Married to Medicine

Married to Medicine

Sunday, September 8, 2013

My Humbling Experience Raising a "Challenging" Toddler.

Ouch.  Just typing the title of this entry is a little painful for me.  Not because I'm sad that I have a "challenging" child.  I love every part of my son including his passion and yes, even his strong, strong will (95% of the time).  No, it makes me cringe because I know what so many people are thinking when I say it.  I know, because I had all those thoughts myself before my sweet baby boy turned one year old.

I'd hear the word "challenging" and I'd think "Ugh, more modern-day parents who naively think they can just talk to their child about why something is wrong and presto, the child will never do it again!"  Or I'd think "Oh here we go, another 'feeling-validator.'  If that's not working out for you, maybe you need to try something effective!"  When I'd see kids misbehaving whose parents used the word "Please" ("Please stop that") I'd really roll my eyes.  "Why don't you just tell your kid right up front that behaving is optional, I mean that IS what 'please' means!!!"  And whenever the trying toddler was a boy - which, let's be honest, wasn't infrequent - my judgment was harshest.  "Aaaarrrgh the 'boys-will-be-boys' crowd... perpetuating sexist double standards by letting their boys get away with everything, and raising playground bullies for the rest of us to deal with!"

Yeah.  That was me.  And yeah, obviously I jinxed myself big time.  Parenting is one of those things that really makes you believe in a Higher Power, because it's just a little too fitting that everybody gets their comeuppance, in whatever form(s) it takes.  And if you didn't get it just yet and you're still on your first kid, wait for it... double-whammy headed your way.  In that sense it's very humanizing.  It tears us all down, which pulls us all together.

My comeuppance comes about twice a week these days, down from every single day when he was a one-year old, in the form of a public tantrum.  And by every single day I mean it was every single time we got in the car seat, lots of times when we got out of the car seat, every single time we left every single park, every single time we left the house!  Pediatricians everywhere would have marveled at how long I kept my son rear-facing - I had to because it would have been physically impossible to wrestle him into a front-facing car seat, especially uber-pregnant.  Yup, name any place in town and I've been in the heated center of a huge public scene there ... or fifty.  The playground.  The mall.  The Children's Museum.  The airport.  Panera.  The doctor's office.  The beach - sandiest, most disastrous scene EVER.  The pool.  The post office.  The grocery store.  I am pretty sure the entire town knows my son's name:  "Matthew honey, I'm sorry but we have to go home now.  Matthew, do not run away from Mommy.  Matthew.  Matthew!!!"

Of course there are reasons behind these tantrums.  For one thing, if you've ever met my husband you'll know what I have on my hands here.  Can you imagine commuting 50-90 minutes each way on pubic transit when you're a medical resident working 90-100 hours a week?  Can you imagine a 50 minute bike commute twice a day, year-round in Boston weather?  Can you imagine voluntarily signing up for all that when you used to pay the same in rent but live right next door to the hospital??  The man is unstoppable.  So is his son.

For another thing, my son is tired almost all the time.  He stays up late knowing it increases his chances of seeing daddy, then gets up early when he hears his sister babbling in the living room.  He's excitable and he adores these two... who can regret that?  But it means that by late-morning he's a goner.  He'll nap until after 5:00 if I let him and he is a bear to wake up two hours in, which I try to do.

Yes, there are reasons.  And none of them are the reasons I assumed of so many others in my situation. And for the record, none of them are the other assumption-reasons either.  My son not only isn't "acting out" because we're "not strict enough," but he's also not acting out because we're (a) too strict; (b) spanking him; (c) not spanking him; (d) berating him; or (e) neglecting him.  It's not because I had an epidural folks, or even because we sleep-trained (my mom did too... my brothers and I didn't have these tantrums).  No, it really just is who he is, as a toddler.  I'm thankful for our pediatrician, Co-Chief of Pediatrics at MGH.  He said both his sons were the same as toddlers - that he felt like he'd put in a full day's work with his oldest son before he even walked out the door.  He says there's a whole range of "compliance" in toddlers that results simply from different personalities, all still normal and healthy.  He also said that parents of "less-compliant" ("challenging") toddlers let their toddlers get away with things other parents never would because they're forced to be choosier with their battles.  And that parents with compliant toddlers won't ever understand (read:  Not Judge).  Yeah, I know.  Because if I'd had only compliant children, I'd still be judging.

For the record, because I know I'll get suggestions, I've tried it all - from counting down the minutes to "foreshadowing the day," on and on.  I have had an enormous amount of success with "1-2-3 Magic."  My son hates nothing more than time-outs; his behavioral issues don't involve violence toward other kids or anything other than not getting to do exactly what he wants to do for however long he wants to do it (he does come from two control-freak parents).  The counting has been great because it gives him a structured opportunity to change his behavior before receiving a consequence he really doesn't want.  It has avoided countless meltdowns and it might single-handedly be responsible for taking us from every day episodes to twice a week.  But it only works when my son is still able to logically reason.  Once he's gone, he's gone.

Same for "How to Talk so Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Kids Will Talk."  The first chapter is brilliant.  I think it might actually be all you need... for many other kids and for a significantly happier marriage - seriously.  But for my son, validating his feelings only works once in awhile.  Most of the time I just get a transient pause until he realizes he doesn't care if I empathize or agree with his feelings... he cares that we're still leaving the park.  And he cares about it passionately.  My current M.O. is to start with the feeling validation and when that fails, count.  When that fails, I usually have to manage a way to haul him off against his will because like I said, the problem is usually that he won't leave a place.  When the problem is something else my choices are to (a) "pick my battle" (i.e., ignore behavior that I would prefer he didn't do) or (b) fight my battle, which will mean leaving completely in a big scene and going home.  That, folks, is why you'll see:

(a) My child laying down on the dirty floor while I'm waiting in line for something that needs to be accomplished;

(b) My child playing with the grocery belt divider pole thingey all throughout the store.  For me it's an accomplishment that he now gives it back when we're done;

(c) My child, running all over Panera while I try to bus our dishes;

(d) My child, with crazy-long hair, because I've already tried and failed twice at getting his haircut - not because he's scared, but just because he doesn't want it cut;

(e) My child, doing any number of other things that would cause a lot of people to think I'm a lax mother but don't qualify as "dangerous" or completely disruptive to others.

He refuses to walk to the car with us.   
If we pick him up, he thrashes and yells "I WANT  TO WALK!!!!!!"  As in, the whole way back even if it's many blocks.  If we set him down he throws himself to the ground.  Either way, we look like bad parents.
And when I'm the only parent around, with another baby to transport... disaster!!
Anyway, it's all been hugely humbling.  Until becoming a parent myself, I assumed personality was about 90% nurture, 10% nature... HA.  It's been said that our children teach us more than we ever teach them.  Let me second, and third, and millionth that statement.  I went from judging parents in my situation, to feeling rattled and humiliated daily, to - finally - truly not caring what others thought no matter how big and loud the scene, once I regained confidence in my parenting as the episodes decreased in frequency.  And especially once Matthew's language took off so I could see the loving, sweet, generous, happy, and passionate little boy and big brother he is.  I wouldn't trade him for the world.  And in retrospect, I wouldn't trade the humiliation and failure either.  An ounce of pain is good for a pound of empathy.  And no matter how hard I try, I cannot control and mold every aspect of my life into my definition of "perfection."  I'm rolling with this card, wrestling with it, and just trying to keep in mind that I'll someday long to have all these days back.  Even the very hardest ones.

Loves dandelions.  Melts my heart daily by adoring, playing with, and watching out for his sister (more proof here).
Heart of gold, will of steel.


Update 12/7/13 -
It has come to my attention that people are reading this post and armchair-diagnosing my son with autism, because of my vaccine post.  My son doesn't have autism, but I would love him just the same if he did.  This post represents his difficult stage, 1y3m - 2y2m.  He's a piece of cake now, and SO sweet!  All kids go through more and less challenging phases.  Here's a video of him at 2y8m; he's now 3y3m and hasn't had one of his epic tantrums since he turned 3.  If I had to name the one thing that helped us the most, it was the book "1-2-3 Magic."  But it also just took time, language acquisition, and a less urgent need for naps.

video

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24 comments:

  1. Yes, very well said! Put me at the top of the list for judging other parents, too. It makes me feel better to hear the "How to Talk" book doesn't always work for you, either. My kids see it as an invitation to whine and cry incessantly until I finally say "I know how you feel, now STOP IT!" That line must be in the next chapter. :-) Anyway, you most certainly are not alone. Imagine when they can channel their "passion" into something more productive--they'll rule the world! Love, love your blog, Lisa!!

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  2. I just found your blog and I am really enjoying it. This post resonates with me because my nephew was, well, to say challenging is understating it a bit. My sister would call me on the verge of tears and say things like, "I had to carry him like a sack of potatoes into pre-school every day this week!" and I got to witness tantrums that lasted way longer than anyone would ever expect. Who knew where he got the energy? Then he turned 4 and life just became easier. He is still strong willed and does the full body pout when he doesn't get his way, but he is also so sweet and fun that it is hard to remember what a terror he was.

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    1. Thank you!! :) And yes, my son is the same way - every age (knock on wood) seems to get a little easier. He turned 3 a month ago and so far 3 is awesome. And 2 was *so* much better than 1. I think my son (and maybe your nephew too) is just so passionate that rational thought (and a lesser need of sleep and naps) had to catch up with his heart. I now love to see that same passion directed to loving his sister and talking nonstop. Which reminds me that language acquisition/frustration was also a key part of it for him. But I digress... thanks for reading :)

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  3. Just found your blog and love it! My Matthew was just like your Matthew! He is 16 now and walks just fine with, well maybe a little fast...one time at a weekend vacation in Palm Springs he pitched such a fit, someone at the gift shop called the police. When we went in he was allowed to pick one toy...picked out, bought, until the best robot toy in the world was sighted at the exit of the store. We said no, you already picked out your toy. Needless to say I should of taken the toy back and exchanged it, but I never had this problem with my 3 older children. A nice policeman took him aside to talk to him, and then to us. We went back to our hotel and Matthew proceeded to draw about 300 pictures of the "best toy" in the world...him holding it, eating with it, in the car with him etc. This experience taught me to have empathy for other parents. I never did before, with 3 easy kids, to pick my battles and learn a new way of raising my child. Turns out he has an IQ of 146 and is an amazing artist, very sensitive and loving.

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    1. I believe it Suzie! I keep meaning to write an updated blog post on my son, called "'It Gets Better' - The Toddler Version" or something like that. Over the past 6 months my son's behavior has gotten better and better and I would now describe him as one of the easiest 3 year olds I've known. He says please and thank you, shares all but his "attachment" toys with his sister, watches out for her, LOVES her, and is just a super sweet and talkative guy. Haven't had a big tantrum since early September, so 2 months. It's almost like his delayed speech and the resulting frustration built in him a resilience or additional patience or something. Either that or we really did stick to our guns - I actually think you made the right choice in the store that day. In any case, I owe my son a follow-up blog post because there is no possible way I could describe him as "challenging" anymore, it's thankfully, surprisingly, amazingly, the complete opposite.

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    2. I love this blog. I have a strong child too. I have been told he is a bully, I don't discipline him and gotten looks. It makes you feel awful. I have been told if I don't get him in control now he will be a horrible teenager. We have tried time out, taking toys away and choices. Choices work the best. I finally decided I don't care any more. I am not the perfect parent and make mistakes often. My child might get away with some things on days because I am picking my battles. All I have to know is I am trying and will always try to do the best I can.

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  4. This is my son too. Thank you for writing this piece.

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  5. I hate to say it- but you guys should not have had children while your husband was in medical school/residency. Your son is acting out because his dad is never around. My husband is a physician as well (and I am a SAHM/former lawyer too) and we would never have had our children before he was out of residency. He did a orthopedic surgical residency at a trauma center and sometimes didn't come home for 3 days in a row. We have 2 small children now and have altered his job/our lifestyle so that he can see the kids as much as he can. We live minutes from the hospital and his offices, so that he can pop home for lunch and come home if he has a small break in the day. It has made a HUGE difference/impact on the kids and our family. You might consider moving closer so that he is around more. You won't regret it- but your kids will regret never getting to see their dad when they were young. Why does he commute by bicycle? That just seems like a waste of a resident's most precious resource- his time.

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    1. That thought crossed my mind every day during that time, and I'm sure it did contribute. If nothing else, my son's staying up late to see his dad and then getting up early with his sister made him tired all the time. But see other comments... I need to update this blog. Once my son turned 2y2months, his language took off and his behavior did a complete turnaround. He is now 3y3m and his behavior has only gotten better and better... he hasn't had a single tantrum since early September, so 3 months, and I can't really imagine one happening again. He has become one of the best-behaved 3 year olds I know, and I've worked a lot with children. He says please and thank-you unprompted, shares all his toys (except his blankie and special train) with his sister, and is a total cakewalk. It has truly been night and day and I attribute it to (1) language development and his frustration before at having SO many thoughts and ideas he couldn't communicate; (2) lesser need for naps; and (3) his dad's hours getting much better as a 1st year oncology fellow and now a senior fellow going into the lab. These three things *do* have to do with my husband's hours - like I said, staying up late to try to see my husband who is now usually home by 8, and I also think his language was delayed in part because he didn't see much of other people talking to *each other* since my husband wasn't around and we don't watch much TV - I have read that language acquisition has a lot to do with watching people talk to each other rather than just to the child.

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    2. (continued from above):


      I did make my husband promise to be done with residency before we had kids, WAY back in college. I knew what residency meant, because my dad went through it back in the day when it was even harder than it is now. But my husband did a year of Americorps after college and then fell into the 2 years of research, so plans changed, and I couldn't deny him his other dreams. I *did* put my foot down when he started talking about completing his PhD in medical school - instead he did 2 years of research for his Masters and thankfully none of it mattered because he published more than most PhDs do just in the 2 years he did research, he actually won "best abstract" out of 5,500 other medical students for his work. We then specifically selected MGH for residency in part because they presented themselves as "old school" and "front-loaded." They told him he would work harder his first year than others would but less hard the final 2 years. We thought he would work hard during pregnancy, then have more time with the baby. Unfortunately it all back-fired when MGH was coming under fire for over-working interns. They shifted work up after my husband's intern year so his 2nd year was actually even harder than the 1st year. THEN after the 2nd year the ACGME passed the 16 hour shift restriction and work again shifted up with him. It was really an awful situation for our family, and frankly it's a crime that MGH handled things that way. Not sure on what planet you can work people to death for 3 years instead of 1 with no additional compensation... I guess on this one.

      Thankfully now, my husband is just about done with his clinical work in hematology/oncology and starts 3+ years in the lab this January. This past 1.5 years was an immense relief after his residency experience, which says a lot about how awful residency was since most people consider their 1st year of fellowship to be pretty brutal. His hours in the lab (in T - 3 weeks!!!) should be pretty close to normal, and he plans to mainly devote his career to research rather than practicing after this. He has a wonderful relationship with my son right now and I fully admit it wasn't always this way, and it used to break my heart. But he made reasonable choices and got screwed by the system. And we've recovered or are recovering, as a family. Re: bike commuting, it is actually the fastest way out here... we can't afford to live closer, and public transit commute used to take him 90 minutes in the morning since he couldn't count on things running on time, and 45 minutes on a "good night" headed home. Biking is 45-50 minutes each way and it's healthy for him, with his hereditary high cholesterol.

      I would love to move back to my hometown and live near my parents and not have his insane commute, but my husband's career really is following a certain trajectory. I believe he will one day contribute significantly to cancer treatments. He was raised in a tradition of public service, and it has always been important to him that he sacrifice for others. When it gets to the point of hurting our family, I do resent that. Residency was a *very* difficult time for us, I cannot even begin to tell you. But I believe it would have been manageable if not for the kinks in the system. I have another blog post about how I'm not sure we'd come out here and do it all again this way, in spite of the prestige, because of that - it's called "Golden Ticket... Or Golden Handcuffs?"

      http://bostonwed-murakami.blogspot.com/2012/03/golden-ticket-or-golden-handcuffs.html

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    3. I didn't plan the birth of my child. He surprised my husband and I from the very beginning. But I have many friends who did plan when their children would be born, and some that tried to plan the births of their children, but had many heartbreaking months of not becoming pregnant and seeking help to be able to have their children. Some of those friends took medications, some just kept trying, some were told they would never become pregnant and did, and one couple adopted. I didn't experience the need and longing to have a baby that many of my friends did, but I consider it a very real, a very personal, and a very precious longing to be a mother. It is completely out of line for anyone to tell you that you shouldn't have had your baby when you did. It is not helpful, because you can't change it now, and probably wouldn't even if you could. Our lives, our families, our children, even our careers, are not on a programmable path that wind through perfection. I'm sure your son missed your husband during that time; I know you did! But you were both doing what was best for your family. Children don't understand making short term sacrifices for long term goals, and we can't make decisions on what is best based on their limited understanding. We need to take that into consideration, sure, so that they are comforted, and taught, and feel loved even though they may not understand why something is happening. My unplanned baby is now 6, and has always been pretty easy. My sister has a baby eight months younger than him who she had some challenges with, and she has one a year younger who is a very challenging child (and although he is getting better, he is still very strong willed at 5). She is a strong disciplinarian, and so is his father, but he is very much going to test the limits. I think even if your husband had been home more, your son still would have been a challenging toddler. You may have avoided a few of the tantrums that did happen, but I don't think it would have been an overall change in behavior. You would have had more help, and that would have made it easier on you, but I think you are exactly right that a child's personality is a bigger factor than we realize into how he/she behaves (not that it is an excuse for bad behavior, but it may influence how/when/why that child is disciplined). My words are intended for comfort and peace and encouragement, and I hope that is how they come across. I am a former English teacher, current homeschooling mom, and I am married to a police officer, so I understand crazy schedules, sacrifices, and a heart who wants to do the very best for her family. That is what I see in you from the posts I have read.

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    4. Made me cry a little! Thank you :)

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  6. My first slept through the night at 2 weeks. Was easy, calm, and wonderful. Our friends had a baby on our daughter's 2nd birthday. We couldn't believe how maniacal they were about their child. We understood that the baby was fussy because the parents were inexplicably hyper. Then we had our second child. Oh. My. Gosh. Slept through the night consistently by age 4. Every diaper change was a wrestling match. And then we understood our friends. They weren't hyper; their BABY was! OHHHH. Right. Never judged again. Ever. Good luck with your high energy and loving boy!

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  7. Oh man I can relate! But add five more kids exactly like that and you have my life. My oldest has sensory processing disorder and autism and spent the first five years of his life wandering, having major melt downs, and tons and tons of fits... it was a horrible feeling being judged for something I was trying my best to deal with and couldn't control or help nor change. My other kids are a lot like your son. After awhile I stopped noticing the judging because I had better things to pay attention to. People need to pay more attention to what people have to deal with and how they deal with it... it takes a lot of effort to deal with a challenging child!

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  8. I read both of your vaccine posts along with this one, and I am so angry that someone tried to assert that your child had autism based on a blog post and pictures of your child. What a cruel, cruel person. I'm also a mom to a husband in the medical field. He's a second year student, and I couldn't agree more with your opinions on vaccinating. I am so glad I stumbled across your blog!

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  9. Thank you for writing this post,ElleMura. My 26 month old daughter does the tantrum thing at the store, doctor's office, even church. Many times I'm at my wits end trying to rein her in. The other day at the mall, she ran away from me and from the look on her face, she wanted me to chase her down and turn it into a game which at 8-months pregnant I couldn't do. God bless the kind stranger who asked me if she should get her for me and ran after her and got her for me. So many times, people look at me with judging eyes and I feel like the worst mom ever. These days I've resolved that I don't care about judging looks at all and I glare back if I saw them. My kid is sweet but her energy is off the charts (or maybe I think so because I'm heavily pregnant and have no energy) and I love her to bits even on those days she uses her body to sweep the floor of the mall, store, doctor's office, name it. Thank you again for addressing this topic.

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    1. That was me, EXACTLY, including pregnant to boot. The good news is that it will get SO much easier for you once you have your #2. Not only will you not be pregnant, but I bet your daughter's behavior will improve as she becomes more verbal. I found 1 to be the such a hard year but 2 was very good and 3 is seriously bliss.

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  10. That is my son as well. He will be 3 in April... it makes me want to cry. Happy tears. I knew he'd be a passionate child and I prayed for the right kind of patience for him. I am still trying to figure that out. Just an FYI. I have an autistic brother. His tantrums involvrd banging his head on the cement and violence. And I am sure that is common. These armchair diagnoses are from crazy people. Crazies! Today I explained to his aunt, who is trying to force him to trust her... not in an ugly way. She means well. Anyway, I explained to her he trusts people that talk to me and don't try to get his attention. He likes when they tell me how cute he is and notice how smart he is and funny and more... when they say all that to me he knows they're trustworthy. But, she didn't listen. And that's ok. Just this evening she called for him from the living room. In a sing-songy voice. And He said, "I'm not coming!" It was hilarious.

    Thanks for this article.

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    1. Thanks Tiffany! My relatable funny story about my son from last night: I said, "Matthew, if you come out of your room again I'm going to have to take away one of your trains." And he said, totally serious: "Well.... don't take the yellow one." LOL. But he didn't come out, thankfully!

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  11. I just stumbled across your blog and had to comment. I was 39 and my husband was 40 when our son was born, our first and only child. I have never encountered such a relentlessly active and spirited child, and actually put him in half-day daycare before he turned two to preserve my sanity. His preschool warned us that we would be told that he had ADHD by teachers because he was so active, but at the same time was capable of long periods of concentration and focus when something interested him. I found a book called "Raising your spirited child" to be helpful and reassuring--transitions between activities can be very challenging to a child who lives life at full throttle and commits heart and soul to an activity. He ended up graduating first in his class and is now a sophomore at an Ivy League school, with a wide range of interests including service to others, intramural sports, and as well as his intellectual passions. So don't worry--over time all that energy can be channelled effectively and your child will thrive and do amazing things, and you will continue to grow in humility, as we did :)

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    1. Aaaaaah thank you for this comment! I have heard that book mentioned before, I will have to check it out. Yes, totally on the same page with log periods of concentration and focus... he could sit for books right away (versus my daughter) and I once read to him for 40 minutes before I finally quit back when he was 1.5. These days my daughter has taken over the spirited roll; she doesn't have the tantrums that he did but boy her energy is limitless - constant motion, climbing, talking etc. Strangers even comment. I'm excited to see what the future holds for both of them! Congratulations on raising a fantastic son!

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  12. Just found this post and it resonates so much !!! My daughter is 20 months now and is fiesty ! I look at other kids and wonder how they sit patiently in store carts while their mother browses target aisles... Such a tough age !

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