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…