Parenting the “High-Needs” Older Child

This post is one that has been hard to write, as there are many varying perspectives out there.  Typically one reads something along the lines of, yes, there are children who have “difficult”  behaviors, but if Mother and Father just get through it, the child will grow up to be a wonderful person.

Sometimes it seems these authors never really had a child with “difficult” behaviors to be gotten through for years on end, right?? 

I am talking in this post about children who are essentially within normal development, not children who have been diagnosed with ADHD, sensory processing disorders or autism spectrum disorders. 

I have a few things that I have found to be helpful with my own “higher-needs, intense child”, not in any special order:

1.  Get rid of that label. When I first was a parent, I thought “high-needs” was wonderful…..Now  I think this label serves its purpose when the child may be in infancy so you don’t feel as if you are going insane, but really as the child grows, I think it is better to just accept where they are and what things are more challenging for them than labeling it.   Every child brings challenges and things that need balancing and guidance and I think that can be easy to lose sight of if you consider  your child “hard” and everyone else’s child “easy”. 

I have also heard too many parents refer to their “higher-needs” child with the child standing right there!  The child truly does understand this, and even if you think this is a nice way of saying “difficult”, the child translates it as such and feels something less than positive about themselves!  Stop it!  Stop telling the horror stories of your child’s infancy if your child is there, and even see if you can re-frame those thoughts in your head before they come out of your mouth.   How about these instead:  “We got through together the best we knew at the time.”  “We did a great job in that situation.”  “There were positive moments.”  

Positive thoughts equal positive parenting, which is often exactly what this little person needs and longs for because sometimes these children are not the first to look on the sunny side!

Secondly, think about the fact that human development takes a LONG time and that three, four and five and even six  is still little, is a period overall of rapid growth and often disequilibrium, and that in many cultures the child is perceived as  not really having a set personality from infancy onward the way we look at this in the  United States.  Ask yourself, how would I be treating my child if I thought this “higher needs”  was not so ingrained within them?  Would I be able to be calmer and patient because I was guiding them, teaching them?  Maybe not, but interesting food for thought.  Your child may be a much, much different person at 7 or 8 than even at 4,  5 or 6.  Seriously!

2.  Stop drawing individual attention to that child’s behavior as much as possible, and accentuate the positive as much as possible. Less words for judging (because even saying, “Gosh, you are feeling aggressive today!” or “You are  being so persistent” is judging in my book.  Why go there?).  Try meditating over your child while they sleep, try warm hugs and smiles, try really looking at the positive with your own warmth toward the child and finding the humor.  Humor can diffuse a lot.

3.. Understand normal developmental stages and what works best – less words and don’t reason,   more movement, more play, more imagination, more humor. 

4.  Be ready to accept your child’s behavior, pull back and be okay with that.  This can be a real challenge for the adult, and I have been there.  It was a challenge for me.    So your three-year-old doesn’t do well at playgroups, so what?  It used to be a child really didn’t have any play dates until they were over four and a half or so – maybe there was wisdom in that!    It used to be small children were mainly at home with siblings and not off to gymnastics and art and museums and such.  If your child doesn’t do groups well, look at it not as a character flaw, but normal development!  It is really okay, and again, unless your child has been diagnosed with some sort of autism spectrum, it is likely to change as they grow. 

5. Be calm and be patient.  Try to understand things from your child’s point of view, and let your RHYTHM carry things. Have some limits that just include what you do, “We will play after lunch.”  “We wash our hands after going to the bathroom.”  We works really well.

6.  Be aware of any reflux, food allergies or things within the environment that your child is sensitive to that triggers things not going well.

7.  Make sure this child is getting enough rest and sleep.  That is an absolute cornerstone of rhythm.   

8.  Are you feeling positive and centered? C’mon y’all, you knew I was going to say that one!  Work on your own stuff so you can be what this child needs.  Guard your words and your thoughts toward the positive and away from the negative. 

Most importantly, FORGIVE YOURSELF.  You are a wonderful mother, you are working hard, you wouldn’t be thinking and worried about this otherwise!  Give yourself a break!  Love yourself and use that as a model for how you can love and forgive your child!

9.  It is okay to help your child play.  Children under the age of 7 are in the height of the imitative phase, and may NOT be able to come up with what to play out of their heads.  It is okay to help them out – set up play scenes, give them ideas (“I am the old woman of the villager who is washing dishes and you are coming to my village on  a train!  Here is a train cap and train whistle!”)  Invite them to help you with practical work.  Tell them stories and things that may spur their play.  Your oldest child might really need this help, your younger ones will have the older one to imitate.

10.  Try to spend some time alone with this child every day in a positive way.  Whether this is just curled up together reading a book, tossing a ball, rolling around on the floor, just be together. The more you are together in positive ways  the more  you can love each other.

11. Again, this post was not geared toward children who have been diagnosed with something specific, but if you think your child is having issues with anger, or processing sounds or textures, or whatever, get help.  Don’t wait!  Trust your gut instinct because you are the expert on your child,  you know your child best, and you are the advocate for your child!

Peace and cyber – hugs,


28 thoughts on “Parenting the “High-Needs” Older Child

  1. I am curious whether you have ever had a child or know someone who had a child with encopresis. Both of my sons have this condition and it is incredibly difficult to deal with as a parent.

  2. Cristina,
    I have not had a great deal of experience with parents of children who have encopresis. It seems like I saw a support place somewhere on the web for that though, are you involved in a support group? What sort of things have been helpful – anything? I wonder if that is something a homeopath could have an impact on at all?
    Many blessings,

  3. I started a support group online actually. It now has 150 members with more joining daily. The condition itself is very rare so it’s good to be able to talk to parents across the country (and world!) with kids going through this. I do find that creating rhythms actually helps a bit. My son’s encopresis has to do with fear of pooping which manifests in resisting his body’s urges which results in many difficulties, physically, mentally and behaviorally. Creating a peaceful home environment helps him feel safe in general, which does, I think, help somewhat.

    • Hi Cristina,
      There was as research study out of Italy that found that with children with constipation, when dairy was removed from their diet, 50% of the children’s constipation resolved within about 2 weeks. I mention this because encopresis is often a result of fear of pooping (which you mentioned is the case for your child), and the root of this fear is often pain associated with overly large/constipated poops. Before I became a SAHM I worked as a child welfare social worker and had a case involving a child who had encopresis (not the reason the child was on my caseload!) and also worked closely with a encopresis specialist. The specialist focused on dietary solutions primarily, and then followed up with behavioral solutions once the bowel movements were no longer painful.

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  6. I found this today while googling ways to “help my high needs child” ha! What a wonderful way to look at these little guys! I know my daughter and I have had a rough morning but after reading this I’m feeling a lot more ready to tackle the rest of the day! Thanks for the insight!

  7. Hi,

    My friend’s son has been diagnosed with autism since he was 1.5 years… he is 2.5 years old now. Could someone please help me find tips on raising autistic children it would be great!


    • Hi Ruma,
      I guess this is difficult to say since I don’t know what resources your friend has investigated so far or what support your friend has in real life. I think a local support group would be a great place to start, since those parents are there in real life and know local resources and have walked this path.

      Perhaps my readers know of some specific resources; many mothers have told me they started with DAN doctors and other parents pursuing that path and then branched out from there…


  8. Thanks Carrie. My friend is in India and me in UK. There are no support groups there neither DAN doctors – I searched for them online yesterday, but could not find anything.
    Is there anything else you can suggest – changes in lifestyle, changes in approach towards the child?


    • Ruma,
      I am sorry your friend is facing this. On a purely physical level, some of the websites regarding nutritional change and other resources may be helpful: and here:
      I am sure those experienced with the Camphill movement from Rudolf Steiner would have more to say regarding how to structure the day, and a holistic picture of children with autism, but I really don’t feel well versed enough to say anything. There is a section of books regarding autism from Bob and Nancy’s bookshop, I wonder if any of these titles would be available where you are or where your friend is:

      Hope that is at least a start. How frustrating because of course in the US, children birth through 3 typically are covered for at least some services for therapy and such when they are facing that challenge. I do not know what the Indian system is like, even though I have family living there now!

      Many blessings,

  9. Thanks so much for this. My son is almost three, and every day is a new adventure. Reading this was like a mirror into our life. I feel like I have to be so deliberate with everything I say and do with him to keep things functioning. It can be exhausting. Playdates are often a source of stress for me, as I don’t know how he will react….sometimes it’s fine, sometimes he gets totally overstimulated and ends up hitting/biting/screaming. I am sure he picks up on my stress, which makes matters worse. I appreciated all the suggestions your made about parenting “higher need” children and know they make sense. Sometimes, however, it’s easier said than done. Just as much as I need to be patient with my son, I suppose I need to be patient with myself as well.

    • HI Katie,
      Thank you so much for coming here to read The Parenting Passageway. Please do read some posts about the two year old under the “development tab” as well – two and a half can be very rigid and exhausting, and there is a lot there about having a peaceful life with a two year old. I don’t know if your son has other challenges going on besides normal disequilibrium of development, such as sensory challenges or other things, but one of the main keys many mothers have found to having a peaceful life with a two year old is to spend a lot of time outside in nature and at home, to involve them in work and to not worry about playdates at all. Traditional Waldorf kindergartens used to start at about four and a half because that is when little people really play with someone else better and don’t fall apart. I have quite a few posts on here about social experiences for children, mainly under the four year old tab, but i think if you read those, you will get the gist of it.

      Hang in there! Rhythm, rest, routine, home, peace and joy!
      Many blessings,

    • With the christmas ssaoen upon us. I would like to bake some cookies for a cookie swap. I do see some recipes on the web site and was wondering if more could be posted.As baking is not my normal thing and there are way to many recipes to go threw on line.Thank you,Melissa

  10. Hi, This is a topic I have just begun to look into, so thank you for the information! I had never heard the term “high needs” until a few days ago. A friend saw a frustrated post of my mine and offered some info on the idea. Since birth my daughter has been a handful. She came out screaming and never stopped. We had a lot of issues with her in her first year and I didn’t think either of us would make it out alive. Now she is almost two and we have a lot of good days, but still have a lot of bad days. She just knows what she wants and when she wants it and doesn’t take no for an answer. People I talked to about her make suggestions as to how to modify her behavior, thinking it’s how I am handling her, so I found it reassuring that it’s more of a personality thing, than anything I am doing. I also like the part in your info here about not labeling these children. Where as I was comforted by the information I have gathered about high needs children, I was also a little horrified that her personality was considered some kind of condition. I do however find all of your talk about being positive a little hard to swallow. When your in the middle of a situation where the child won’t leave you alone or won’t stop screaming or whinning for no apparent reason it’s hard to not form negitive thoughts. I would love to know how to change me way of thinking though 😉

    • HI Jennifer,
      It is hard and challenging! Try under the Development tab under “Adult Development” and also under the family tab under “Anger” for some posts that might be helpful. These children really no one can understand unless they have had a child like this themselves. Does your child also have any medical issues, such as sensory issues or such, or does it all seem to be behavioral? There are also many posts on the Development tab on the two year old, so maybe some of those would be helpful as well.

      Glad you are here,

  11. It’s funny, I was looking at your site a couple weeks ago for Waldorf ideas to do at home with my son and came across the information on the Gessell Institute on three and a half year olds and so ordered the book and then this week I came across the idea of a “high needs baby” and realized that fit my 3 and a half year old’s babyhood so googled “parenting a high needs child” and here I am again. We actually did quite well, just figuring it was who he was and we’d parent him the way he needed…until our new baby arrived 4 weeks ago. It is impossible to give the same level of attention to our son that we did before and I was starting to get frustrated…which was how I ended up looking at your site for Waldorf ideas. I’m headed over to read more about Anger (as you mentioned above) as that is how my son and I are both starting to react, unfortunately. Thanks for your site!

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  13. I needed to read this today. I’m really struggling with my 5 year old. I’m almost worn down completely by 9am and trying to get through each day.

    • Corrine,
      Hugs and love. Been there. A strong rhythm can be really helpful with these little 5 year olds, and I promise the more boundaries you hold, the better the day will be. I have a very intense, high needs 7 year old who was once five too. 🙂
      Blessings and hugs,

  14. I was just recently told about high needs and I’m so thankful for this information.
    I have an intelligent four year old who doesn’t want to play in big groups. He memorizes books, shows and feels his feeling very deeply. He hates the doctors office, taking medicine, strangers and hair cuts. He cuddles alot with Mom but not on demand and takes a bit to warm up to people he doesn’t see daily. Everytime I look any of this information up online it immediately goes to autism diagnosing. It’s extremely frustrating.
    My friend recently told me about high needs and I’m so thankful. You begin to doubt that you’re parenting correctly or that there’s something ‘wrong’ that you aren’t addressing and it’s totally defeating!
    So, long story short- Too Late! 😉- thanks for the info!

    • Hi Kay! I am so glad you are here reading…I am sure your little one is just precious! There are so many back posts on here about four year olds,, you could be reading for hours, and I am so glad you are here! Blessings and hugs, Carrie

  15. These were some great reminders to read. Our 3 yr old is definitely “higher-than-normal” needs and we struggle every hour of every day to keep a good attitude toward him and his demands. Recently we realized we need to transition to “quiet time” instead of trying to force naps and our denial of the loss of QUIET afternoon time ran deep. Even when being quiet this kid is not quiet. In fact just today we were counting the hours he’s been awake and realized he barely stopped speaking for that entire time. 7 hours of constant demanding noise and activity. WHEW.
    We are tired. We’re frustrated. But we’re still parents and still need to remember these pointers. Thank you.
    I’ll be checking out your other posts.

    • Hi Angie! Welcome! Quiet time is definitely a win-win and I think important to work on over time. I have some back posts about Quiet TIme if you use the little search engine box and you might enjoy some of the comments there. Also, under the Development Header there are lots of posts about the three year old which might be helpful. Chattering three year olds can be hard on more sensitive parents especially; the most physical activity the better and the more work around the house he can do the better. He may need a super solid rhythm to the day as well. So challenging! And I am so glad you are here reading! Blessings, Carrie

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