I often describe parenthood as a series of lifelong events that test your patience mixed in with unconditional love. Inevitably, kids go through phases that drive you to the brink…and just when you feel you can’t take that phase any longer, poof! It ends. And the next phase begins. Cluster feeding, not sleeping through the night, mysterious rashes, learning to walk, learning to talk, teething, terrible two’s, terribler three’s, and so on as they grow. My youngest, Dodge, turns 4 next week and would happily turn 2 if it meant being cuddled constantly and treated like a baby…but I find this age to be very enjoyable and easy to work with. My oldest, Max, is 6 and deep into the current phase that has his mom and me at our breaking points: Epic overreacting and emotional meltdowns.
“Like most phases with kids it just gradually increased till it was a thing.”
I don’t know when it began. Like most phases with kids it just gradually increased till it was a thing. We started noticing it last year and by late Fall it was clearly getting worse. Max was erupting into tears and freaking out about everything. The same reaction you would expect from a kid when you tell them they’re going to the doctor to get a shot is what we started getting for everything, including going to bed. Everything was a meltdown of tears and tempers followed by shouting things like, “We never get to stay up late!” Or, “You never let us eat candy for breakfast!” Or, “We always go to Dairy Queen for ice cream!” (He wanted a different ice cream place). It got to the point where Max started melting down before he even heard or knew what was being said to him. He would erupt just to erupt.
December was when it took a turn for the worse. We had tried punishment…it got worse. We tried positive reinforcement…it got worse. We tried ignoring it…it got worse. Kate and I agreed we needed help and that it was becoming unmanageable. First, we asked our network of friends who have kids the same age or older. We were pleased to hear we were not alone and this was a phase their kids had gone through too. The main piece of advice? Ignore it. So, we ignored it again.
It got worse. It got physical.
I started spending more time with him and having long talks about emotions and explaining to him that I understood where he was coming from as someone who has emotional bouts and a temper. I told him about my battles with anger management and I gave him some tools to work with. I taught him ways to use his words instead of his fists. I can ignore tantrums. I can ignore slamming doors. I cannot ignore hitting, scratching, and kicking. I taught Max the value in walking away from a situation to cool down and then reengaging. The process I taught him is simple, I told him, “When you feel like you are about to pop…cross your arms, pinch your hands in your armpits, and shout the emotion you are feeling out loud.” We practiced. “I’m frustrated!!!” Good! “I’m angry!!!” Good! This was going to require some patience but it felt like we had something to work on at last…and it worked…for a while.
Yesterday, the boys combined efforts to completely embarrass Kate at a meeting. They intentionally broke rules they know to follow, were disruptive, and fought. The level of their poor behavior did something I have never seen (nor had they ever seen), it drove Kate to cry when she got home. There was a long conversation last night about what it means to be “embarrassed” and how their behavior had caused Mommy to feel that way. The boys were in shock to see their mother well up with tears. I sent them to bed without books. Kate and I agreed, it was good for them to see their behavior had hurt her. We’d let them stew overnight and dive in with positive affirmation in the morning. For now, there was a bottle of wine to open and a bath for Daddy to draw for Mommy.
Then came morning.
What caused the argument is trivial, Dodge was taunting Max with a toy and enjoying seeing him get emotional as any sibling can relate to. Max took the bait and started shouting at him to stop. The younger brother ramped things up and lit the fuse. You could hear it hiss from upstairs (it is a short wick) and then…BOOM!!! Max exploded.
My heart sang, he had done the right thing and used his words instead of his…
…then there was a blood-curdling scream from the younger brother.
Max had succeeded in folding his arms, pinching his hands with his armpits, and vocalizing his emotions. However, he then grabbed Dodge and scratched him on his face. This is not the first time Max has scratched Dodge’s face in anger. This was the first time he lied and tried to say it was an accident. That was my breaking point. My bomb went off next.
“I know Max’s behavior is a reflection of me and my own issues with verbally lashing out.”
We need some help. We’re going to look for a child therapist to work with Max on his emotions, temper, and lashing out. Hopefully, the therapist can work with all of us as a family too as I know Max’s behavior is a reflection of me and my own issues with verbally lashing out. Luckily, he has wonderful behavior at school and has not lashed out at his friends. He is wonderful one-on-one as well. He seems to be lashing out primarily at Dodge, then Kate, and then me. It feels, to me, that he is testing lashing out with his family in the order in which he feels he can get away with it. He’ll boss Dodge around, argue with Kate, and test the waters with me. Dodge is 3, Kate is patient, and I’m a hard-ass. Makes sense. I also think this is in reaction to the pressures of Kindergarten and having to go to school every weekday and having homework instead of daycare projects and non-stop playtime. He’s frustrated, which is okay, we just need someone to help him get out of that meltdown cycle and advise Kate and me on how we can change our behavior to support him.
Dodge is obviously watching all of this and soaking it in. He has taken to imposing his will on the kitties. He’s not abusive to them, but he is authoritative to them in a way he is not with other people’s pets. He likes to scare them, grab them, shout at them…but he also is very sweet to them. You can tell he wants their affection very badly, but he is prepared to do whatever it takes to get that affection…even if that means holding them down and forcibly petting them. I’m not as worried about Dodge as I am Max. He has a very different personality and is currently much tougher than Max was at this age. I think Max will one day wake up to realize that Dodge is sick of being pushed around and isn’t going to take it anymore. Max will get a bloody nose that day and Dodge will get some space. He’s got sharp elbows, that kid, and he doesn’t like to back down from a challenge. Dodge is a pile of tacks wrapped in a snugly blanket while Max is a pile of delicate eggs wrapped in a balloon that inflates and deflates at random.
“…it is okay to be angry, it is okay to be sad, and it is okay to be frustrated…”
In the meantime, both boys will be encouraged to vocalize their emotions instead of acting them out physically. Good behavior will be rewarded, bad behavior will be ignored, and physical lashing out will be punished. I always tell them it is okay to be angry, it is okay to be sad, and it is okay to be frustrated…but it is not okay to hurt someone or yourself because of it. Any advice from you, my constant reader, would be greatly appreciated. Till next time, wine and baths…wine and baths.
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