At six, our son, Jack, is highly intelligent and very strong-willed. He is imaginative and goofy. He has a beautiful vocabulary. He loves cartoons, but will also sit through an entire Broadway musical and discuss it at length.
Jack is loving and can be kind to his baby sister. He loves stories and is learning to read. He assembles Lego kits meant for much older children with minimal assistance. He enjoys being outdoors, does well in school, is angelic for his grandparents, and has great social skills with other children.
Like any social worker, I’ve started with my son’s strengths, because I love him and don’t want you to judge him (or me) too harshly by what I am going to say next.
Jack also has explosive, loud, and aggressive tantrums that last anywhere from five minutes to two hours several times a week.
If I put on my child and family therapist hat, I can tell you the cause or function of this behavior (stress, TV, lack of structure, anxiety, allergy medicine). I can tell you we do our best to work around these factors and structure his routine.
I can tell you that we, his caregivers, should not take it personally, we should expect him to be good so he will live up to our expectations. I can tell you tantrums eventually end, kids go through phases, and we should focus on the positive.
What I can’t tell you is how I ended up with a kid with behavioral challenges. I can’t for the life of me tell you what Karma was thinking when she delivered ME with this emotional roller coaster of a child. I was supposed to have this gig down.
I had worked with children since I started babysitting at 12, then got my first job as a teacher assistant in a daycare at age 15. I’ve always loved and felt comfortable around children.
The idea of parenting was deceptively simple- love and feed them and they will grow and love you in return. Tell them how to behave, guide them, give them structure, consistency and consequences, and they will eventually cooperate.
When we were new parents, we tried to do everything “by the book” with Jack, and he thwarted us at every turn. We became flexible and creative in parenting this kid, but there are still times where my husband and I look at one another as if to say, “Where did we go wrong?”
I plague myself asking what I could have done differently or better.
Jack goes through periods where he does really well. He is relaxed and pleasant to be with. But then he goes through other phases where his behavior casts a pall over our entire home.
I shudder as I write that last line, knowing (with my clinical hat on) that a child should not wield that much power in the family. One of my tasks is working really hard on keeping my cool and not taking his behavior personally.
Don’t look at me like that. You, with your mellow, easy kid who maybe whined once at bedtime. You are in no position to judge until your child is throwing the TV remote at you or swinging his belt above his head simply because you said, “Bless you!” after he sneezed.
Or maybe you are a new mom, clutching your darling bundle to your chest as Jack calls me an idiot and tells me to “shut up” over and over again. Maybe you are kissing your baby’s fuzzy, milky-smelling head and thinking, “Oh MY baby would NEVER do that.”
Yeah, I was once you too. . .
In grad school, I was a disciple of behavior theory. I interned with children with autism, designing elaborate behavioral and learning programs and then implementing them in the home. At that time, in my naive mind, that was the only way to work with children. I remember feeling frustrated with a family because they did not agree this method would help their child.
While listening to me vent, my supervisor patiently pointed out, “It is really difficult coming to terms with the fact that the child you got was not the child of your dreams.”
Recalling this conversation, it strikes me that Karma may have had her eye on me since that moment. Pride goeth, and all.
The baby boy I dreamed of was everything Jack is minus the tantrums. The kid I dreamed of would write thank-you cards and clean his room without screaming at the top of his lungs. The child I wanted took a deep breath and counted to ten before calling his mom names. My dream-kid would never hit or throw things.
It strikes me that the traits I struggle with in my son are characteristics I struggle with in myself- inflexibility, anxiety, anger and frustration. For the most part, I deal with my emotions in mature and responsible ways, but it has taken the better part of my lifetime to get here.
Jack is six, so maybe I should give him a little more time to grow into his emotions and learn new strategies. Maybe it will all be okay.
Maybe I am projecting my own issues onto my kid, but at the end of the day, I still need him to be safe, calm, and respectful. Am I asking too much? Is this why my kid is an angry mess? Or is he a normal boy who’s clinician mom is making pathological mountains out of developmental mole hills?
Being a social worker and a mom is exhausting and confusing. At times I’m uncertain how to put Jack’s behavior into perspective. I have intense fear that he will never learn to regulate his emotions and then turn to a life of risk-taking to self-soothe. I feel like a fraud because at times I have no freaking clue how to get my child to behave. Shouldn’t I of all people have a well-adjusted, happy, and respectful child?
I think about all the things I would advise a family to do in my situation and I’ve done most of them- incentive programs, time-outs, tons of love, deep breathing. Part of me feels like none of these things work. Another part of me just doesn’t want to take any more of my own advice because it is labor-intensive, complicated, and tiring.
Well played, Karma. Well played.
How is parenting different than you dreamed? What curve-balls has karma thrown you as a parent? Does your child have any behaviors that confuse or concern you?