Lately I’ve had several friends inquire about the current state of challenges with our youngest’s behavior. While I wrote in brevity about our fall preschool drop-off challenges and how we dealt with them, I didn’t communicate the extent to which difficulties continued.
While I am often open here, I rarely divulge the deep struggles while I’m in the midst of them with anyone beyond my husband and a few trusted friends. I generally like there to be at least hints of forward momentum before sharing that we’re tripping on a daily basis, sliding back down to the bottom of a mountain that we’re not sure we’re going to summit.
For at least six months, Little Monkey’s most common immediate response to upsetting stimuli was physical aggression. The range of triggers was wide. If he tripped and fell, SMACK! If I gave him too much verbal praise, WHACK! If big brother moved towards him and he felt threatened, POW! If I moved a toy from the place it was apparently intended to remain for eternity, BOOM! I was getting hit or kicked daily, often more than once. Frequently I steadied myself in pain, anticipating a black eye or bloody nose. Our oldest was also the recipient of many crushing blows.
We were scared.
This kid didn’t cry when he received his first shot as a newborn. His pain tolerance is unbelievably high. For his first few years of life he rarely shed a tear unless the injury involved blood. If he cried after a fall, I prepared for a trip to Urgent Care. After he dished it out, his hands and feet seemed to just experience a slight irritation. Like he’d been rubbed wrong. When he was hurt enough to cry, he often immediately lashed out at others. He would refuse comfort and hugs. He was Mini-Hulk, Super Sensitive Version.
For months his behavior seemed to only deteriorate and we questioned all our parenting methods. Worn out and desperate for change, we started to revert to ways we’d previously written off as disrespectful or humiliating, like isolating him in his room (in essence, a lonely time-out) or taking away toys unrelated to the incidents. We rarely acknowledged the emotions behind his behavior or talked through his motivation. We were caught in a downward spiral of stress, fear, anger and fatigue. We kept trying to get back on our feet and dust ourselves off to continue upward, not considering that we might need a completely new route.
I really couldn’t see straight. I told a group of friends over Christmas dinner that we were considering professional help (family counseling or child therapy). One friend asked, “What’s his currency?” and it hit me. As we talked through motivating factors for children, I realized we’d turned everything we believe to be true onto it’s back. I didn’t want toys, money or screen time to be my child’s primary “currency.” I wanted him to know himself well enough to manage his emotions without an external motivator or threats and punishment. I longed for him to inherently know that his opinions would be valued. His voice would be heard. I didn’t want him to feel alone with his sadness or anger. He needed to know that no matter how enormous his emotions felt, we would stay by his side.
Shortly thereafter, my husband and I recommitted to using emotion coaching as our primary way of handling Little Monkey’s outbursts. We tried to intercept him prior to his hits and kicks. Initially, we restrained him in our arms to prevent injuries to ourselves or our oldest. We would say, “I’m holding you until we’re safe.” He quickly learned that these restraints were actually comforting, and his anger would melt into our arms as his tears took over. We don’t have to do that anymore because he now willingly runs to our arms. If we’re at our best, we speak slowly and calmly, with pauses for all the inevitable crying. “You’re so angry. You really wanted this to happen and it didn’t. You are so frustrated. It’s not ok to hit and kick, but it’s ok to feel mad. I understand. I feel mad, too, sometimes. Just don’t hurt people.” (We don’t always do our best. I’ve yelled more in the past six months than I probably have my entire time as a mom. So, plenty of apologies and restarts, too.)
If he’s still on edge and posturing aggressively after the initial talks and tears, our next step is usually, “You are welcome to stay here as long as you can play respectfully and nicely. If you need to take a break, I can come with you.” If a toy was involved in the altercation we might say, “You may play with that as long as you can use it safely. Otherwise I will take it until you’re ready to be safe.”
Thankfully, once we changed course it got noticeably better. Not overnight, but within a few weeks there was significant weight lifted off all our shoulders. Add normal developmental maturation to improved emotional regulation and his current behavior feels almost miraculous. (I had my doubts this would improve much because of how big his temper seemed.) One of the changes I didn’t anticipate was that he cries more easily now after injuries. He’s seeking us out for comfort instead of acting out physically. He’s also exhibiting much more self-control during disagreements. Like all four year olds, he has plenty of communication skills to learn, but he’s quicker to take turns or share his toys. He’s not feeling as easily threatened. In general, he just seems more stable and secure.
There is residual trauma and it’s remains a careful trek. Some of his worst behaviors reappeared at a friend’s birthday party last month, when he was exhausted after a week of spring break activities and his own birthday festivities. Leave it to the gymnastics party people to put a stamp on his feet without asking so we can all watch the house come tumbling down! Wailing, hitting, screaming. Even a piece of cake couldn’t pull him out of his misery, because it was served with a SPORK, for the love! The kid wasn’t going to deal with alternative utensils on top of all the other atrocities from the past fifteen minutes. (He tried to throw the plate with cake on it.) Nothing could get him back. We had to leave the party early, at which point my oldest (understandably) freaked out, too. Two sobbing boys for the car ride home.
(Little tangent here- Why do people put stamps or stickers on children without asking? Does this ever turn out well? Several months ago a grocery store checker asked if he wanted a sticker. After he answered affirmatively, she took it off the paper and put it ON HIS FOREHEAD. Again, without asking. He loudly yelled, “YOU STUPID!”, hit me a lot and wailed. Goodness, people. Have some respect.)
We have not hit the summit yet, but I can finally see it. All of us still brace ourselves when the road is bumpy. We trip and fall, reminded yet again that the new path requires much more careful footing and plenty of breaks for deep breathing. Once we’re standing on the peak we’ll take in the view and pat ourselves on the back for all the boulders we climbed (sometimes twice!). Then, we’ll head down the other side, inevitably beginning the next mountain.