a problem to discuss, I try to ask questions that help them see what lesson they need to learn instead of merely preaching to them (well, okay, there’s some preaching to). During these conversations, I do insist that they speak to me respectfully (which is why we save these conversations for after they’ve calmed down.) I don’t feel that it is healthy for them to yell at me when they are frustrated, so I coach them that they can feel frustrated and that they can be honest while still speaking respectfully.
  • Set goals together. After they’ve shared what is frustrating them, I ask “how can I best help you?” For one of my intense kids, finding the words to explain a feeling or emotionally-charged situation is very difficult. So during this part of the conversation, I provide a few choices for what may help the next time this situation comes up, and then I let them choose what game plan seems most doable for them. We set expectations and talk through natural consequences. Sometimes, we even come up with a code word or secret sign that I can give to remind them of our strategy before the emotions take them beyond the point of return.
  • Avoid “you against them.” This is huge, when I remember it. And I don’t always. When I do, it really turns a situation around. I try to set up our conversations as “me and them” against natural consequences. “I hate to see you lose this privilege because of a bad choice. How can I help you make sure that doesn’t happen?” “I’d hate to see you miss that party because you didn’t finish your assignments. I want to help you get your work done, but I can’t do it for you. I need you to work with me, and I will do all that I can to help you succeed. How can I help you best?” I’m the ally, not the enemy. I’m on their side, wanting them to succeed! 
  • Ask for their ideas to be motivated in their schoolwork.  Often, I’m surprised by how small their suggestions usually are. “I just don’t like being up in my room all by myself to do my work” [with lots of drama and high-pitched weeping]. “I just don’t like my colored pencils. They aren’t coloring right on the paper” [with same amount of drama and wailing]. Sometimes, they just need to buck up, for sure. But if making room for my child at the dining room table, buying her a $2 pack of colored pencils, or letting her finish her math with a pink pen is going to renew and motivate her to push through and try again, I’m all for it.

Bottom-line, I’m learning. I’m learning that the best way to motivate my intense children is by allowing them a measure of control. Often the emotions come when something out of their control has occurred. But they can control their choices and progress. Learning is their choice. That’s not on me. It’s the classic “take them to water but can’t make them drink” scenario. I can teach, but I can’t make them learn. Homeschooling takes both of us working together.

In those intense moments, I am there to calm them, to teach them to cope with frustration and disappointment, to remind them of their goals, and to offer my assistance to help them with those goals. I don’t remove consequences or bail them out, but I also don’t make it my fault when they make a bad choice. In other words, I can’t get drawn into their drama (Oh, so much easier said than done! I do know it); I have to be my child’s calm, and draw them toward the Prince of Peace.

Yes, there have been seasons (particularly before we eliminated our problem foods and triggers) where I felt that I did more counseling than actual homeschooling. There have been times when I put a big X through my plans and made a checkbox for “parenting” in its place. But when moments with my intense child have the lesson plans all askew, I try to remember that God had different plans for the day, that learning to cope with BIG emotions is truly just as important for this child as learning to multiply, and that some lessons just can’t be scheduled. 

If you homeschool an intense or anxious child, I would love to hear your ideas on how you cope with the BIG EMOTIONS and get school done, too. Comment on my blog, or join the discussion on Facebook or Twitter.