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.|
|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.
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