Saturday, March 10, 2012

I Get Mad


I'm not even sure where it started.  We had finished dinner, and Conan was playing with his horsies.  All was well... and then suddenly it wasn't.  I asked him if he needed to go potty, and then just like that he was stomping his feet and screaming at me, "You don't talk to me! You don't look at me! Auuughh!" and we were in full battle mode.

I tried to calm him down.  I tried talking to him about what he was feeling, what had upset him.  I took him to his room and firmly told him he needed to stay there until he was ready to be calm.  He did not stay.  We went a few more rounds, until finally I said, "OK, that's it, it's bedtime."  I took off his clothes to change him into his jammies, but had to give up.  It's possible to remove clothes from a writhing, screaming preschooler, but it's really not feasible to dress one.

All this went on for a while, although I couldn't say for how long.  Even 10 minutes seems like an eternity with a kid in full meltdown.  Toys were thrown and confiscated, feet were stomped, words were shouted, ultimatums were given and ignored.  I can't really recall in detail the exact progression of the fight, but the play by play doesn't really matter.  Every parent has been there.  We certainly have, with more regularity than I'd like to admit.

But then he attacked me, swinging his little fists and kicking, tears streaming down his beet-red face, screaming incoherently.  He didn't land any blows, but his fury was overwhelming, escalating everything to a new level.

I got mad.  Really mad.  I was literally overheated, instantly sweating. I wanted to stomp my feet and throw things.

I didn't know what to do with myself or Conan.  I told him again, through clenched teeth this time, to stay in his room, closed the door, and then... I hid.  I darted into the bathroom, without turning on the lights, and got into the tub, behind the shower curtain, and held my breath.

Conan, of course, slammed open his bedroom door almost immediately.  I'm sure he expected to find me standing there, waiting to tell him to get back in his room and stay there.  But I wasn't there, so instead he stood at the top of the stairs and screamed "Mama! Mama!  MAAAAAAMAAAAA!" for several minutes.  I didn't move, or make a sound.  I calmed my breathing, cooled down, and started to wonder what I was going to do next.  I was (and still am) pretty sure that hiding  in the bathtub from your enraged three-year-old is not a parenting technique recommended by any of the experts.

After a few minutes, he decided to go look for me downstairs.  I thought at first that this might be a good thing.  For one thing, he seemed to be calming down - no more shouting.  For another, if he couldn't find me for a bit, maybe he'd make a connection with his actions (trying to hit me) and my disappearance.  I thought maybe it would be good for him to get a little worried about where I had gone. (I was still pretty steamed, and as much as I don't like to admit it now, I wanted him to suffer a little.)

But then I heard a loud crash, followed by another and another.  He had called my bluff.  I ran downstairs to find he had overturned his art table, sending pens and crayons and other supplies flying everywhere.  He had knocked over all four dinner table chairs, tipping them backwards until they crashed to the floor.  He had taken several of the plastic toy organizer bins off the shelf and dumped all the toys onto the floor, then thrown the empty bins across the room.  He was standing in the middle of all this destruction, naked, with tears streaming down his face, still kicking things.

I wanted to both laugh and cry, I was so angry.  I sank onto the couch, and just stared at him.  Neither of us said anything for several minutes.  And then, finally, in a tiny little voice, he said "I'm cold, mama".

Everything changed with those words - suddenly he was just a cold, confused baby, not the destructive menace he had been.  The rage left me, and I asked him if he would like to cuddle with me.  He nodded and flew into my lap for a big, long hug.  I told him I didn't like how mad we had both gotten, and that now I felt silly and embarrassed.  He agreed that he also felt bad for having been so mad.  He apologized for yelling and for trying to hit me and for making a big mess.  I apologized for yelling and hiding from him.  I got him dressed in some jammies (finally!) and he very willingly helped me pick up all the toys and chairs and art supplies.  I put him to bed, and he was asleep in moments.

Thinking about this whole incident, I have come to a conclusion that surprised me at first - namely, that losing  my temper in front of Conan was a good thing.  For the first time, he saw that I could really, really get mad, and more importantly, he saw me get my emotions back under control. I'm not going to stop trying to keep my anger under control, of course, but I do think it gives him some more clues about how emotional control works to see examples of both losing and regaining control.  And while hiding from him was a reasonable tactic under the circumstances, it's not one I'd recommend.  Stripping the kid naked so he gets cold and calms down though, that might have a future.


Since the above incident occurred, we've implemented a new, structured, timer-controlled "cool down" regimen that seems to really be helping all of us.  It's somewhat similar to Time Out but with some significant differences. We got it from a book called "Four Weeks to a Better Behaved Child" which seems to do exactly what the title advertises.  A big part of it is teaching the child to control his anger (clearly something we need help with), heading off the major explosions like the one described here, and of course reinforcing good behavior with lots of positive rewards.  And best of all, it's a really short book, so it didn't take forever to find time to read & understand it! 

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