The best books for loving and raising challenging kids

Dona J. Matthews Author Of Being Smart About Gifted Learning: Empowering Parents and Kids Through Challenge and Change
By Dona J. Matthews

Who am I?

I love prickly children. I was one myself, and I’ve quite a few of them in my family. I’ve also worked with desperate families over the years, children who are out of control, parents feeling overwhelmed, nobody knowing what to do to find the calm and loving core of connection we all yearn for. I feel the suffering these authors document—the child’s sense of being misunderstood and punished unfairly, and the parent’s desperation. So, when I read a book that offers intelligent and caring solutions driven by science, compassion, and experience, I share it with everyone who will listen. I’m delighted to have a chance here to do that.


I wrote...

Being Smart About Gifted Learning: Empowering Parents and Kids Through Challenge and Change

By Dona J. Matthews, Joanne Foster,

Book cover of Being Smart About Gifted Learning: Empowering Parents and Kids Through Challenge and Change

What is my book about?

Being Smart about Gifted Learning is for parents, grandparents, teachers, and others who want to support young people in developing their strengths. It describes the Optimal Match approach—matching learning opportunities to children’s interests and abilities—grounded in neuroscience and developmental psychology, and based on current evidence about how giftedness develops. Readers describe it as a book “about embracing opportunities to encourage children’s strengths and nurture their well-being.” Topics include neural plasticity, equity, diversity, tests and assessments, creativity, homeschooling, neurodiversity, social-emotional issues, and more.

The ideas are illustrated with real-life examples and recommendations, showing the reader why and how to provide the resources and learning opportunities children and teenagers need to thrive in a rapidly changing world.

The books I picked & why

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Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children's Behavioral Challenges

By Mona Delahooke,

Book cover of Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children's Behavioral Challenges

Why this book?

In Beyond Behaviors, Mona Delahooke makes a clear, strong case for parents’ self-compassion and for parents’ compassionate responses to their children’s “bad” behavior. Using solid brain science evidence and case histories from her decades of working with very challenging kids, Dr. Delahooke illustrates that children begin to thrive when they feel understood—not judged, not punished—when they lose control. The reader comes to see that misbehavior is a precious clue to a child’s troubled inner reality. A parent’s impatience, irritation, annoyance, or anxiety not only exacerbates the problem, increasing the child’s suffering, but is also a sad, wasted chance at providing the sense of security the child needs, which is a necessary first step on the road to doing better. 


The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Sensitive Children Face Challenges and How All Can Thrive

By W. Thomas Boyce,

Book cover of The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Sensitive Children Face Challenges and How All Can Thrive

Why this book?

Thomas Boyce not only has impeccable credentials as a pediatrician, academic, and epidemiologist, but he also has deep personal history motivating his writing of The Orchid and the Dandelion. That is, he not only knows this topic, he feels it. On top of all of that, he writes with a warmth and poetic sensitivity so often lacking in evidence-based books like this. Boyce writes about orchid children being exquisitely sensitive, so they absorb their environment and thrive under the right circumstances, becoming remarkably insightful and creative. Under adverse circumstances, however, orchid children wilt. Dandelion children, by contrast, are more resilient and can accommodate more adversity without showing too much harm. Another interesting dimension Boyce explores is how the family, school, community, and society can all have an impact on an orchid child’s development.


The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children

By Ross W. Greene,

Book cover of The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children

Why this book?

One of Dr. Greene’s basic beliefs, reiterated often in this wise and compassionate book, is that “Kids do well if they can.” Instead of seeing their child as manipulative, attention-seeking, stubborn, controlling, or defiant, readers learn to understand that really, the child lacks some necessary skills: flexibility, adaptability, frustration tolerance, emotion regulation, and problem-solving. Using a combination of exposition, explanation, and stories from his decades of practice with troubled kids in many circumstances, Greene shows parents how to put the Collaborative and Proactive Solutions model into action. He reassures readers that—even if they’ve been doing it all wrong until now—there’s always room for growth and change, starting now. “Kids are resilient,” he writes. “They come around if we start doing the right thing.”


Raising Your Spirited Child

By Mary Sheedy Kurcinka,

Book cover of Raising Your Spirited Child

Why this book?

Mary Sheedy Kurcinka has been working with parents of difficult children for decades now, except she doesn’t think of the kids that way. Instead of ‘difficult,’ she says, we should learn to think of these kids as ‘spirited.’ When we want to describe our kids as irritable, negative, demanding, and strong-willed, she recommends that we admire their sensitivity, insight, confidence, and insistence on getting what they need. This book is packed with practical ideas for creating a peaceful and loving home environment, and for helping parents learn to soothe their own reactions to behavior that might otherwise be experienced as aggravating, trouble-making, embarrassing, and provocative. 


The Rested Child: Why Your Tired, Wired, or Irritable Child May Have a Sleep Disorder--And How to Help

By W. Chris Winter,

Book cover of The Rested Child: Why Your Tired, Wired, or Irritable Child May Have a Sleep Disorder--And How to Help

Why this book?

The Rested Child puts a different spin on parenting challenging kids. Chris Winter is a neurologist and sleep specialist who has seen countless situations where bad behavior is a symptom of sleep problems. He writes that irritability, ADHD, mood disorders, obesity, and diabetes are only a few of the possible manifestations of sleep disorders. Winters makes some great recommendations, including reassuring kids about “bad sleeps.” Everyone has nights where they don’t sleep so well, he writes, and that’s okay. Because sleep is so important, you want your kid to feel confident and optimistic about their sleeping, not worried. He has some surprising advice, including strongly recommending against sleeping medications of every kind, and advocating for a later start to school, especially for kids from about eleven years old and up.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in parenting, behaviorism, and ADHD?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about parenting, behaviorism, and ADHD.

Parenting Explore 109 books about parenting
Behaviorism Explore 16 books about behaviorism
ADHD Explore 24 books about ADHD

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read: (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did), Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, and How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk if you like this list.