“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!
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.
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.