Monday, February 13, 2012

What's Wrong With My Kid?: A Letter For Every Parent With A Tough Kid

It was 3:53 PM on Friday afternoon when the call came in.

"Mrs. {COB}, Please come to school and pick up your son, {Thing 1}."

My heart sank. I have memorized the school's phone number and whenever I see it pop up on my phone I get a knot in my stomach. He is four.

I started this blog for a couple reasons. I wanted to be healthier. I wanted to give my kids a shot at being healthier. I wanted to help them develop good habits. But deep down, covered up by better sound bites, was an idea that a better diet might alleviate some of Thing 1's troubling impulsive behavior.

Since he was a baby it seemed like he was just a little left of center. I would see families having a picnic where the baby would stay on the blanket and eat because it was meal time. I would see kids playing games and sticking to the rules of the game. I saw many kids pick up common baby toys like teethers and stacking blocks and instinctively know what to do with them. And I saw kids have tantrums because they wanted something that they could not have.

Thing 1 didn't do any of these things. Setting up a blanket in the park was the best way to make sure that he would never come near it. That was almost an invitation to run as far away as possible. Thing 1 has always struggled to play along in structured play, not liking certain rules, or wanting to hijack the game altogether. My husband and I always joked that Thing 1 didn't play with toys, rather he explored them. A bunch of stacking rings became rings on his fingers, the post of which would become a hammer. A teething ring might be bitten until it burst because he wanted to know exactly how hard you had to bite it until it broke. And tantrums would have been welcomed! Thing 1 would simply shout cruel dissension and continue doing whatever he wanted to do. You were not in charge.

Over the years I have discussed his behavior with the pediatrician. Everything seemed to be age appropriate. We had good times and bad times. Not necessarily in equal proportions. But there were good times! Over these years we have both increased and reduced screen time, increased and reduced outdoor time, given time outs, made sticker charts, tried yelling, tried being firm, taken things away, encouraged rewards, tried redirection, tried Magic 1-2-3. And nothing has consistently worked. He gets bored of sticker charts. Plus he was too impulsive to save up for the big treats that make sticker charts succeed in the end. He couldn't care less that you take away his favorite toy (there are so many others). He can't seem to visualize a reward that isn't in front on him. He is sometimes bothered by the yelling and other times it goes in one ear and out the other. Talking to him calmly and quietly does exactly nothing.

He has burned out every caregiver we have ever employed. DH and I are exhausted by it. And every doctor, friend, family member and teacher has all sworn that he seems bright and perfectly normal, albeit feisty. Some felt that I was blowing things out of proportion. And I kept looking at other kids. Other kids looked like kids: children growing and developing. And then I looked at my kid, a whirlwind of motion and intelligence, of willfulness and dissent. All the while with a sad soft look in his hazel eyes, like he was trying to make sense of all the chaos around him. Everyone else's children looked so organized, while my Thing 1 looked so disorganized.

When Thing 2 was born, DH and I marveled how he was so normal!! We would talk to him too sternly and he would cry. Thing 1 has NEVER done that. We gave him a learning table. Thing 2 happily played with the gadgets and buttons. Thing 1 had taken the legs off the table and pried the batteries out of the back. Thing 2 watched and learned and stayed close to us. Thing 1 always seemed to be head first into everything, running into traffic...

When I arrived at Thing 1's school last Friday afternoon, I wasn't sure what to expect. In the last 6 weeks I have gotten troubling phone calls from his teacher 2-3 days a week. His behavior is defiant. He likes to take attention away from the teacher. He is not responding to their redirection attempts. But he is not overly aggressive. He isn't angry when he does these things. He has lots of friends and taking control of the class seems to be delighting him. The school had said that some of his behavior, while age appropriate, has happened too frequently. Some of his behaviors have upset his classmates. Some of his behaviors are inappropriate for a school setting, even if they are age appropriate. Perhaps his behavior is age appropriate for a child who still spends his day at home.

They then suggested that we seek the aid of an expert.

As a parent, nothing can describe the feeling you get when your child's school asks you to take your child to a psychologist for evaluation. Nothing can prepare you for that moment when your closet fears that your child might be different are publicly validated by an expert in child education. And no amount of "It's the schools fault' or 'he will grow out of this' will help.

As a mother I feel crestfallen. I feel vulnerable. I feel like a failure. I keep searching for the right way to phrase things so that he will understand and start following rules. I continue to search for the right punishment that will motivate without damaging him. I continue to look for the right reward that will keep him going until a task is done. Yet my child feels like a Rubik's cube. I don't understand how he got this way and I don't know how to sort him out. He simply is who he is.

So please, every parent out there, when you see a child tantruming in public, don't assume that you would know how to fix the situation. If you see a parent lose it in public, don't assume that the parent doesn't have love for their child. Don't automatically assume that the parent fed their kid crap, didn't set boundaries or kept them up past bedtime. Not all tough kids are the result of bad parenting. There is so much we don't know about the parent-child interactions we witness. Does the child have sensory issues? Is he under developed in certain behaviors during this one phase in his life? Or is it more complex, has everyone in his life overlooked a diagnosis like ADHD because the child is bright and does have friends? Is he a kid who has fallen through the cracks? Is he too young for a certain diagnosis? Given all this, is it fair to pass judgement on the other kids at your child's school? Can you really know what's best for any child that lives outside of your own home?

But also parents, take only your fair share of the credit for your child's good behavior. Your good parenting most certainly shapes your child, but some kids are easier to shape than others. Some kids simply are harder to parent, they require more vigilance and effort. Perhaps, in parenting, the ends do not define the means.

So parents, stick together, offer encouragement. Don't talk behind anyone's back. And if you have a tough kid, hang in there. It has got to get better.


  1. You are a great mom! Thing 1 is lucky to have two parents who work tirelessly to do their best to help guide him. I'm sending you a big hug of support. And to those who judge, move on, you don't need to waste your energy on them, you've got better things to focus on.

  2. Count me in your corner, too. I am right there with you. ((Hugs))

  3. I understand your feelings. With my first everything seemed to be a challenge (nursing, sleeping, eating, behavior).

    I came across a reference on another blog (can't remember which one) for a book that I checked out from the library. Just started reading so not sure if right for your situation but may help someone I hope.

    It discusses a personality type called Active Alert. From some of the challenges you listed, I think you may find at least some help from the book.

  4. I am so moved. You brought me right back to last year when we were asked to have our son evaluated. I had to ask them to spell it out. I had no idea what "having your kid evaluated" meant. So we started on a long journey that is now mostly behind us. As scared and anxious as I was about it, it was really eye opening. In a lot of ways. For example, we found out that our son is in the 99% for audio processing so now we know that sounds, noises, speaking, yelling are all very overwhelming for him. As a result of your child's evaluation, you will gather information that will help you. For us the hard part was finding the right person to do the evaluation so it wouldn't be scary for our son.

    I especially liked how you ended this piece. It's an important reminder for us all. We have no idea about everything that's going on in a situation. Instead of judging, trying feeling compassion for a fellow human's struggle. Especially these days. There is so much struggle.

    I wish you and your family a smooth journey. Hang in there and lean on your friends.

  5. I am so happy every time I hear another parent openly talking about their experiences with their children who have challenges. My son has ADD and OCD and it's been a seriously emotional (and emotionally draining) experience and it always boosts my spirit to get support from other parents who know what I go through. You deserve that support too. The more support you have the better you'll be able to be there for you kids. Always remember that many kids with challenges also have tons of gifts. My son is very gifted academically but has tremendous difficulties with social situations. I just try to think about how the things that make him challenging as a kid are the kinds of qualities that will make him an amazing adult. (Intelligence, creativity, leadership, tenacity). So hang in there and keep it all in the light.

  6. Hugs to you - your Thing 1 sounds just like my daughter! She is very precocious in some ways, but very impulsive and prone to - ahem - emotional extremes. She wears me out and she has always been like this - even in utero she never stopped moving and hasn't stopped yet. What I try to remember when I am having a particularly difficult time with her (i.e. this week, my husband has been away and I have spoken with the principal twice) is that it is my job to love her, and not to make her someone she isn't but to help her channel the gifts she has - she has lots of energy, is very creative, is a natural leader, and makes friends easily - into being the best her she can be. Hang in there - you're doing great!

  7. Have you tried cutting dairy and grains out of his diet? Many parent who follow the paleo diet have noticed great improvements with these types of behaviors because of the gut/brain connection. Go to Whole9's website and read about the Whole30 program. Also check out peacelovepaleo's blog who has a child that has been helped tremendously. Good luck momma!

  8. I have been where you are- it IS so hard. My son is bipolar, anxiety disorder, and learning disabilities. And also too smart for his own good.

    We have had better results with changes to his diet (specifically, eliminating MSG and artificial food dyes) but for us that hasn't been a "cure", it has just been a "help".

    We started down the diagnoses path at about age 6, after years of everyone telling us we weren't good parents (never mind that our other children are just fine.) It is hard, it's heartbreaking sometimes, and it's validating, too. Be prepared for a variety of emotions and know that they are ALL okay.

    Good luck and Godspeed and - email if you ever need to vent to someone who "gets" it.

  9. Your honesty is always so engaging.

    A book came to mind as I was reading your post - Raising Your Spirited Child. Not sure if you've perused it already, but I would recommend you take a look if you haven't yet. I think it might resonate with you based on what you've described here. Plus, there's some helpful sections about how personality tendencies (introvert vs. extrovert) factors into the formula. I also think there's some great advice about language and how framing things differently can impact a child's response. I obviously don't know the specifics of what you've tried/not tried, but the language children hear contributes so strongly to a self-fulfilling prophecy. It sounds like you're open to ideas, and this is what came to mind as I was reading.

    Hang in there, momma. Thing 1 is lucky to have you! He really is.