breakdown, breakthrough ~ part one

Life as a mama with two young ones has not been easy these days. It would take more time than I now have to explain, but let’s just say my hands are quite full and most days end with me sinking into an immovable heap on the sofa.

Our big girl turned four and is truly a marvel to behold. Every day I am awed by her uniquely creative and wily imagination. She builds complex structures and makes elaborate art projects (she can create just about anything with paper, scissors, tape and ribbon). Her memory is especially remarkable (she can remember details from before she was even two). And oh, the questions. It’s wonderful, really, her innate curiosity. We read books and tell stories and she learns new things every day. Yet she craves more and has an uncanny ability to figure things out. Her logic and analytical skills are developing right before us. She is unbelievably amazing, our big girl.

Sometimes I forget that she’s only four. Her language is so developed and she is so articulate that sometimes we have to remind ourselves that she’s still a preschooler. Like most kids her age, she gets frustrated and overcome by emotion, and sometimes can’t find her words. She still has tantrums. Epic fucking tantrums.

While we were preparing to build our family through adoption, I was cautioned by several people (including a family psychologist and other parents) not to attribute every troubling behavior to our child’s adoption. I took this advice to heart as it made good sense. Sometimes a toddler is just being a toddler. Most teenagers pass through a phase when they don’t like their parents (to put it mildly) or want to run away. So as we’ve struggled to deal with a tough phase of troubling behaviors that include the most challenging parenting moments I’ve experienced to date, I didn’t want to make any unwarranted assumptions.

Often there are clear triggers for the types of behavior I’m talking about. Hungry or tired children, for example, are more prone to tantrums. You can see it coming, sometimes. But that doesn’t make it any easier if you can’t avert the situation. If such behaviors persist by the time a kid gets to school, the child may be diagnosed with some behavioral disorder. Yet I’d go crazy if I thought about how this may unfold over the years. This could just be a phase. And I can only deal with the here and now.

Usually our daughter knows her actions will have consequences. She doesn’t like it, but we hope this helps her learn about responsibility. Love and logic. We try to empower her to make choices and be accountable for them. But in these moments, in the midst of an epic tantrum, there is no logic. The best approach seems to be ignore the behavior, if she’s safe and not posing danger. Ignore, and don’t engage.

This time it’s preschool pickup. She sees me coming but isn’t ready to leave. She’s outside playing and upset as it’s time to go. But that’s not it. She looks sort of angry — furrowed brow, pursed lips — and she starts acting out. It begins with leading two friends in a round of pick-your-teeth-with-wood-chips, and leads to drinking dirty water after looking right at me. Then she howls when I take it away. As the screaming begins, her friends gather around. She is out of control now and saying hurtful things. I calmly yet firmly tell her to stop and b r e a t h e, say it’s time to go, we’re not doing this now, we’re leaving. I begin the countdown, which usually is surprisingly effective. 5-4-3… She approaches me and — using her force, and wow is she strong — she hits my leg then tries to push me away. She screams at me to go. She is about to spit. Her eyes are faraway.

It’s hardly the embarrassment that bothers me, though I am mortified. This violent outburst is deeply troubling. While not the first, it does seem to be the first time that I am the trigger. I am the target of her rage. And that look in her eyes — it’s a look I never thought I’d see until she was at least a ‘tween.

I take a deep breath myself. I know I need to remain calm. I know she needs both love and boundaries. I know she will test me, challenging me to both continue to love her and keep her safe. But right now? Right now I too want to cry and scream and ask for help. But right now it’s just me, just the two of us, and we need to find our way through this. Here and now.

Does she know why she feels this way? Did I sense sorrow too, or just anger? Can she identify the source of her rage? She’s just four years old. She’s not yet equipped with the tools a bigger kid (hopefully) learns to deal with overwhelming emotions. She’s not likely capable of processing and articulating all she’s feeling. While I can’t presume to know what that is, I do believe she needs help grappling with some complex emotions that appear to be simmering at the surface, some gentle guidance and support as she begins to explore what she’s feeling. If I can help her articulate why she’s acting out, maybe she’ll begin to feel some control over her emotions and actions. Maybe.

Is she just upset about leaving her friends, as she has been before? Is she mad at me for pulling her away? Or is it something far deeper? Is she feeling some sort of profound sadness or confusion about herself or how she came to be in our family? (At one point she said I was making her sad but she didn’t know why.) Has she simply eaten too much sugar (which absolutely affects her behavior in this way)? I wonder if and how we might get to the root of the problem. We may never know, or we may need help. I’m grasping here, a mama desperate to help her flailing, hurting child. I’m trying to hold it together for both of us. I’m really hoping I don’t screw this up.

She is still wildly out of control, and I need to do something. She’s not listening. She’s not being safe with her body or with others. She’s being mean and hurtful. She’s trying to hit me again.

Clearly she’s hurting inside.

Holding her baby sister, I take my big girl’s hands off me and tell her once more that we’re leaving, and I begin to walk away. She follows now but is still fighting. As we walk, I tell her that her behavior is unacceptable. She starts talking about something else, then I refuse to engage until we’re outside, alone. We make our way to the car, yet I know she’s only coming so willingly because swim lessons are next. She really wants to go and I’ve already said I don’t think she’ll be going. There’s no way I can let her go if she’s not being safe, not listening, not talking.

I take another deep breath — letting go of my own issues and insecurities. (How the hell do you parent through these episodes? what are appropriate consequences for a raging aching heart?) As I exhale, I make room for peace and calm. I create space for whatever will come next, and I open the car door.

This is hard.

Continued in part two…

~ by luna on July 18, 2013.

19 Responses to “breakdown, breakthrough ~ part one”

  1. It is like seeing into my future. You handled this well. Thanks for being brave enough to put it out there.

  2. Though neither of my children were adopted, their Montessori teacher gave me some advice that made sense to me, too … that they acted out at home, or in front of me, or with me, because I was safe. Because it was a safe place to express emotion, to test boundaries. Because they knew I loved them enough. And though that didn’t make it any easier to deal with the behavior, it did make it easier to deal with my own feelings of inadequacy, my own helplessness. Because it meant that loving them fiercely was the right thing to do, even though at times it felt like the only thing I could do. Which is not to say that I let them walk all over me, but that I let them know I’d be there to support them, and that they had the power to work it out.

    Sending you hugs as you navigate these waters together.

  3. Oh how I wish I had some brilliant words of wisdom. I can say that I do think you are handling it appropriately given the situation.

    I know at 4 yrs old, she might not be able to articulate her feelings even when removed from the tantrum but, that’s where I would start (if you haven’t already). I would pick a time completely removed from any tantrum she has had and I’d ask her about the reasons for her reaction. She might surprise you.

  4. Wow, I feel like I could have written so much of this. My daughter just turned three and a having a really hard time right now. Very violent episodes, mostly against herself. The teacher talks to me about it with deep concern and I don’t know what to tell her. I know it’s not “normal” for a three year old to go from happily playing to screaming and throwing her bed back violently against the floor in two seconds flat. I don’t know how to avoid those reactions and I don’t know how to tell them to avoid them either. It’s hard.

    I can’t even imagine how hard it is to try to unravel what adoption might have to do with the pain and rage. Adding that level of complexity and uncertainty would be impossible for me to bear. I comment you for getting through this, and with a little one in tow. I hope it gets better soon.

  5. Oh Luna, I wish I had words of wisdom to offer you, but I don’t. This must be so difficult. Poor little girl, poor mama … you must be so torn up inside.

    I like Kristin’s advice and agree that your daughter may surprise you with what she says about her reasons for the tantrum. It may be adoption related, but then again, it may not be.

    You handled the situation so well – hang in there. You guys will make it through this.

  6. Luna, your pain is so palpable here I can feel it. So first of all, sending you some love.

    Your post made me dig back into my own memory to see if I could remember the time that your daughter is living right now. I think, for me, any adoption related angst came much, much later. I may have blamed bad behavior on feeling left out or out of place, but if I search my soul, it wasn’t it. I was just being bad.

    The day I broke my mother’s heart (not for the first time, I’m sure) and said, “I don’t have to listen to you; you’re not my mom.” I did it simply because I knew it would hurt. She had just told me my friend couldn’t come over to play. I was pissed and angry, and, um, four. And you know, I went for the low-hanging fruit. (and still feel bad about it to this day).

    Obviously, I am not your daughter. She is not me. But I felt like sharing that might help.

    And for the record, any daughter is lucky to have a mom so with it and in tune as you (even if you don’t feel that way all the time).

  7. Oh, Luna, this is so hard. Watching your baby hurt is the worst part, but also in there are knowing you must teach her appropriate behavior, the weight of her emotions and yours, and fear that this won’t pass.

    I can see that you are already doing perhaps the most important thing: creating space. She will find her way through. She already understands that you’re there for her, no matter what, which is why she feels safe feeling this icky emotions with you. Aren’t you glad that she is able to feel these feelings now and not bury them way deep down to deal with later in life?

    Truly, you are doing a remarkable job, even though it may not feel like it. Trust yourself, trust your daughter’s resilience, trust the process.

  8. Luna, I’m sorry you are struggling with this right now. My gut tells me that these behaviors aren’t related to adoption; a lot of it sounds like being 4. Your daughter is a month older than my son, and I’ve seen some astounding looks in his eye if I make him mad, but he is still struggling with how to express his feelings. I really like the idea of talking to her about it another time and seeing what she says. Could you have her draw a picture of how she was feeling? That might give you some insight into what is going on in her head. Or maybe role play with stuffed animals?

  9. No good words, but definitely a hug for you. The only thing to get you through those moments is to remember that all of it is finite. That with each age, that child changes.

  10. (((Hugs)))

    Such good advice here from everyone. I might add, would it help talking to someone at the Pre-school and seeing if they might help you at pick-up time? Maybe set up a different routine for her, bring her to the car, or even have you come 10 minutes later when her friends have already left?

    Wishing you all the best.

  11. OMG, I could have (and likely did) write this about my older son when he was four and he’s now 6 and we are dealing with similar issues, you and I. In fact, my most recent post was entitled, Hard, and here is a link:
    I can’t wait until your follow-up post!

  12. Ugh. Nothing useful to say here, but I can commiserate when those type of days start to pour dread into you and all of of sudden you question your parenting skills.

    You’re a smart woman, you know your daughter better than anyone. Will wait for your 2nd part.

  13. Oh Luna, I am so sorry for you. I am not a parent, but I am an auntie, and this sounds so much like what I have watched for the past year from my now 5 year old niece. The way she hits her mom, the brutality of it-the force, it sounds just like her, it sounds very typical.

  14. Hi Luna, just wanted to offer support. Four was a tough time for our son Seth, too. He is five now, and what a difference a year makes! I, too, tend to over think and probably attribute behaviors to his adoption that may not be so at all. We moved a year ago and he was adjusting to a new home and new preschool, and threw some tantrums that were doozies! He would get very belligerent with us. We did some serious looking at all the factors, including heredity, his adjustment to the move and his diet. We realized we had become lax about limiting sugar since the move and noticed that particularly when he had anything with dye in it (which always seems to be on the menu at preschool-Kool-aid, candy, cakes, even marshmallows have dye for-crying-out-loud!), that was when he was most hateful and the tantrums flew. We eliminated dyes altogether with the help of his teachers, and restricted the sugar, and the difference was amazing. By the time we did this, he had also had a few months to adjust to the new school and new home, and life became so much more peaceful! I don’t know if the diet stuff would apply to Jaye, but it might be worth a shot. I have two teenagers also, and learned from them that they all go through their difficult times, none like the other. Just hang in there, Mama! I know it’s cliche, but this too shall pass….

  15. My daughter is not yet two and is not adopted, but I already find myself looking in amazement at the violence and vehemence of her tantrums. I can only say that I relate to the feelings of helplessness you are expressing. Your details on how you handled it have actually given me some ideas on how I might be able to handle our issues in the future. Sending lots of hugs to get through this very difficult time

  16. I didn’t read everyone’s comments. What I would say is “Don’t read so much into it”. so she’s a little behind in what I termed the “Demonic Three’s”. There were days I had plans and errands to run but didn’t because there was no way I was taking my once sweet child now turn into some demon into public. We could put her in her room and she would punch and kick the door and scream, it’s not like she was locked in there she was just taking a time out. It was the craziest behavior, so out of character. She seemed to get like this at her half birthday which is also when the long winter is finally about done, for the next 2 years. This year has been fine. She can express herself and tell you about her emotions, but I just think at that age they must be just very frusterated little beings.

  17. Your blog brought tears to my eyes. You are RIGHT, we can’t and shouldn’t atttibute every behaviour to adoption. At 4 years of age my Sophia had the same kind of tantrums and since our adoption has always been fully open, she went there saying, “I want to live with D, she is nicer.” While the words stung, consequences were given out promptly for her tantrum and lack of cooperation not for her genuine an open feelings. Dressed in her tutu and ready for ballet, I turned the car around and brought her home and placed her in time out. Hours later when she was calm, we addressed the elephant in the room. Reaffirming that D entrusted us to care for her and assuring her that she could love D with all her heart forever and always. My sweet Sophia just turned 16 and she continues to chalenge us with her moodiness and emotional meltdowns. The real issue is that she is emotionally 22 and she has always been way ahead of other children socially and emotionally. She told me recently “I am not like other kids mom, I was given away and trust is not easy for me.” I said, you were placed not given away Sophia and she said, “Mom I know you and dad love me. I will never ever question that, but I will always questions why D did not keep me.” Yes, her humble beginnings forever changed her … she thinks differently and she is intuitive and articulate which equals more challenging! Hang in there and keep pluggling away.

  18. Everyone has great bits of advice Luna! Hang in there..deep breaths. I suppose I’m asking a very obvious question but anything related to sibling rivalry?

  19. […] part one (breakdown), read this. This is a long […]

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