Caregiver Blogs

“They Call You a ‘Problem Child.’ I Know Your Heart Will Save Me Every Time.”

“That was the day I realized exactly how alike we are, my problem child. Our brains function the same way, and it’s not the way neurotypicals do. Emotions are hard for us. It’s easier to push them down and pretend they aren’t there.”

Toddler hands playing with flour sprinkled on the floor. Os Tartarouchos/Getty Images

You are my Problem Child. I don’t say this (that title was given to you by your grandmother when you were two) but we both know it more or less fits. With three older siblings, three younger siblings, and more energy than all of them put together, you were built to be the Problem Child.

It started before you were even born. You were so big and so needy that you got an eviction notice a week before your due date, and true to form, my problem child got his head stuck before he could even start his exit. They had to cut me open to get you out of a jam and that’s more or less been life ever since.

When you were 18 months old I woke up to your empty crib. Your siblings were sleeping soundly, but you, you were just gone.

I panicked. I ran through every room on the second floor, terrified that you had pushed over the baby gate at the top of the stairs, imagining your baby skull split open on the landing. But the gate wasn’t knocked over. No, not knocked over, but carefully unscrewed from the wall.

I think I probably swore at that point. My problem child, not yet my middlest, but my second youngest baby, had stolen the screwdriver. Again. After the last confiscation, I had latched it into the toolbox out in the garage.

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I was mad, absolutely furious. I wanted to yell your name, demand you get over here, threaten (what could I threaten, you were a baby) punishment by extra peas with dinner, but I didn’t. Your sleeping siblings saved you the extra peas. But despite racing into the kitchen, I froze when I saw you there, on top of the fridge, screwdriver sticking out of the leg hole of your diaper, shoving handfuls of sugar into your mouth from the bag I was so sure I had placed so high above your reach.

Two days later, I came home from work to a flour-covered first floor, your exhausted father asleep on the couch while you drew pictures in the delightful, non-melting “snow.”

You are the only child I have ever had to pull down from the roof at 2 (the window behind your crib was nailed shut after that one), to have to search the neighborhood for at 4 (we replaced the deadbolt with a reversed key lock, fire marshall be damned), and to remind to wear clothes on a regular basis even as a child nearing double digits.

So maybe your grandmother is right. Telling all these stories over again, it does paint you as my problem child, that’s for sure. But let me tell one more:

[Read: Could My Toddler Really Have ADHD?]

When you were in First Grade, we ended up on our own. I got a call from the school saying you were on top of desks throwing pencils during math. You were suspended, and I had to fake sick from work to come pick you up.

You were behind me in the car, kicking my seat, and you know that drives me crazy. I looked at you in the review mirror and when I asked you why you did it, you said, “Because we were doing math.”

“Don’t you like math?” I asked.

“Not when it’s this easy,” you said. “I finish in, like, two seconds and then I have to sit quietly and think.”

“So, what do you think about?” I asked.

“Things that make me want to throw pencils,” you said.

“I get it,” I remember saying. I had my own feelings that made me want to stand on all the tables and throw all the pencils.

We didn’t talk further on the subject. We did, however, get 99 cent ice cream cones on the way home. I had just enough spare change to make sure yours had sprinkles.

That was the day I realized exactly how alike we are, my problem child. Our brains function the same way, and it’s not the way neurotypical brains do. Emotions are hard for us. It’s easier to push them down and pretend they aren’t there, especially when there are so many problems to solve. Like obnoxious baby gates in the way of our goals, or parents that stand in the way of the great outdoors and adventure time and time again.

It’s hard to focus when your head is full of bees and the outside is so bright and full and both too much and not enough all rolled into one. It’s hard to be still and feel the feelings you try to distract yourself from in the middle of a math class and not want to throw a pencil for every time the world mishandled you.

It’s called emotional dysregulation, that feeling. A fancy word to say almost every emotion feels bigger than your heart or your head can hold. A word that explains the shutting down, or winding up or spinning off, or lashing out that comes with the emotions that just don’t fit.

It means you are the only child I’ve needed to train not to hit when he is angry. The only one with a swear jar. The only one with no toys because they are all broken, because you got too excited or frustrated or mad and took it out on the erector set.

When you get older I will teach you about sitting in your car blasting music at full volume and yelling all the things you aren’t allowed to say around people. I’ll teach you how to have a cup of tea and sit in a room alone when you’re overstimulated or, if that doesn’t work, find a good, dark closet to rock and cry in.

But that last one, you already know about. When I am at my worst and just disappear for a few moments, none of the other kids notice. That’s the point, after all: Mom will get herself together. Mom will destimulate by sitting alone in a dark closet. Mom will hug herself to shut down the sympathetic nervous system that gets stuck in the “On” position far too easily.

But you are like a bloodhound in those moments, my Problem Child, seeing the problem that no one else does. You find me. You sit with me in the dark. You plant yourself on my lap, pull my arms around yourself and rock with me. You don’t ask me why I am sad, because we both know that I simply can’t answer that. We both know that sad isn’t even the right word anyway. And in minutes, before any of your brothers and sisters have even noticed I slipped out, we are both back among the noise and the crowd and in the business of living.

You are the only child who says “I love you” first — every time. You’re the only child who likes cooking dinner with me, who actually likes taking out the trash because being outside is the best. You are the only child who notices when I’m tired after work and offers to get me a drink from the fridge. You are the child who doesn’t notice what the rest of the world says he should, but the things you do notice, you make better and fuller and richer.

So perhaps, my middlest, you are my Problem Child. And maybe sometimes you do make problems for others. But far more often, you solve the problems no one else can see, that no one else can solve. That makes you so very special. And you’re still only 8.

So I’ll call you my Problem-Solver Child instead. It feels more accurate anyway. And if your grandmother can’t get on board with that, she can enjoy the sack of flour and the screwdriver I packed in your overnight bag.

The Problem Child: Next Steps

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