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“10 Things People Say to You When You’re Raising an Extreme Child”

And how to respond thoughtfully when you want to scream and yell and melt down.

Parenting an explosive child is a constant battle. The learning curve is steep. Handling the awkward stares from grocery store patrons and fellow soccer moms when your child loses it is one thing, but listening to unsolicited advice from people you love can be hurtful.

So breathe. They don’t mean anything by it. The same way I have to remind myself daily that my son is not in control of his actions during a meltdown, I must remember that some people are offering their advice because they love our family and our son. They want what is best; they just don’t understand. They can’t understand, and that’s OK. And they probably have no clue how isolating it feels to raise children like ours. They are trying to offer us assistance.

Before Briggs started to show his behaviors, we were the parents who judged the family with the screaming kids who pulled up in a van full of crusty goldfish crackers whose children were eating a sucker before they even got in the restaurant. If I could go back in time, I would hug that mom. I would go right up to her, wipe off the infant slobber from her shoulder, take her diaper bag, fix her mussed ponytail, and hug her so tightly. She is doing the best she can, and I don’t know her situation. They don’t know ours either.

Our son started exhibiting behaviors when he was about 18 months old. He was asked to leave childcare, and we had to move him to four different preschools. We didn’t get his first diagnosis until he was almost five years old. Our son is an incredible kid. He is brilliant, sensitive, loving, thoughtful, and downright hilarious. However, 90 percent of his time is a struggle and, to the innocent onlooker, he looks like a straight psychopath when he is melting down.

So this is my never-completed exhaustive list of the top 10 things we hear when parenting extreme children, and how to respond when you really want to scream and yell and spit…just like our kids would do!

[Free Download: 15 Ways to Disarm (and Understand) Explosive ADHD Emotions]

10. “He should be evaluated.”

Really? I sometimes have to bite my lip to keep from yelling, “Oh, that is ingenious! Why didn’t I think of that!” But that wouldn’t solve anything. People who don’t parent our type of child have no clue as to the painstaking hours that go into doctor’s appointments, evaluations, medication adjustments, and testing.

Besides, maybe he does need an evaluation, but the last time I checked, most people giving this advice are neither doctors nor therapists, so maybe leave this one unsaid.

If you are parenting a difficult child and you are afraid of “labels,” shelve your pride and think about your child’s deepest needs. It might be an evaluation, or it might not be. This is your choice as his or her parent.

Say this: “Maybe you’re right. We will have to cross that bridge when we get there.” A smile, in this case, goes a long way for your own sanity. If you have already considered an evaluation for your child, maybe take this as a reminder to call a behavioral specialist. If not, dismiss it. It will provide you peace over the guilt you’d feel if you lash out at someone who sees her advice as a loving offer of assistance.

[Free Parenting Guide: Your 10 Toughest Discipline Dilemmas — Solved!]

9. “This is just a phase. He’ll grow out of it.”

If you are a parent of a difficult child, you have heard this well-meaning line. Believe me, we pray that Mr. Unsolicited Advice-Giver is telling the truth! However, when we are subjected to daily meltdowns, “growing out of it” isn’t the light at the end of the hypothetical tunnel that we are desperately searching for.

What if he doesn’t grow out of it until high school? Or when he is an adult? How will he ever maintain a good job or meet a good woman…or even (gasp!) be a loving father himself one day?

Trust me, this advice is not helpful since our questions go much further into the future of our child’s lives. I am concerned I will have to visit my child behind plate glass one day.

Say this: “I hope you’re right.” It is honest and it should pacify them. Then remind yourself that you can do this, whether it is for 8 more years or 18.

8. “He’s just a boy.”

This one baffles me. Sure, boys are more rambunctious than girls, especially when they are young. However, no child, boy or girl, should have full-on Threat Level Midnight behavior over something that seems insignificant to the “normal” thinking mind. No parent, for that matter, should justify this type of behavior based on gender.

Our boy is an extreme child who requires extreme parenting. Our infant daughter seems to be the opposite so far. She is super chill, always smiling, and rarely even makes a noise outside of gleeful laughter. However, if she one day decides to run over and push a kid off of the slide for no other reason than it is Tuesday, she will get her backside painted red just as her brother would have. Gender doesn’t dictate or make appropriate certain behaviors.

Say this: “That is true. He is a boy. However, I am raising someone’s husband and father, and I will teach him to respect authority — and sometimes that means he needs to take a second to consider a better choice or action.” This response will produce blank stares and looks of amazement, but it is the truth, so they will have to find a way to deal with it.

7. “Use reward charts. Praise is always better than punishment.”

If you are raising an extreme child, you probably have the same cabinet at your house that I do. It is the one overflowing with behavior charts, star stickers, unused prize tokens, chore cards, and reward graphs.

Our type of child may respond more positively to praise than negative feedback, but he is just as likely to melt down, regardless of the reward/punishment. I can fill my son’s room with Ninja Turtle stickers and prize options, and he will find a way to use them in an assault attempt during a Level 5 loss of his mind!

Say this: “You know, that is a great idea. Where can I buy something like that?” Empower the well-meaning advice-giver and go about your business. They have no grasp on what a day in the life of our child looks like. Telling them where to shove a sticker chart might feel good in the moment, but it won’t solve your problems.

6. “Just take away all of his stuff. He’ll listen then!”

I’ll wait and give you time to laugh if you are the parent of an extreme child. Once, following a meltdown about cleaning up his playroom, we told our son that we would have to box up all of the toys in his playroom and give them to a boy who could take better care of his things. Without missing a beat, he responded calmly, “You know, that’s a great idea. I never really liked any of those toys anyway.”

Promise them the world, or threaten to take it all away — these types of children are not affected by such words. This requires a brand of parenting that comes with a hardhat and a Hazmat suit.

Say this: “We haven’t tried taking away his favorite toy. Maybe you can do that the next time you are with him.” This response will provide the inner laughter that you need, an answer for them, and the certainty that they will realize the error of their ways if they ever decide to try it out.

5. “In my day, we would just get the belt. The kid needs more discipline.”

At the risk of alerting CPS, most parents of extreme children have tried most every discipline tactic known to man. We’ve tried time-outs, spanking, putting him in his room, taking everything he has, removing privileges. You name it, and we’ve probably tried it — and he probably just punched and kicked us while we delivered the punishment.

For our type of children, it is the thrill of the chase. They love the argument. Once you have crossed that boundary and entered in, the punishment is no longer relevant to them. They have already won.

Say this: “I wish it were that easy, but this one is tricky. Too bad it isn’t (insert appropriate number of years) years ago or maybe we would have handled it already.” Most people want to help, many of them with the best of intentions. However, parenting a child 50 years ago looked very different, both in method and in manner of behaviors. Mental health didn’t exist as it does today.

4. “There’s no such thing as ADHD or ‘extreme behavior.’ It’s just a result of poor parenting.”

This one makes many who parent an extreme child see red. If you know me personally, you know that I am one to stand up and speak out for what I believe — even at the risk of seeming on the wrong side of crazy. However, the majority of people do not fully understand invisible disabilities.

Parenting a child with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, ODD, Sensory Processing Disorder, Bipolar, etc. looks much different than parenting a child whose disability shows itself physically as well. So, first, breathe. Do your best calming strategy — you know, one of those that we teach our children to use.

Say this: “Medicine and technology sure have changed the way people see the world. Every child is unique and requires a variety of parenting techniques. Parenting definitely doesn’t come with an instruction manual. We just hope we are doing most of it right.”

Sometimes being able to remain civil and laugh off the ignorance of other people is best for everyone. Your child isn’t theirs. If they were blessed with kids who sit silently with an iPad for hours at a time, God love them. But we were not. Smile and walk away before your opinion (generally delivered loudly and with hand gestures) gets you arrested.

Besides, if I am being honest, I am sure I sat in a restaurant and listened to a screaming child before having had Briggs, and thought to myself, “I would hand that kid his own behind if I were his mom!” My judgment of those parents’ inabilities wasn’t based on knowledge of that individual child or on their ability to parent them. Sometimes that is just being human.

3. “You’re the boss. Don’t give in and give him choices!”

Parenting a strong-willed child — or in our case, a child with multiple behavioral and anxiety disorders — is filled with daily choices. Do I choose to fight with my son for an hour over the fact that the three shades of green camouflage he picked out do not “match,” or do I praise him for dressing himself and let him proudly stroll out the door to school looking like someone’s Alabama S-10 pickup truck spray-painted with various shades of green-stenciled leaves? I choose peace, so I’ll take the second option, please.

Say this: “Some kids can handle being given direct orders. We have to choose our battles.” That is both honest and sincere.

At our house battles are won and lost every single day. The blood and tears shed over what to eat for dinner and when bedtime will take place fall to the wayside when you are trying to keep your child safe. No longer is a war over chicken nuggets as important as teaching our five-year-old that jumping over her little sister as she lies innocently on her play mat is not the best choice.

2. “He needs a ‘time in’ rather than a time-out.”

Extreme children deal with their emotions differently than most kids. Our son needs time to talk things out. However, when he is in a meltdown or a rage, you can time that kid out, in, sideways, or underneath and the behavior will remain the same.

Say this: “If we are timing him in, can I take a time out while you hold down the fort?” Most people offering advice in this realm are of the emotionally sensitive variety.

I’ve never been accused of being sensitive or in touch with my emotions, but I do know what is best for my child. I also know when I need a time-out to take a breath and come back calm, so I can be consistent for our son. Most people offering emotional advice are too sensitive themselves to have the mental stamina and emotional fortitude that parenting an extreme child demands. Hug them. They probably need it.

1. “Stop screaming and parent effectively.”

Yelling and resorting to our son’s level of behavior is not the most advantageous way to parent any child, much less an explosive child. However, until you are the parent who has had to all but sit on your own firstborn to keep him from harming himself after he has spent hours screaming, yelling, spitting, punching, and kicking you, you cannot fully grasp our feelings of utter helplessness. This is next-level parenting. This isn’t Pinterest crafts and homemade cookies. This is survival mode.

We have a pact in our home not to raise our voices and to tag out so the other parent can take over if we feel ourselves getting to that point, but our son is five and we have been dealing with this for three and a half years. You can imagine how many times we have failed more than succeeded.

Say this: “We try. The times we don’t raise our voices are many compared to the times when we lose that battle. Thank you for reminding us that we can always improve.” It is a hard reality for us as parents, but it is true nonetheless.

1A. “He doesn’t need medication. Just change his meals, use essential oils, run him around in nature (insert any other crunchy, granola solution).”

In the last year, we have tried calming strategies, behavioral therapy techniques, occupational therapy, talk therapy, play therapy, reward chards, time-ins, time-outs, spanking, yelling, removing him to his room, taking all of his toys, removing privileges, a 60-day food elimination regimen, chiropractic care, essential oils, organic melatonin, two pediatricians, three referrals to pediatric hospitals, one 2 1/2 hour pediatric behavioral health evaluation, seven school meetings — all before we tried what is now his sixth medication attempt.

Say this: “It is a process. No parent wants to have to medicate their child for any reason, but every good parent is willing to do whatever it takes to get her child’s needs met and this is what that looks like for us.”

The road for us and for many parents raising children fighting similar disorders is a long one. We are no longer parents of children whose biggest fear is blinking during school pictures or ripping their pants in gym class.

We are suited up in armor to protect our children and ourselves. We are calling doctors, beating down doors of therapists, checking in daily with teachers, principals, and guidance counselors to ensure that our child has his needs met. We are defusing arguments, smiling through parent-teacher meetings, and fighting back the burn of tears from the stares and unsolicited advice of the well intentioned.

This war is fought daily. There is no rest and there is no relief. There is no escape. There is no promise that it will get better. However, we are their parents and we march on.

[17 Ways to Throttle Intense Emotions]

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  1. We have all seen parents attempting to cope with these level 5 meltdowns and being adhd myself have been in this position at times . I do recall with great respect now my mother who was the most responsible for my upbringing basically ignoring me after one of these courtesy of yours truly and leaving me in the bedroom i shared wth my brother 10 years older. Eventually when i cooled down and was allowed back out i would ask her why she didnt come and let me out she said, as long as you could yell that loud , there couldnt be to much wrong with you. I learned the hard way later with my own son that any reaction other than calm or ignore was as you say giving him the lead. But sometimes knowing and doing is just not enough. And as mom told me she got to practice on the other eleven before I came along.
    We did discover through trial and error,that he had a pretty short time limit for us being out of his site before he would traipse after our last known direction in shopping malls and grocery stores and quit doing whatever he had chosen to getting into trouble with.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing, both as a parent and as someone who lived through this. I cannot tell you how much this means to read that we might actually be doing SOMETHING right! 🙂 -TheMamaOnTheRocks (Brynn Burger)

      1. Touché The only helpful thing i should of said is that 40 years later when you hopefully have forgotten most of this you dont read of someone going through it. Quite frankly by then you will have only had to rescue him once from the friendly gendarmes before he became that caring and compassionate and solid as a rock adult you call your friend.

        1. Yes he is 45 gainfully employed for an airline and for my 70th birthday a few years ago I found out I was full on ADHD . The really good news is that being a parent going through this does not shorten your life expectancy. My mother lived to 97.

  2. Oh Geez, this is so true! My son is 13 now, and MOST of the out and out tantrums have stopped. He still speaks incredibly disrespectfully when told to do something when he does not want to, or if you catch him “out of the blue”. I correct him, but I do not punish for it because, well, what would be the point. Other parents judge this, I know, but they have NO IDEA what it’s like. The fact that he actually ends up complying with the request is what’s most important right now, that’s the MAJOR achievement, his tone is something we work on with gentleness. Responding to his tone with anger or punishment just pushes him over the edge into complete stubborn zone where he will NOT do whatever you requested no matter what!

    We FINALLY, after 13 years, have some kind of behavioral currency that actually matters to him. Now that his video game time has become his social outlet (and, sadly, pretty much his only social outlet), he REALLY cares about it. Now, finally, can we convince him to stop arguing and start doing things by threatening to take it away – at least about 85-90% of the time. The other times he loses his video game time, and then loses his mind because he’s lost the video game time, and you have twice the crazy to deal with. And let me tell you, a tantrum with a 5-year-old is hellish, but a tantrum in with a 13-year-old who is basically your size is a whole new level of fun! There is no longer any ability to hold them down so they don’t destroy things or hurt themselves, and it’s scary.

    And, of course, you touched on the fear of all fears. What if he DOESN’T grow out of this? What if this carries on into adulthood where his reactions have extreme consequences. My son has gotten WAY better in many ways. Like I said, we no longer have the same daily melt downs we used to have. Picking our battles and deciding when to go to bat has gotten easier and made our lives smoother. Medication and therapy have helped him make better choices. But once in a while, things still get really bad. In school he’s really, really good, behavior wise most of the time. (Attention span wise, he’s still absolutely horrible, and it’s a miracle and a tug-of-war to get him through his school work, even though he’s plenty bright enough.)

    However, about once a year another kid will push him too far and then he reacts – well extremely! Last year, it was about a pencil. The kid had been picking on him all year, well honestly, this kid had been mostly a jerk to him for several years. But, for some reason, that day they got into it about who a pencil belonged to and my son threatened to stab him with it. It turned out not to be my son’s and my son cooled it and went on about his day. Then later in the day, the kid taunted him with the pencil again and told my son he wouldn’t stab him with it, so then my son DID stab him with a pencil. At 13, this could have been considered assault! We were SO lucky the other kid didn’t press charges.

    But what if this type of thing keeps happening? What if he never learns to walk away and really lays into someone someday? And even if he does learn to control his explosions, what does his future look like if he never manages to reign in his other impulses or get control of his attention? It’s REALLY scary to consider what it might look like to have this bright, seemingly whole, wonderful child who will never be able to fly because something under the surface is clipping his wings.

  3. When I first became a behavioral therapist I thought ODD wasn’t real; Then I got to know severe Borderline Personality Disorder. Yikes.

    Yesterday I sat with a girl for 20 minutes while she cursed at me, threatened to set off the fire emergency sprinkler, broke a wall, and scratched herself with a nail. I had to stand by quietly and calmly as she looked for a reaction. When it was apparent that I wasn’t going to scream at her, rush in, or leave her unattended she gave up and moved on with her day.

    It took me years to learn that this was the best possible response. Yelling or rushing in to stop her would lead to an assault, a restraint, or some other escalation that would destroy her day or her week or worse, our relationship and therefore my ability to do my job.

    Not every situation works that way. Sometimes there are restraints, I am assaulted, and my relationship with a client does suffer because they are putting themselves in too much danger, but changing my tactics from reactive to proactive has made an *enormous* difference in the frequency and severity of a kids outburst.

    I work with kids 8 hours a day and I know how demoralized I can feel after months of working with only a modest improvement. I can’t imagine how it feels to parent a child like that and to keep strong all day every day.

    1. Side Note: If your small child has frequent violent outburst, I would highly recommend taking a therapeutic crisis intervention course. They teach useful tools on how to reduce the frequency of outbursts, help your child emotionally through an outburst and how to help YOU cope after a crisis.

      It may also teach you some basic restraint techniques. While there’s a lot of controversy around restraining, learning a proper hold (just in case) not only prevents your child from harming you, it ensures YOU don’t inadvertently harm your child; Typical responses in an emergency like bear hugging, wrapping the childs arms around their torso, or straight tackling can be dangerous.

      1. Glad your out there. Hope more people get trained in this kind of bizarre reaction to stress. And continue working with people. We couldn’t find a therapist that could help. Two visits and he’d be “fired”. Not that I blame them.

  4. Very well written. Really resonates with a lot of parents. Thank you for these honest examples of what goes on behind the scenes, and for your helpful suggestions.
    Dr. Netta Shaked, SOUTH BEACH PSYCHOLOGIST®

  5. Wow and whoa! There are other people out there living my madness?! You expressed everything so incredibly clear and exactly the life I lead. I would have thought you were videotaping my life if I didn’t know better. Of course, I immediately sought out your site after reading this article. Misery likes company and it’s such a relief to know there are others just like my son. My son is 8 and in 3rd grade. Some things have gotten better like his ability to better control his anger (at school). Anger definitely rears its head still, but it’s WAY better than when he was in kindergarten and first grade. The saving grace has been the understanding teachers he has been fortunate to get. My biggest fear is a bad fit with a teacher and he falls further down the rabbit hole with no ability or motivation to crawl back out. Thank you for the article.

  6. My dad was of the “spare the rod and spoil the child” mindset, which I don’t completely disagree with. (When I was a kid, he had never heard of ADD/ADHD) He got tired of . . . whatever crap I was pulling that day, and took of his belt to spank me in public. One person declared they were going call CPS (or whatever it was called back then; I think it had a different name at the time). My dad just looked at him and asked if he wanted some of it, too.
    My point here is this, sometimes telling them to mind their own damn business, direct and to the point, can be more effective with some of the harder cases.

  7. Excellent article, spot on, Thank You! I’ve never met another family who has a child like ours.

    Good news, he is now 17 and the category 5 meltdowns have ceased. We still get the occasional 3. Therapy, diet, and medication are still part of the tool box. He is not “cured”, and he is not self reflective yet,but his life and ours is much better. He even started taking fencing lessons a year ago and has now joined the competition team. He does not socialize at all outside of class, yet, but this is the first group activity that he has EVER managed to take part in. And he enjoys it.

    I highly recommend finding a support group for “siblings of a child with disabilities”. It doesn’t matter if none of the other kids in the group have an explosive sibling. Many of the issues are the same. The isolation, the relative lack of parental attention, the lack of typical family experiences, the random trauma… My 19 year old daughter’s closest friends are kids she met in sibs group when she was 9-13. It was also good for me, I became friends with their moms. Different day to day issues but equally fraught.

    Best wishes,
    Jodie

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