Why Did I Get The Kid With Behavior Problems?


20130727-155948.jpgAt 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? 


20 responses »

  1. I feel your pain. My first child was (still is) about as easy as a kid can get. I call my second the More Child – more snuggly, more intense, more loving, more jealous, etc. Keep breathing deeply, doing the best you can, and looking for your lessons. And give yourself frequent breaks!

    Thanks for the post.

    • Hi Kelly! Thank you so much for your comment and validation. Did your “more” child ever get any easier? My second child is my easy one, so I guess it is kind of good we went through the really challenging baby on the front end in some ways… Sigh. Thanks again, it is always reassuring to hear from other moms who have “been there, done that.”

      • My More Child is now 15 1/2. She’s gotten easier in the way all children get easier as they age – no more colic, stranger anxiety, and similar issues. Yet, the challenges keep changing, and the risks get even higher – more time away from home, driving, etc. Likewise, my beautiful More Child offers me greater challenges and fears than I had with my older/easier child. (Along with more intense delights.) One key for me is to continually remind myself of the Kahlil Gibran poem, “Your children are not your children.” (Or whatever the title is.) We need to do our best as parents, yet honor who they are – rather than try to mold them to match our ideal. Our more challenging children offer us that opportunity to grow in flexibility and wisdom more than our easier children.

        Namaste to you. And to our children!

    • Yeah, he does. He’s very verbal after the fact about being hot or tired or hungry or angry about not getting his way. But in the moment he still just can’t regulate enough to stop and talk it out… I put up a relaxation routine on the back of his door and we are working with a story called “have you filled a bucket today.” We are also doing a behavior/incentive program, so these things are working at the moment… he’s one of those kids that we have to switch it up frequently, though. It is just tiring. 😦

      • Ugh, that sounds challenging! At least he’s able to, later, let you know the why…hopefully in the years to come there can be some preemptive stuff on his part. My SIL always carries a snack in her purse because when her blood sugar crashes she goes into RAGING BITCH mode. Not fun to be around.

        I would have wild moods as a teenager but I couldn’t articulate why and it was SO frustrating.

  2. Great post. It makes me think how you just don’t know what you’re gonna get. But don’t blame karma…

    As to whether parenting is different than I expected–yes, of course. L. seems to me to be pretty “normal,” but then I think what surprises me most is how everything changes, always. A month ago he was very non-physical. Then he started glomming onto me at every turn, sticking his hand down my shirt and grabbing my boobs and knocking me over and at the same time, punching me, hitting me, headbutting. His physicality has increased five-fold and it’s pretty intense.

    • I was being kind of tongue and cheek about karma ;-P The physicality of little boys is amazing to me. . . although little girls can be quite physical too, I really do think there are intrinsic differences b/w the genders having to do with genetics and hormones that we can’t avoid no matter how we socialize them… but maybe I am totally wrong about that. Hopefully your son’s physicality is “just a phase” and he will learn how to channel those impulses. I know now if my son hits or is physical towards me, he then gets very remorseful and is hugging all over me to make up for it. Sigh… it is always something, and yes the changes do come and go. I always find myself somewhat baffled about it.

      • It is indeed baffling. L is sooo upset right now (wayyy past bedtime) because he chose not to join us for frozen yogurt three days ago. This astounds me. I think sometimes he must just search for something to postpone bedtime and seize on it and choose to use it as a tool. But who knows? Maybe it’s really killing him.


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  4. Sometimes you read a blog post that makes you go – wow – this person is in the same place that I am! I have a 7 year old explosive son who also often “casts a pall over our entire home”. I hate saying that too. I’m a Psychology graduate so I ‘know’ a lot of what I should think and do’ but I still think ‘why me?’ and I don’t always respond in the ‘right’ way. I’m still working on it all… and trying hard to be mindful and understanding. And at the same time I’m finding out more about myself – my own anxiety and sensitivity.

    You wrote: “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?” – yes!

    So glad that I found your blog. I look foward to ‘talking’ with you more.

    Take care! Julie

    PS Have you ever read The Explosive Child by Ross W. Greene? It really struck a chord with me and has helped so much. We have also been to see a psychologist (which was both an easy and a hard decision in itself) and this has given me and my son so much support. I’m not sure that there were any new ideas about handling behaviour, but it is the non-judgemental support that has been the key.

    The Highly Sensitive Child book by Elaine Aron has also been really useful.

    • Julie, thank you so much for your comment and for coming to visit my little blog. It is so amazing to hear from other moms like you, and to know that we are not alone out there in the galaxy of motherhood. I have read the explosive child and found it pretty illuminating… I’ve not picked up the Highly Sensitive Child– will have to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation. I do hope that you will drop by again and leave lots of comments! Thank you so much. Hugs and momaste!

      • Hi Charlotte, yes – it is that support that is the best thing – especially from others who are dealing with the same thing. My friends are supportive but don’t really understand what it’s like! Especially as the truly explosive behaviours don’t often happen outside the home.

        I have just started going through this workbook about worries with him and I’m beginning to see that this had much more of an impact on his behaviour than I realised. Oh, if only I had found all these resources a few years ago! But I am learning it now, and that is the important thing.

        Julie 🙂

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  7. Well played Karma indeed. I have similar challenges with my child. I think it is only fair that life gives us just a little more than what we are ready for. How else would we evolve?

    • Thank you so much for sharing this. It comforts me to know I am not alone in the struggles, frustration, craziness, guilt, and joys of being a mom. I think I needed this comment especially today since it has been a really rough week with our son. Peace and love to you!

  8. I found your blog earlier from the Freshly Pressed and I have had a wonderful and somewhat emotional time reading through it this afternoon. I love your writing. Thank you for sharing your life with us here in the blogosphere.

    We have a ‘difficult’ child, my Molly Moon Pie. She is gorgeous and clever and funny, but also furious and sly and explosive. We think she has Pathalogical Demand Avoidance, it’s something we only heard about a year ago and we have spent the last year on the diagnosis circuit (it’s veeeery slow going). I have two very easy going boys either side of her and it’s so hard not to make comparisons, but we muddle through.

    I tend not to write too much about her issues because my exH likes to read my blog and he isn’t in her life (make of that what you will). But I wanted to say that your post made me cry a bit, and smile a bit.

    I think you are a wonderful mother and I look forward to reading more of your posts. Oh, and we have the same blog theme, which means I feel quite at home here 😀

    • Wow. I am honestly so honored and touched by your reply. Thank you so much for sharing your emotions with me, and for resonating with my post. I don’t think I will ever stop being amazed how other moms around the world that I have never even met can relate to and be touched by what I have to say. I have never heard of the diagnosis Pathalogical Demand Avoidance. . . and I am a clinical social worker too! Maybe that is one of the new ones in the new DSM? Anyhoo, my journey is all about accepting myself and accepting what life throws at me, including a persnickety kid. I get so hurt and down at times; my blog is like my safe space, and to feel others show compassion and non-judgement amazes me to no end. I hope you will stay in touch, and we can “follow” each other’s journeys. Thank you again, so sincerely, for reading and leaving a comment that really made my day. And how about that Matala blog theme? It’s rad! xoxoxo.

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