My son’s out-of-control, unpredictable behavior caused my husband and me to re-examine how we dish out discipline.
“DON’T TOUCH ME, YOU STUPID HEAD!” my 4-year-old son shrieked as I reached for him. We were about halfway through the service at a church we were visiting for the first time, and Wyatt was lying in the middle of the center aisle. “I HATE YOU!” he continued as he scrambled across the floor to get away, with me in hot pursuit. “YOU’RE THE WORST MOMMY IN THE WHOLE WORLD! I WISH YOU WEREN’T MY MOMMY!” he screamed as I caught him and proceeded to carry him up the aisle to the back of the church, nearly dropping him in the process.
Suddenly, a flying arm caught me across the face. He slapped me. I have no idea whether the faces that watched us were sympathetic or judgmental, because I was too humiliated to look up. All I knew was that I had made the mistake of trying to get my son to sit down, and this was the result.
I wish I could say that was the first — or the last — time that I’ve had to deal with one of Wyatt’s very public meltdowns, but that would be an outright lie. In fact, five years later we’re still dealing with the meltdowns, although we’re getting better at anticipating and managing them.
What is ODD?
Over the last five or six years Wyatt has been diagnosed with various behavioral and neurodevelopmental disorders — everything from ADHD to ODD (oppositional defiant disorder). The diagnoses continue to change as he’s grows into new stages of development. While the names have changed, what hasn’t changed is the need for my husband and I to adjust and prepare for Wyatt’s encounters with new situations.
I have to admit that this parenting thing has been a lot harder than I anticipated. When I say a lot harder, I mean ridiculously so.
My husband and I had both been brought up in happy homes filled with love and laughter. Our parents had been strict but fair, and we had both been taught from a very young age to respect our elders. Our older siblings were raising their children using the same approach, and they didn’t seem to be running into any major problems. Unlike us.
Something as simple as not liking what I had made for supper could set Wyatt off, transforming him in seconds from my sweet little boy with the shy smile and twinkling eyes to an out-of-control terror who I barely recognized. It wasn’t uncommon for me to cry myself to sleep at night, physically and emotionally exhausted from dealing with a meltdown so violent that I needed to physically restrain him so that he couldn’t hurt himself, or me.
I would sit on the floor with Wyatt between my legs, my arms strategically wrapped around him so he couldn’t bite me or scratch me, one leg over his so he couldn’t kick me, the other leg braced against something so that he couldn’t knock me over as he struggled to get away. I’d talk quietly to him the entire time, telling him that he was safe and loved as he screamed how much he hated me and how he wished I weren’t his mother.
Eventually his rage would pass, and he’d go limp in my arms. His screams would turn to sobs that shook his tiny body, and his struggles to get away would turn to struggles to get closer. I’d sit there and rock him, smoothing his hair and kissing his forehead, reassuring him that I loved him and that everything was going to be OK, all the while holding back the tears of hopelessness and helplessness that threatened to overwhelm me.
Parenting techniques that didn’t work
Don’t get me wrong. I never figured being a parent would be easy, and I fully anticipated that there would be times when I would want to tear my hair out (can you say “teenage years”?), but nothing prepared me for a child who didn’t play by the rules. Even as a toddler, the traditional parenting strategies didn’t work.
If other people were having success with the same parenting strategies we were using then, I concluded, the problem had to reside with us. We had to be doing something wrong. So I read article after article after article on parenting and discipline in an attempt to figure out what we were doing wrong. But everything I read said the same thing: if we used the techniques properly and were consistent and loving in their application, our son would learn what was expected of him.
What I have come to realize is that parenting articles are all written from the standpoint that the prescribed techniques will eventually work. Because of this, they don’t tell you when to give up and move on to something else, so certainly not what that something else would look like. So how long do you keep distracting and redirecting a toddler from the same thing before you give up? Hours? Days? Weeks? Months?
When Wyatt was just learning to walk, he became fascinated by an antique cabinet with glass doors that we had in our living room, where he spent the most time. He paid no attention to the books and CDs that filled the cabinet, only to the pretty doors that made a fun sound when he banged on them. At first we patiently told him “no” and redirected his attention to a favorite toy or book, but he would head straight back to the cabinet the first chance he got. As the days passed we became sterner with our “no,” moving from patient to scolding. Still nothing changed.
“Slap his hand!” our parents told us when we asked for their advice. Scared that he would break the glass and get seriously hurt, we started accompanying our “no” with a light slap on the hand, just hard enough to startle him, but that didn’t deter him either. We placed a cedar chest in front of the cabinet so that he couldn’t get to the doors, but it didn’t stop him from trying. After a few weeks we gave up and moved the cabinet into one of the bedrooms, but we had to remember to keep the door to the room closed or he would be right back at it. Once the cabinet was gone, Wyatt moved on to pulling all the books out of a little bookcase in the hall, and the bookcase soon joined the cabinet in the bedroom.
When Wyatt got a little older we started removing privileges, but he didn’t care. I remember one particular incident, when he was about 3 years old. I was vacuuming not too far from where he was watching TV when he came over and dumped a bunch of toys on the floor in front of me. I scolded him and told him to pick the toys up. He stood there silent, not moving. I told him that he needed to pick them up or he would lose the TV until he did. Without saying a word he walked over to the TV, turned it off, and then went to his room, closing his door behind him.
I stood there for a few minutes, trying to figure out how to respond to the fact that my 3-year-old had just removed all control of the situation from my hands. I left the toys where they were, figuring Wyatt would come back out in a few minutes and ask to watch TV. I anticipated an angry response and mentally braced myself. Except, the anger never came. Instead, when Wyatt reappeared about an hour later, he casually wandered over to the toys, picked them all up, and then proceeded to turn on the TV. As much as I wanted to get mad at him, I couldn’t. I had established the consequence — you lose the TV until you pick up your toys — and that’s what he had done. Being bested by a 3-year-old didn’t exactly build my confidence in my parenting abilities.
We certainly didn’t have any more luck with timeout, which is a little more involved than removing privileges — but still not rocket science. According to the experts, follow the formula and you’re good to go. Have a designated timeout spot? Check. Limit time to one minute for each year of the child’s age? Check. Ensure child understands what is expected of him and the consequences for not cooperating? Check. Return child to designated spot if he moves, and reset timer? Check. I would reset the timer until the sweat was pouring off my face. I returned my 4-year-old to his timeout spot for the 10th, 20th, and 30th time.
We tried just as many positive reinforcement strategies to encourage good behavior. I spent hours creating charts and a small fortune on stickers and rewards. We looked for any opportunity to praise him for doing something well, and we rewarded his behavior with stickers. But nothing worked for more than a day or two, not even a sleepover at Grandma’s, a movie with Mommy, or a bike ride with Daddy.
When desperation leads to re-examination
When Wyatt started kindergarten, we were desperate. Nothing we tried worked, and the school’s experience mirrored our own. Smart, sweet, and wickedly funny, everyone wanted to be Wyatt’s friend. Kids ran to greet him as soon as he walked into school in the morning. Teachers and staff members ruffled his hair as they passed him in the hall and went out of their way to share stories with me about something funny he had done or said to them.
At the same time, his behavior was so problematic that he spent more time out of class than in it. One minute he’d be playing nicely with a friend, the next minute his friend was crying because Wyatt had hit him. He adored his teacher but often flat-out refused to do anything he said. His lack of respect for authority knew no limits, to the point that one day he stood on the principal’s desk and refused to get down. He was so wildly hyper and unpredictable that the school had to send an extra staff member on class trips just to keep an eye on him. If no one was available, he couldn’t go.
I switched from reading parenting articles to parenting books. I consumed Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent and Energetic and then quickly moved on to Ross Greene’s The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children. Both books were instrumental in prompting us to re-examine our views on parenting and discipline. But Greene said something that really struck home.
Ross Greene who is a well-respected child psychologist has a theory that “kids do well if they can.” This theory made us totally rethink Wyatt’s misbehavior. According to Green, most children want to be good and to please the adults in their lives. After all, being in trouble all the time is no fun.
We knew that Wyatt understood the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. He could tell you what was expected of him in any given situation and seemed to have every intention of doing exactly that, but for whatever reason he often ended up doing the opposite. In the throes of a meltdown, his defiance and aggression overshadowed his true nature, which was all sweetness and light. Once his anger was gone, however, he was genuinely heartbroken at the things he’d done and said in the heat of the moment. We realized that for him, it wasn’t a matter of “won’t” but of “can’t.”
Some of our reactions were essentially punishing him for not being able to do something that he lacked the skills to do. This caused him to respond to situations in the same way a child much younger than him would because that was the level where his skills stopped developing. It’s like handing a book to a child who has never been taught to read and then punishing her for not being able to read the book. Just like some kids need help with reading or math, Wyatt needed help. We’ve learned that Wyatt needs to be taught how to deal with situations that upset him and cause him to act out.
New discipline strategy from the experts
So we tried a new way of disciplining our son. It meant changing how we as parents react to Wyatt’s behavior. This nontraditional style of parenting doesn’t come naturally to most people, and it didn’t come naturally to us. It required us to abandon the age-old notion that children who misbehave need to be “punished” — with timeout and consequences — in order for them to learn. My husband and I made a conscious decision to shift our focus from disciplining Wyatt for his behavior to figuring out what was causing it.
Because he was still so young and was rarely able to explain what was upsetting him, we worked closely with his school to identify what kinds of situations seemed to trigger his behavior and what skills he was missing to be able to manage those situations and the intense feelings they created in him.
We discovered, for example, that Wyatt became frustrated extremely easily. If the situation wasn’t resolved immediately, his frustration would fester until it erupted in anger, sometimes hours later. Wyatt didn’t hit a friend seemingly out of the blue because he was mean; he hit because he didn’t know how to deal with his escalated frustration in a productive way.
With this new knowledge in hand, our goal became to help Wyatt develop the skills he needed to respond appropriately in any given situation. In the interim we moved from trying to control his behavior with rewards and consequences to trying to reduce the likelihood of unwanted behavior by evaluating every situation for its potential to cause problems for him.
That’s not to say that Wyatt is free to do whatever he likes without fear of repercussions until then. Believe me, this approach is no get-out-of-jail-free card. If, for example, he at his little brother and calls him names, he needs to apologize to him. If he throws things all around the living room, the mess stays there until he’s calm enough to clean it up. While Wyatt doesn’t get in trouble for these things, he still has to take responsibility for his actions and make amends for anything he has said or done.
We had a veritable laundry list of things we needed to consider, everything from Christmas dinner at my parents’ house to school trips. We asked ourselves: had he been there before? Would the activity be structured or unstructured? How many people would there be?
We could be counted on to arrive late, leave early, or call with our regrets at the last minute because Wyatt was having a bad day, and we often turned down invitations that we felt would be too much for him to handle. The word spontaneity ceased to exist in our vocabulary.
Nontraditional, not lazy
The nontraditional style of parenting made us look to others like lazy or negligent parents who couldn’t be bothered to discipline our child. That wasn’t much of a change, though, since many people already assumed we were ineffectual parents. We dealt with the inevitable comments from friends and family members who didn’t understand our response to Wyatt’s behavior, especially in the beginning.
Grandparents informed us that they had no problems with him when he was with them, so he must be able to control himself. His aunts and uncles said things like “So, tell me again why you’re not punishing him right now?” And elderly relatives watched disapprovingly as we comforted Wyatt after an incident instead of punishing him.
A few weeks ago, on the way to a doctor’s appointment, Wyatt started yelling, screaming, calling me names, and throwing things around the van. Because we were on the highway, it was difficult for me to pull over. I tried to calm him, but the closer we got to our destination, the more upset he got. When he threw a shoe and hit the back of my headrest, I yelled at him to stop before he caused an accident. My calming words hadn’t been able to reach him, but my yell managed to jolt him out of his meltdown. “Mommy,” he began to sob from the back of the van, “I need you. I need you, Mommy!”
As luck would have it, there was a rest stop ahead where I could pull off the highway. I climbed in beside him and held him until he stopped crying. Once he was calm enough, I started to ask him questions to see if I could figure out what had set him off. What initially appeared to be frustration at not being able to play with a friend turned out to be anxiety about the doctor’s appointment. Together we came up with a plan that addressed his worries, and suddenly the crisis was over. By the time I pulled back out onto the highway, he was laughing and telling me a joke.
While Wyatt’s behavior has improved over the years, he still has a long way to go. Truth be told, the biggest change has been in our relationship with him.
Under the old approach, we constantly raged at Wyatt and punished him for his behavior. As a result, he turned into a sad little boy who felt he could never do anything right and who had no one on his side. His laughter and his smiles became increasingly rare. That’s no longer the case. Gradually he stopped worrying about us getting mad at him and instead began to see us as a safe place to go for help when he starts to spiral out of control.
If I’ve learned anything from our struggles over the years it’s that being a parent is just as much about learning lessons as it is about teaching them. Looking back at how far we’ve come as a family, I’m pretty sure we’re not failing; I think we’re going to pass this test.