On Growing Up Difficult

When I was a kid, I didn’t really think about having children of my own. I didn’t play with dollies. I didn’t dress them up or have tea parties with them or parade them around in toy prams while pretending to be their mother. My own mother was a working mom, and one who’d had me at a fairly young age too, so she wasn’t my primary caregiver. My grandparents were. And, don’t get me wrong, I think they did a fine job of teaching me values from when I was born to the age of 6 when Mom got married and we moved out of Nan and Pop’s house. I just didn’t have the sort of early childhood education that was conducive to stereotypically girly activities like dolls, pretend families and tea parties.

I don’t know if I was a particularly difficult child before the age of 6. Like most people, my memory from that time period is incredibly fuzzy, and I can only with the vaguest sense recall nothing but a handful of incidents my family now likes to remind me of – such as the time I swiped a shot glass of whiskey from my grandfather when I was 3, or the time I peed on his neck while he had me up long past my bedtime to watch the Canada Day fireworks when I was 2ish. I know I probably wasn’t an easy child to get along with, especially given the distance between my mother and I, with her having not been my primary caregiver for all those important formative years. But I can’t really say for sure, since Mom establishes that I am now, and always have been, the spawn of Satan.

Usually she’s joking, but sometimes she’s not, and it’s kinda hard to tell the difference from time to time.

I had a few authority issues at home (and quite frankly, still do), especially after we moved out of the home of the people whose authority I’d been conditioned for years to follow. I was something of an oddity at school. My grandmother had different ideas of what a child should be taught; perhaps she “fixed” whatever mistakes she felt she made with Mom and my uncle with me, but I don’t know for sure. I could read and write by the age of 3, knew my multiplication tables up to (I think) 3×10, and was well into learning cursive writing. Well beyond the age-appropriate activities. In kindergarten, I was the one reading to my class at storytime, holding the book up so they could all see and reminding them that I needed their attention for the activity. While most kids were struggling to master tying their shoes and “See Spot Run”, I was absentmindedly double-bowing while I read the Ramona series.

I wasn’t a kid. I was a small adult.

Bet you can guess what the next few years of school were like.

Needless to say, my childhood was not particularly “normal”. Most “normal” kids don’t read or write or spell properly as early as I did. Most “normal” kids aren’t asked by their kindergarten teachers to read to their class at storytime, instead of sitting quietly with the rest of the students and listen. Most “normal” kids aren’t raised almost exclusively by their grandparents while their single mothers are out working to support them, especially not in the early ’80s in my predominantly-Catholic community where single motherhood and teen pregnancy still had one hell of a social stigma attached to it.

I never really understood how important establishing parental authority early in one’s relationship with one’s child is – and the earlier, the better. I never really had that with Mom, and as a result, I never really respected her as an authority figure. I hadn’t been taught to, and it only led to suffering and hostility on both our parts as she tried to establish control and I refused to give ground. She probably felt helpless and resentful when I continually defied her, and I know I sure as hell felt helpless and resentful that she was trying to change things from the already-established order, tried to make me into the kid that (as she puts it) I “hadn’t been allowed to be” under the tutelage of my grandparents. Add to that a stepfather who had his own power struggles with me and, when I was 8, a baby brother to stress up the place that much more, and you can imagine how tense things might have gotten in our household from time to time.

I wasn’t a small adult anymore. I was a kid. And I didn’t really know how to deal with that.

Mom didn’t know how to deal with it either.

Bet you can guess what my teenage years were like.

Mom and I are now in a relationship we’re both comfortable with, one that improves the greater the distance between us. She’s living in another province now, and I’m not kidding when I say that our relationship is the best it’s been probably in my entire lifetime. We never really resolved the whole “mother/daughter” thing, and the further away we are from each other, the better we get along.

Now I actually do have kids of my own – two at last count, since the third hasn’t decided to emerge from her cocoon yet – and I get it. Oh man, do I get it. I get how important parental authority is, how important establishing who exactly is in charge as early as humanly possible. My kids are 4 and 3, and beyond that are both diagnosed as ASD, Autistic Spectrum Disorder, which brings its own twists to the table. My eldest son is at the age where he’s attempting to dissociate himself so strongly from Rick and I, and establish his own identity. He’s becoming defiant, he’s starting to backtalk, and he’s starting to deliberately challenge our parental authority. This is not merely an aspect of his diagnosis (though his diagnosis does make some of the circumstances rather unique) but an aspect of raising a child.

Our youngest has gone the other way: instead of directly challenging authority on the same consistency as his brother, he’s become manipulative and whiny. If he doesn’t get his way, he’ll collapse at your feet and cry. And cry and cry and cry until you absolutely have to give in just to shut him the fuck up. And that’s not healthy; it’s not teaching him anything but if I persist long enough, they’ll cave. It’s reinforcing negative behaviour, and that’s not something you really want in your child.

It’s how children are spoiled.

Mom yelled quite a bit when I was growing up, and it worked on me and my brother. What they say is true: a lot of your parenting cues, good and bad, you really do get from your parents, and this one I picked up somewhere along the line. I used to yell, quite a bit. Not screaming at the top of my lungs or anything, but I fell prey to the urban myth that volume = authority. It doesn’t. Volume equals nothing except acknowledgement that you’ve already lost control of the situation. The minute you have to yell anything, you’re fighting a losing battle.

I don’t yell much anymore. That’s not to say I don’t do it, I’m far from perfect and I still lose my temper, but I’ve found that a few things work much, much better than raising my voice, and I have to yell less and less often these days:

  1. The Ominous Voice: Also called the Mom Voice, the Voice of God, the Voice of Doom, etc. It’s that no-nonsense, I’m-going-to-kick-your-ass-and-enjoy-it tone that used to send us as kids scurrying to get the fuck out of Mom’s way and do as she says. Children are incredibly sensitive to tone and pitch, and react instinctually to whatever it is they’re hearing. If you’re happy, they’re likely to respond positively. If you’re pissed off, they’re likely to cry or scream or even laugh because they’ve gotten a reaction from you. But if you’re ominous and firm, they know you mean business, and they’re more inclined to listening. Or they will be, after they learn to realize when you mean business, because they’ll be taught that discipline will swiftly follow.
  2. The Three Countdown: Kids love having the ability to control aspects of their lives. Whether it’s a choice you give them between the blue shirt and the yellow shirt with animals on it, or a choice between SpongeBob and Dora, or if they want oatmeal or toast, or what color lollipop they’re going to get… They absolutely thrive on having choices. After all, who doesn’t like to feel like they’re in control of their lives? It seems that need, that urge, is hardwired into our systems, because even kids as young as 2 have it. When you take away choices, it becomes discipline, and the 3-2-1 countdown is incredibly effective with that. Once my kids understood that they’d be made to do something if they hadn’t done it by the time I reached “1”, they began to choose to do it before control of the situation was usurped. Of course, they need to save face by pushing it as close to the wire as they can, but the point of it is to get them to do it. Anything else is way too control freakish, and is likely to be more detrimental than beneficial.
  3. Quiet Time: If there’s one thing my son hates, it’s being told to go to his room. Normally, his room is a place of learning, of instruction. It’s where he takes his ABA therapy and where he spends a large majority of his day, playing and learning. But his bedroom also has another purpose, and that’s one of quietude and sleep, and it’s this last that we play on. If he decides to begin throwing a tantrum in the middle of the living room because, say, we’ve told him he’s not allowed to have ice cream until after he finishes his dinner, he’s informed that there is no screaming in the house, but if he’d like to continue his tantrum, he can do so alone in his room.
  4. Removing Privileges: I’m no longer afraid to take away the television for half an hour, or to remain resolved that the devil spawns are not going to get their snacks if they didn’t eat their dinner (this came up today; neither boy ate their mac and cheese for lunch because they wanted ice cream; when their midafternoon snack rolled around, both of them were hungry enough to not protest being given the lunch they didn’t eat two hours beforehand). They’ll cry, they kick and scream, but I’m no longer willing to permit them to usurp authority in the house. It takes awhile to find one’s backbone, to establish the pecking order and set forth your commandments (whether or not you engrave them in stone tablets is entirely up to yourself), but once you do, you have to hold firm because they will challenge you, and they’re like sharks. One little slip, blood in the water, and they’re circling to find chinks in your armor. Alright, maybe I’m mixing my metaphors there, but you get the point, right?
  5. No Backing Down. You’re always entitled to change your mind, especially if your punishments or reactions seem a bit ineffective or unrealistic, but doing this too arbitrarily is only going to cause problems and send uneven messages to the kids. If you take away the TV for an hour, it should stay off for that hour. If they’re supposed to spend five minutes in their room as punishment for misbehaviour, make sure it’s that full five minutes. You say there’s no yelling in the house except for their bedroom, send them to their room to finish their tantrums. Establishment of routines is key, because routines mean consistency and children need a hell of a lot of consistency in their lives in order to feel secure.

My kids are a bit spoiled. For a long time, they got their own way whenever they wanted it, and to some extent that continues today. Breaking away and reasserting oneself as the dominant power in the household is never an easy thing. Ask my mother; she never really accomplished that with me, since I continued to see my grandparents as the ultimate authority long past the time we had moved out of their house. But it has to be done if you want to have any control over your kids later in life. And it’s a fine line to walk, don’t get me wrong. Those kids who, later in life, become schoolyard bullies and teenage drug dealers and the kind of influences you’d rather die than have your kids exposed to? They more than likely received too much discipline, or not enough.

Parenting difficult children is a challenge above and beyond what the average parent expects. They’re tiring, they’re frightening, they’re incomprehensible. You feel like you’re being attacked, like they’re refusing to wear a certain color of clothing or eat a certain kind of food just because they know how much money/time you spent on it. They’re throwing a fit after being told that it’s time for the TV to go off because they’ve been watching it too long just because you have a headache. Your house becomes a constant staging ground for a war that never ends. Bedtime becomes the goal just so you can have some modicum of peace and quiet – if they don’t fight going to bed. Getting up in the morning is something you dread not because it’s Monday, but because it’s day and that means you have to steel yourself for another round of constant battling. You’re a bad parent, you feel guilty and ashamed, you just don’t get it.

It doesn’t have to be that way. It really, really doesn’t.

Children can become ex-difficult, with the right understanding and plan of action. Though their temperament is something that has been a part of them since the moment they were born, their attitudes and ways of self-regulating can be adjusted. Difficult children can be understood, and when you understand something, you can learn how to cope with it. I nearly drove myself crazy trying to puzzle out my kids, both before and after their respective diagnoses. Telling myself it was a phase they’d grow out of didn’t help much. Because in the end, it’s not a phase. It’s a part of who and what they are, and there’s no “growing out of” that. It took a lot of trial and error, a lot of guesswork, a lot of wrong choices and a lot of pulling out my hair and crying into my pillow at night, but eventually I figured out stressors, effective punishments and the proper way to modulate my tone of voice and mood.

The results were practically instantaneous.

My house is a lot more harmonious now, compared to what it used to be. Every day is still warfare, but the staging ground is a lot quieter. The battles have faded to skirmishes, and have become far less frequent and of far shorter duration. I’m no longer afraid that I’m a bad parent because my kids still have their wild days, and I’m not embarrassed to read parenting books anymore (though I still think a lot of them are filled with crap). I wish I’d had this understanding four years ago when Jason, my eldest, was just born, but a lot of parenting consists of exactly that, not knowing and having to somehow muddle through and hope you’re not screwing the kid up too badly.

I don’t really have a good way to end this; if I tried, I’d probably end up rambling on for another thousand words, and not saying much else. So instead, I’ll end with a pair of quotes I think are pertinent to the topic:

The hardest part of raising a child is teaching them to ride bicycles.  A shaky child on a bicycle for the first time needs both support and freedom.  The realization that this is what the child will always need can hit hard.  ~Sloan Wilson

Insanity is hereditary – you get it from your kids.  ~Sam Levenson

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6 thoughts on “On Growing Up Difficult

  1. The authority thing is one thing I really fear with Josh’s son. Right now, his visitation is just that — more like visits and less like part-time parenting. Eventually we’ll have more money and more room, and he’ll be older, and we’ll want him to spend time over here (provided we still live close enough for it to be part-time parenting and not simply yearly vacations). How will he react to Josh’s authority? What about mine? I have no idea how old he’ll be when he starts staying with us, but I often picture a teenaged, blonde Josh-twin scowling at me and telling me I’m not his mother. It gets even more complicated when I wonder what role, if any, his sister will have in our lives.

    It’s a good thing my biological clock is broken. Adding my own kid(s) to this mess would be.. well, messy.

    • I’m not an expert on parenting by any means, but I think the best thing to do in that sort of situation would be to talk to the kid’s mother, and carry whatever rules she has over to your house, maintaining the consistency he (should) already has at home.

      That way, if he scowls at you and tells you that you’re not his mother, you can quite calmly say, “No I’m not, but these are your mother’s rules.”

      Other than that, don’t really stress it too much. I’m in something of the same boat, since Rick has a daughter in the States I’m technically a stepmom to, and I occasionally worry about how it’s going to be later in life when we’re able to have her visit. The best I can think of is to act like my own stepmom — helpful, friendly, welcoming, but not a pushover by any means.

  2. Were you here today? You must have been here today. Today was one of Those Days.

    This was great. Especially this-“Volume equals nothing except acknowledgement that you’ve already lost control of the situation. The minute you have to yell anything, you’re fighting a losing battle.”

    Rich has pushed that into my head for two years now.

    I’m going to try the bit about telling her that certain behavior can only be done in her room. She HATES being sent to her room. And… she was today. While I put away a gazillion of her toys as punishment.

    By the way, I was That Kid too. My mom got a phone call when I was in first grade telling her I was pretending not to know how to read because I was embarrassed because the other kids couldn’t. My grandmom did a lot of my raising.

    • Quiet Time has become a HUGE thing in our house, though it does take awhile to sink in. But eventually, it comes to the point where the mere idea of spending even a few minutes alone in his room is enough of a deterrent to cut short tantrums or crying fits or inappropriate behaviour.

      Of course, if we deem it necessary, he spends between 2 and 5 minutes in his room, sitting on his bed. And he hates this with a passion. He spent 7 minutes all told in his room today, 5 minutes this morning for shouting at me when it was time to turn the TV off, and 2 minutes in the evening for stealing ice cream from his brother (food theft is a real problem with him). The other three times we gave him the option of either calming himself or going to his room, and he calmed himself down.

      I really hope it works for you the way it’s worked for us. In the beginning, it’s going to be rough, but powering through and establishing the Rules can do nothing but help in the long run.

  3. Mom wants a t-shirt….one that reads “I survived raising the Spawn of Satan” (put it on your Xmas list for me baby, lol)

    Regardless of everything, you’re still my baby girl…I still love you…..we’ll see how things fly when and if you relocate near me, lol….

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