When your strong-willed child breaks your spirit
We were walking along 3rd avenue. It was a brisk fall day and our morning had gone according to plan. There had been no crazy curve balls or catastrophes. The toddler and the threenager had been playing and watching TV as I nursed my coffee. Everything appeared to be in perfect harmony. Even as we were about to leave the apartment, Amos voluntarily got into the double stroller with his little brother (something that NEVER happens. Usually getting him into the stroller involves force or bribery). As I pushed the stroller, I chatted with the kids. We talked about what we wanted to do this morning, and what friends we might see at the park. We spotted the street sweeper, a police car and a fire truck. Everything seemed so pleasant and I couldn’t help but think that I was doing a damn good job as a Mom. Maybe I had been on the phone a bit too much this morning, but we were headed to the playground now; everything in moderation, right?
A bad toddler tantrum
As we walked into Starbucks, I struggled a bit with the door (as you do with a gargantuan double wide stroller) and somehow in those six short seconds, Amos went from pleasant, articulate and happy to exorcist child. The door hadn’t even closed behind me, and he was kicking his legs and screaming bloody murder. My first thought: Why in God’s name couldn’t you have screamed like this when we WEREN’T in a confined space!? My second thought: Remain calm. I immediately looked him in the eyes with my mom face in full effect. I said the same thing that I always say when he has these outbursts. Something to the effect of, “Amos, you may NOT scream like that. If you want to talk to me, you need talk KINDLY. Do NOT scream at mommy, understand?” all while completely blocking the entryway. He begrudgingly nodded his head. It may have only been a couple of minutes, but it sure felt like longer. As I moved further into the store, he then proceeded to swing (read: thrash) his legs haphazardly while we were waiting in line, almost knocking down an entire row of breakables. I came around to the front of the stroller, grabbed his legs and as words started to come out of my mouth, I felt my eyes fill with hot tears and my voice catch in my throat. I barely managed to say, “You are making mommy very sad” before the tears started cascading down my face.
I ordered and picked up my coffee, left Starbucks, pushed the stroller, put my head down and quietly sobbed into my coffee as I made my way to the park.
I cried because I was shell shocked. I cried because I felt judged by others. I cried because aren’t we done with this phase yet? I cried because, whether I liked it or not, there were tears a-plenty.
Have you ever had a day like that?
The thing is, with him, I keep thinking that it’s going to get better. I keep thinking that the more I deal with it, the easier it will get - but I'm just not sure. It feels just as hard to deal with it now as it has every other time for the past three years. I still get that same simultaneous rush of anger, embarrassment and panic. I still feel my cheeks get burning red hot. I still think of all the things I’d say to someone if they DARE criticize me or my child in that moment. I still don’t know the magic trick to diffuse the situation. What I do know is that this part of parenting is HARD.
Dealing with a strong willed child
I’ve done a lot of hard things in my life. I’m battling anxiety. I’ve birthed 4 kids sans medication. I’ve moved away from family to a city with over 10 million people. I’ve broken bones and lost jobs. I’ve kept kids fed, clothed and (relatively) happy for upwards of 7 years. But these behavioral challenges are exhausting and the recurring outbursts push me to my breaking point. Part of the problem is that I have four kids. Four BOYS. So it’s actually impossible for me to be watching all of them all day long (not that I’d even want to do that). Sometimes I think that if I could consistently be there to prevent him from impulsively hitting or pushing, he would understand how important it is to not do those things. But maybe not. Sometimes I think that having more structure to our day would help. But maybe not. It’s all a guessing game when it comes to him. It’s all trial and error. All of it. Let's have a show of hands if you feel that way too.
More often than not, I can deal with the things that he does on a day to day basis. When he digs his heels in and refuses to pick up the book that he flung (with impressive strength) across the room, when he jumps from the couch to the coffee table like Tarzan, when he snatches things straight out of the hands of unsuspecting brothers. Those things I have almost come to expect, and I can address them without getting emotional or even angry (most of the time). That’s just Amos. That’s what he does. It’s the outbursts that continually shake me to my core. They’re fierce, unpredictable, and intense. They come at the most random of times and metastasise in seconds. We’ve all seen it, haven’t we? If not with our own kids, we’ve witnessed it at the grocery store, at the doctor’s office or the playground. The extreme tantrum that causes everyone to turn and stare. The one that makes us think, “What the hell is going on?” The one that has made us assume that there was no follow-through going on in that household or that almost caused us to call the proper authorities or Super Nanny.
I used to be that parent.
Honestly, I’d think, “just discipline your kid and then they wouldn’t act like a jerk in public” (Oh, past Rhianon. How little you knew). Now I know better. Now I know that there is no correlation between the level of tantrum craziness and the offense committed. I know that it has nothing to do with how well you follow-through at home. I know that trying to reason with him when he’s having a moment is fruitless. I also know that it comes to an end. Eventually the tantrum will stop, and then I can ask him what happened, listen to him explain, validate his feelings and also remind him that next time he needs to use his words if he’s frustrated. I don’t always do this well, nor do I do it every single time but I’m trying to learn how to get through to him while also telling him that he is a GOOD BOY. He is a sweet boy, he is a kind boy, he is a smart boy, he is a fun boy and he needs to be affirmed of these things far more than he needs to be corrected. This doesn’t mean that I correct him less. It means that I praise him for the good things that he does as often as I can possibly remember.
Overcoming as a parent
Something else that I’ve learned in the past 3 years is that these tantrums and his challenging personality is not a result of something I have done. It’s NOT MY FAULT that he behaves differently than any of my other kids. I have two boys that are older than Amos. My husband and I have raised them all similarly, they have the same genes and we are putting so much effort into loving them well and teaching them how to be decent humans, yet there’s just something about our passionate one that makes him different. He’s strong willed. That’s it. He’s impulsive, physical and throws crazy tantrums but that doesn’t make me a bad parent. And if you have a child who is difficult and throws crazy tantrums, you too need to know that their behavior is not a reflection of your parenting. I see you. I see the way you love your child endlessly, despite the attitude. I see your steadfastness as they, for the millionth time, test your patience. I see your strength as you withstand the hitting and screaming.
It’s hard to remain standing through it all, let alone press on through the difficulties but I know that it can be done. I know that you can do it. We may feel like our strong willed kids are breaking our spirits, but just remember that parenting is like a muscle. We may go through times when we feel like we are breaking, and we are sweet friend, but that's not bad; that means you're human. And in the end that muscle grows back stronger. You end up with more patience. You are more capable. More loving. You are enough. We are enough. Enough to raise that little person into someone who will eventually come to appreciate all that you have done. Despite what you may think, there is no one else more qualified to raise your kid than you; that’s why they’re yours.
You can do it.