I was sitting at my desk, in the middle of writing my boss an email, when my daycare’s number popped up on my phone. My heart sank.
It is never a good thing when daycare calls. It’s not like they call to tell me how adorable and well-behaved my children are. A call means that one of my kids is sick and needs to be picked up or that there’s been a serious behavior issue.
“Hi, Amanda? It’s Liz from Nathan’s preschool. I’m calling to let you know that there was an incident today at circle time. Nathan became angry with another child – he said that the other child made a mean face at him – and Nathan kicked him in the head.”
“Oh no,” I said, starting to fight tears. “Is the other child okay?”
With three kids, I’d gotten my share of incident reports from daycare. Every time one of them had bitten or been bitten, hit or been hit, or just fallen down and hurt themselves a little. For the most part, these things didn’t faze me. Obviously, I’d prefer my kids didn’t bite anyone or get hurt themselves, but I knew that at a certain age this behavior was developmentally normal and that this was something that comes with a group child care environment.
Over the last few months, though, Nathan, who is five years old, had been behaving more aggressively. It seemed to be getting completely out of control.
Our lowest point had come a few days earlier, when the five of us had been in the car on the way to school. He’d gotten extremely angry with his father about something that seemed – to us – minor, and retaliated by hitting our 6 month old baby, who was strapped into the car seat next to him.
The whole scene left me feeling angry, helpless, and like a complete failure as a parent.
I often felt like I was the only one with a kid like this. After school, the other kids in Nathan’s class didn’t impulsively run down the street away from their parents, far enough away to be out of sight while their parents struggled to catch up with them with their other kids. When we had dinner with my friends, their children seemed to be able to sit at the table and calmly eat their food without disrupting everyone else by loudly and insistently negotiating the terms of their dessert. When we went to birthday parties, the other children in our playgroup seemed to be able to play without getting completely riled up, out of control, and destructive.
As far as I knew, Nathan didn’t have any special needs, like ADHD. It seemed to me that that left my parenting as the problem.
I’d tried all of the usual things in an attempt to manage his behavior. I thought a star chart might help motivate him to behave, and it did work for a few days. Eventually, though, his need to be in control led to meltdowns as he tried to change the rules for how he earned starts and the rewards he got for them. We also tried giving consequences for undesirable behavior; when we did this, it would often escalate into a bitter power struggle and make things even worse.
The day after Nathan kicked his classmate, I called Tuesday’s Child, a behavioral intervention program in Chicago for kids 6 and under, and a few weeks later, we went to our intake session.
Just being able to talk about what we were going through with a professional was a huge relief. The coordinator who did our intake had dealt with what she called Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) not only with many other children at Tuesday’s Child but also as a parent herself. Knowing that there were other kids out there like ours – and that there was help – was very reassuring. We enrolled in the program, and it felt great to have a plan.
Still, when we started the 8 week session and began discussing the changes we would be making in how we related to our children in order to reduce defiance, I was full of doubt that any of this would work with my kid.
That first week, we were to work on praising Nathan constantly for everything that he did right. Even if his behavior was abysmal, we were to find something he was doing well, which sometimes meant complimenting him on the fact that he was breathing properly.
I figured that if I praised him for breathing, he would hold his breath.
However, to my shock – and profound relief – things have started to get better. We still have difficult moments, but my son and I have a stronger relationship thanks to the constant praise, both because the positive attention help us get along better, and because it makes me appreciate him more when I’m looking for good things in him rather than focusing on the bad.
Additionally, I have a lot more tools in my toolbox – I know what phrases to use to say no and set limits while staying “on the same team” as him. I know to avoid getting into a power struggle with him unless there is no alternative. I know how to encourage good habits. And I know other parents from my Tuesday’s Child group that I can talk to and ask for help.
Despite what I thought, my kid isn’t the only defiant kid, and there is help out there. I am so glad I found it.