There’s a child in every family, at one time or another, who is really hard to love. It might be difficult to admit it but you know the one: the child who is constantly whining or pouting or sulking; the child who picks fights with his siblings and seems determined to be difficult no matter what. You could tell this child you are going to his favorite restaurant for dinner and he’ll still say, “I don’t wanna,” just to be ornery.

Do you know what I’m talking about now?

The child who is seemingly going through an “I won’t share my toys” phase or the dreaded tattling phase where every little transgression is made into a public service announcement. “Mom, she looked at me weird!” Maybe it’s the teenager who suddenly doesn’t seem to know any other form of communication but the grunt and the eyeroll. Everything is suddenly “so lame” and parents are way too embarrassing to be seen with in public.

It’s OK to admit it—everyone knows that child. We have all had one of these “hard to love” kids in our lives at some time.

And these kids drive us nuts. We get to a point where we just can’t take it anymore. Our natural reaction is to back away, to avoid their company, to stick them in time out or send them to their room.

As I was sitting in church this week, I observed a “hard to love” little girl in action. I watched as the young girl slid across the pew to her mom and leaned on her, only to be gently pushed away. She quickly slid back over and tried to put her head on her mom’s arm and again, she was brushed off. The mom pushed her to the other end of the pew, but slowly the little girl inched her way back. At one point, the mom pushed her toward the dad and said, “She is driving me crazy!” This dance of slide and push continued throughout the entire Mass. While I don’t know the circumstances here, I can guess that for some reason, this mother just didn’t have it in her to cuddle up with her daughter at church that day. Whatever had been going on before they got to church, this girl was just hard to love.

I have to admit, I was starting to judge this mom and feel badly for this little girl. I wanted to leap over the pew and give that poor girl a hug. But instead I thought about myself and my own kids. I had been in this situation before. I often had one child who insisted on being the squeaky wheel. The one who I wanted to push across the pew, send up to his room, ship off to Grandma or send to work on a farm in Timbuktu.

But over the years, I discovered the child who is the hardest to love is the one who needs it the most.

This is the child who needs the extra hug, the second bedtime story. The one who needs to be taken on a special one-on-one outing no matter how rotten he has been to his sibling that day. The child who is hardest to love is behaving badly because of an underlying and unexplainable need, and it’s up to us to satisfy that need.

Why does any wheel squeak? Because it needs more grease!

I wanted to lean over and whisper in this mom’s ear, “Just give her some grease!” It would be great if our kids, when feeling upset or anxious or lonely, would just tell us that they need some extra love, but they likely don’t even know this is what they need. Instead, they act out in ways that keep our attention on them even if it’s negative attention. When our kids act like this, they are definitely harder to reason with, harder to hug, harder to talk to, and harder to love. But at times like this, they need more of our love, more of our attention and no matter how difficult it is, we need to squeeze that tube a little harder and give them the grease they need.

Dr. Jennifer Pinto

Jennifer Pinto is an avid reader, writer, psychologist and mom to a daughter(20) and two sons (16 & 14). She has been married to her husband for 21 years. She is currently writing a young adult novel and has a psychology-themed blog called "Off the Couch..." She enjoys drinking coffee at all hours of the day, cooking Indian food and being the team mom for her son's tennis & football teams.