Reaching Children Who Are Hard to Reach

By Michael J. Marlowe

Michael J. Marlowe is Professor Emeritus at the Appalachian State University at Boone, North Carolina in the United States of America.



Many if not most of the children with behavioral problems will be hard to reach and resistant. In terms of tackling problems it is important to realize that the difficult or resistant child, or probably every other child in your care, does not come to you wanting to change. Take this as a given. They are not coming to you with open arms saying, “Hey, wonderful youth care practitioner, do this for me.”

Here are key skills for building relationships with the resistant child which Torey Hayden and I address in our book, Teaching Children Who Are Hard to Reach: Relationship-driven Classroom Practice (2013). While there is no formula for relationship building with reluctant children, these skills are crucial in order to create strong and healthy bonds with children who are difficult and hard to reach.


Before you can build a relationship with a difficult child, you need to start by accepting him. What that means is basically nothing more than recognizing exactly where someone is when you start to deal with them. And understand the basic principle, actually a principle of physics, no thing and no one can be in two places at once. That means the child can’t be where he is and where you think he should be. It’s your functional goal, your job to recognize where he is.

Acceptance is a crucial aspect of relationship forming. We tend only to form relationships with the people we feel accept us, the people who accept us just as we are. Acceptance is the ground work of trust. Thus, you want to communicate to the child who he is right now is sufficient for you to want to form a relationship. He is okay just as he is.

Another technique for dealing with the resistant child and one that should be happening all along is to be unequivocally on the child’s side. This doesn’t mean accepting everything the child does, but it means making it clear that the child himself/herself is acceptable. The difference between you and your actions is another way of saying it. You do this by focusing on the child, showing an interest in the child, by being present, paying attention, listening to him, and by making it apparent that you care enough about him to correct his behavior.

Another way of showing acceptance is to be informed about the child’s world. Be aware of his ethnic and socioeconomic culture as well as generational differences and all of those more superficial things that tend to keep people apart. A final way to show acceptance is to use appropriate vocabulary. Don’t talk down to him, don’t patronize him, and don’t try to talk his talk. Speak to him as an equal because at the end of the day he is an equal to you.


In forming or trying to form relationships with resistant youth one thing it is necessary to communicate after acceptance is commitment. What is often missing in the lives of difficult children are adults who are willing to commit to them. Adults show a lack of commitment to children by not spending focused time with them, by not preferencing their needs, by passing them on to multiple care-takers. They show it by emotionally clocking out when the child does not conform to preconceived ideas.

You show commitment to the child by sticking to the process basically. These are hard kids to work with. If you commit to them, you stick to them through thick and thin. And saying ‘ok, this is hard, we are not having a good time at that, but I am going to be here for you.’ It’s verbally reinforcing, it’s telling the child that you’re going to be there, you’re going to try, and you want to be in their presence.

Seeing from the Other Point of View

Another way of dealing with resistant children is the ability to see from the other point of view. You need to communicate to the child that you are able to see her point of view. We are looking for the ‘yes I can see your point of view, I can see how you feel that way, I can see how that could make you act like that, but I am still functional and in control of my emotions and hence I am able to show you a better way.’ It is important to be objective in expressing your understanding of the child’s view point. It is the ability to leave behind your own feelings, your own judgments, and put yourself in her perspective. You use phrases like ‘that must feel like ‘– or ‘that must seem to you like‘- or ‘if I was in that situation I would feel –this way.’ Not ‘I understand.’ To say ‘I understand what you are going through’ is an enormous assumption on your part. You think you understand, there’s no way to tell whether you really do or not. So to say I understand how you must feel, you don’t. You are just being hugely presumptive, and that can be an alienating statement. So, it’s better to say ‘that must feel horrible’ or something that is stated in a more objective manner.                                                      Affection

Another essential element that helps in forming a relationship is the ability to feel genuine affection for the child. Realistic affection, and indeed an understanding of what realistic affection means, is very important. It doesn’t mean you like the child all the time. It’s not unconditional love. People who claim to feel unconditional anything are not in touch with the inevitable irritations and frustrations of human relationships. Human relationships are difficult things. We all feel irritations and frustrations with the people we love dearly. So unconditional love is the profits of God and not the rest of us. What we are aiming for is for the child to see you as someone who unambiguously likes her most of the time. And that when she does something negative or alienating, you will not break off the relationship, but instead you will use the incident to help her learn to behave more appropriately. That is quite different from unconditional love.


Enthusiasm is really helpful with resistant children. It is your primary way of communicating your willingness to be with the child, that you want to form a relationship with her, and ultimately your regard for her as a human being. This should go without saying, but it is always really helpful to say it anyway, is that to be a child care worker, you really must like children and you must find a natural enjoyment in interacting with them. If you don’t like kids, get out now. It is not a business for you. It is also very helpful under this category of enthusiasm for you to have a good memory of your own childhood, how it’s helpful if you remember how you felt as a child at any given age.   It helps you appreciate the child’s situation, and it also helps you appreciate the child’s perspective. So if you can remember back to the inaccuracies that you had as a child, the misperceptions you had as a child, the hope you had as a child, your own memories will help guide you in terms of responding to the children you work with today.

It is also helps to have child-like personality characteristics. And keep in mind there’s a big difference between having child-like characteristics and being dysfunctional or childish. I am not advising you to act childish nor am I advocating Peter Pan because an adult who hasn’t grown up is a dysfunctional adult. What I mean in terms of child-like personality characteristics is that you’re quick to laugh, that you can see the funny side of things, that you do not take yourself too seriously and can genuinely laugh at yourself. Another child-like personality characteristic that is very helpful is the ability to play. To join in spontaneously and play with the kids, not as a part of a structured activity, but to play just because it is fun. And the last quality that I would list as a child-like personality trait is the ‘wow’ or ‘gee-wiz’ factor, and that is a sense of wonder on your part. Be amazed by the things you see because the world is full of amazing things. Try and maintain this child-like quality because it’s hard to resist an enthusiastic person.


Next up in forming a relationship with a resistant child is your ability to set and communicate boundaries. Obviously you’re setting boundaries when you say to somebody “stop,” but how else can you communicate it, particularly to somebody who is going to react negatively whenever you say stop it. One way is showing that you are in control of yourself, that you are able to set limits successfully on your own behavior. It’s also by showing that you are able to stop yourself when you are upset. Many resistive children are difficult because they come from an exceptionally dysfunctional environment where adults cannot stop themselves, whether it is sexual behavior, whether it’s anger, or what. Modeling that for them is a very useful way of setting boundaries. Another way of modeling it is being able to stay objective in difficult situations. It is the ability to ask the other person his point of view during a conflict. It is the ability to not resort to ‘you’ statements, or negative statements that are destructive. And perhaps one of the most important ways that you can demonstrate the ability to set and communicate boundaries is by not feeling threatened yourself by the child’s difficulties. Like horses, they seem to sense fear. They see you are afraid, and they are going to be afraid, and there is going to be a loss both of communication and respect.

Fair and Impartial

Another ability in reaching the difficult child is the ability to be fair and impartial. And this means that you are going to always side with forces of good. Un-ambiguously and impartially, you will always side with forces of good, no matter who shows them. If a difficult child shows them against the authority of your program/agency/school, it’s your responsibility to be impartial and stand up for the child. Being fair and impartial means that you provide information and advice to all sides in the party. You don’t take sides with one against the other. Being fair and impartial means that you listen receptively to the disagreements. You’re interested in both sides of the disagreements. And impartial is just another word for being objective. It means a willingness to stand up for to the child, if that’s necessary, but also stand up to the parents or the authorities or to set boundaries when necessary.

One on One Time

Another method for reaching resistant or difficult children is to try and spend some one on one time with the child each day, even if it’s in a group. All relationships require one to one time when both parties do not have to vie for the attention of others. You who are also parents and who are also married and have a partner realize very quickly that if you and your partner always have to vie for attention with the children your relationship suffers. You find that if you do have a chance to go out and spend an evening together, go to the movies, have a dinner without the kids, it tends to improve your relationship. It is no different here. It doesn’t mean that you have to seclude yourself away with the child, it simply means setting up a situation where everybody else can be screened out, even if they are right there next to you. Always try to get one to one time each day. One to one time shows commitment and willingness on your part for a relationship. Again using the example of marriage, if you make the effort to spend time alone with your husband or wife, it shows your willing to put effort into that relationship and that you are committed to having that relationship. It is the same thing with the kids.


Another factor in developing relationships with resistant children is flexibility. A certain amount of flexibility is a character trait people are born with. Some of us have more flexible personalities than others. Some of us think more quickly on our feet. And a large part of flexibility is also simply acquired knowledge. And what that means is you’ve got a large repertoire of behaviors at your fingertips, which is another way of saying be prepared. If your prepared, if you know several different things you can do in a situation, then you have got flexibility. So flexibility with resistant children in this context means you are capable of using many techniques. If one does not work, you switch to another one. And flexibility also means having the capacity to recognize when something needs to be adapted. When, if you leave it as it is, kids are going to go on meltdown,   or that a situation is going to get boring, or out of control, or produce bad behavior. So it is not only knowing what to change to, it’s also the ability to recognize that you need to change.

Modeling and Identification

A final aspect of working with the hard to reach child is the ability to use modeling and identification effectively.   If you develop a positive relationship with a child, the child will begin to identify with you. You want this. You are a functional adult, you want him to identify with you. It’s normal that he should do so, this is basically how children learn to become adults. Continually try to model appropriate behavior yourself.

You should model the behavior of a functional adult, including such things as:

  • a functional adult behaves consistently and predictably;
  • a functional adult has clear, fair boundaries;
  • a functional adult is honest, fair, and moral;
  • a functional adult takes responsibility for his own actions;
  • a functional adult knows how to deal safely and effectively with his/her own feelings;
  • a functional adult thinks about others’ welfare as well as his own;
  • a functional adult will take care of children and not let them get hurt or put in dangerous situations; and
  • a functional adult will help children maximize their potential.

Other aspects are taught to the child directly, such as

  • how a functional person manages his/her emotions,
  • how a functional persons relates appropriately to others, and
  • how a functional person handles change, unexpected, or negative situations.

While using modeling and identification with resistant or difficult children it’s very important for you to remember at all times that you are the adult. As a consequence, you always need to be the one person able to keep all this identification and dependency healthy and within boundaries. That means that while the child may become very dependent on you, you don’t become too personal. It’s also important to watch out for those times where identification becomes so strong that they are no longer being true to themselves. They so want to be like you, that they are no longer giving credence to their own identity. When that is time to remain loving and supportive, but to point out that you have differences, and it’s alright to have differences, and it does not affect the relationship.

In sum, these 10 skills are fundamental to developing relationships with resistant children. They are much the same skills fundamental to successful relationships in general, and this list is by no means exhaustive. Rather of all available social skills these are ones I find essential in order to create strong and healthy bonds with children who are hard to reach.



Marlowe, M.J., & Hayden, T. (2013). Teaching children who are hard to reach: Relationship-driven           classroom practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.