Here we go.
What is this, and why am I sharing it?
It started out as the desire to change. Change me, change him, change our damaged relationship – we need to change the struggle between us.
So, I entered therapy. My therapist and I started talking about how the dynamic between me and Ryder right now is accepted as normal: we struggle because that is the pattern that has been set. Because of this pattern, it is normal for his two year old brain to expect his mother to yell, get mad, and hit. It’s NORMAL to him. That is his basic level of existence: a mean mom who yells at him. What I want to do is change that.
Every time we go a few hours or a day or two without any yelling, freaking out or hitting… he starts to feel like something is missing. His little psyche is expecting his normal mom, and she isn’t acting normal. Therein lies our problem – he wants to return his little world to normal. So he starts acting out! Negative attention seeking! Button pushing! BRING BACK MY NORMAL.
Every time I feel like I start to make headway with my emotional health, and my ability to maintain a calm, loving relationship… he tries to bring back his normal.
What is the goal? The goal is for me to maintain calm and loving and zen long enough to re-write his normal. And that means doing whatever I need to manage MY volatile and difficult emotions through and despite his meltdowns, remembering that the longer I stay calm, the more he’s going to up his ante to bring back his normal.
I enlisted the help of my friend Sarah, and my therapist, to give me strategies to deal with the worst of the meltdowns. One of the biggest pieces of advice from my therapist was to forego correction/discipline for a short time. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking that, if you don’t punish him, he’s going to turn into some sort of miscreant or hoodlum. It isn’t that he doesn’t know right from wrong – he knows. That’s why he’s doing it. Right now, it’s more important for you to /not react/ than it is to make sure he has learned some sort of lesson.”
I took a video of one of our meltdowns the other day, and engaged in a text-message conversation with Sarah for support. I could feel my brain going to the emotional, frustrated, angry side, and it was really important for me to snap out of that. The video is kind of hard to watch, but a really bold example of how bad the worst of Ryder’s meltdowns can get. (I think it’s also important for me to include that this meltdown occurred after many, many hours of calm, yell-free time and was much bigger than a typical eruption between us.) Immediately prior to the video, Ryder was watching a show on my phone. I had given him his five minute warning, and then took the phone away. The meltdown began because he wanted the phone back.
As soon as the meltdown started, I texted Sarah the video. Her response was immediate:
“Walk away now.”
Revelation. I have never just walked away from a tantrum before. When Ryder invites me to the table of his crazy, I always accept. This time, I declined the invitation. For the first time, I stood up and walked away.
I asked her what to do if he followed… because he did.
“Clean the house. Tidy with purpose!”
It made sense. I took all of my focus off of him and his tantrum. He followed me around, screaming at me. Yelling. Begging. Crying. “I WANT YOUR PHONE BACK.”
Sarah tells me, “You have things to do. He can’t affect you.”
His tantrum wasn’t working because I just kept cleaning. I realized, very few minutes in, that my anger was GONE. Completely gone. Not only that, instead of finding his behavior enraging, I actually found it to be mildly humorous. The day before, Sarah and I had had a conversation about the value of allowing a child to begin, experience, and come out of a tantrum, to explore and learn the entire range of emotions, and be able to accept the lesson, “I can’t have what I want, and that is okay.”
As I walked around the kitchen, putting things away, I was okay with the fact that he was yelling at me. I was present to the fact that we were in a learning opportunity, and we were both going to be okay. He wasn’t being a small asshole, he was figuring things out. I told her, “Dude. When you frame it like this… it’s almost funny. I’m totally above it.”
Above it. That’s big. Above the tantrum instead of in it with him.
I was still cleaning, and screaming wasn’t working, so he started bargaining. “Please mom? Please just five minutes? Just one more show? Please? I won’t scream or yell! I won’t be bad! Please mum?”
Sarah reminds me, “Too much bargaining equals not calm. [He’s not ready to learn when he’s not calm.] Tell him, ‘That’s done, but we can talk about something else.'”
She instructs, “When he re-escalates, you respond ‘Oh! I thought you were ready! I am here when you are calm.”
He re-escalated, and started becoming dangerous to himself. Throwing his body around, and picking up items he threatened to throw. Just as I asked if it would be safe to put him in his room, (it was), he sat down.
Out of the blue, he said, “Mama, I am calm.”
I paused. “You’re calm now?”
“Yes,” he responded, and took a deep breath to show me how calm. “I not mad anymore.” Then we hugged.
At this point, I asked Sarah if we needed to talk about the tantrum, or if we just move forward?
“Move on!” she replied, “Brain forward!”
We hugged, and I thanked him for being calm. I asked him if there was something he would like to do together, and he said he would like to go lay in bed and cuddle. So we did. We chatted a little bit, and laid together and he fell asleep. We moved through his turbulence together, and I didn’t have to explode. I didn’t even feel the pressure to explode build up. It was a truly incredible experience.
I texted Sarah again,
“Huge win! Thank you so, so, so much. I would not have stayed calm without you.”
“Now you see success,” she texts back, “That was fast, too. He has the skills, he just needs the motivation to use them.”
And one GIANT success helps with MY motivation to continue down this path. From first meltdown until his proclamation of calm, 11 minutes elapsed.
Together, he and I will get through this – and my whole family will benefit in the end.