Guest Post #6: The Bermuda Triangle of Parenting: Lost between victim, compassion, and authority
Updated: Apr 7, 2020
*Most authors for this blog series have chosen to remain anonymous in order to protect the confidentiality of their children while still sharing their story. Documenting our stories helps us process our experience, sharing our stories help us connect to others with a shared experience, and reading others' stories help us not feel so alone. Welcome.
The Bermuda Triangle of Parenting
My son lost his water bottle yesterday. To most parents, this is just another trip to Target, another water bottle gone to wherever water bottles go. For my son, it triggered intense anxiety. You see, his water bottle is something he can control. He just started middle school a few weeks ago and there is a lot going on that is out of his control. New teachers, new classmates, more homework. He hasn’t made any friends yet and he’s feeling sad about it. He’s having trouble with homework because he’s just out of steam after school. He’s still adjusting to the early mornings of his new schedule. But his water bottle. He can control his water bottle. Except when he can’t because he has such a hard time keeping track of his things. Keeping up with things is tough for him. Yes, we have visual checklists everywhere. He forgets to look at those, too. It’s just that difficult.
I know he is struggling, but I also want to share what it’s like for me, as his mom. Sometimes, I see other parents of tweens reprimand their child for their “attitude” and I actually didn’t even see the “attitude.” Not because it wasn’t there, but because their child’s “attitude” is so mild in comparison to my child’s emotional reactions, that I wouldn’t even discipline that. It’s all about perspective. So, here’s mine.
Have you ever been hit by your child? This was our life in preschool when intense emotions came out physically towards the safest people my son knew because the demands of the world were just too much for him to take. As parents, we worked hard for years to help him develop more adaptive behaviors with the help of therapists and a psychiatrist. He made progress. Enter puberty.
Have you ever been called names by your child? This is where we are now. The aggression has become verbal and the anger is amplified by the hormones raging inside of him.
Victim. For most, parenting is about balancing authority and compassion; warmth and control. I know that this works with my younger child. But when my son, who has autism and ADHD, is highly anxious, I get caught in the crossfire of the aggressive response to the anxiety. It’s incredibly hard to parent in this space because anything you choose feels wrong. Ineffective. Nothing seems to work because the anxiety is in control. I am the victim. The victim of the anxiety as it spews out of his mouth in a rage.
Compassion. I also know that this is not “my child” screaming but rather the misfiring neurons in his brain unloading on the world. In fact, my child is exceptionally sweet and loving when he is calm. I understand that he has severe difficulty regulating his emotions and controlling his impulses, and watching his anxiety unload into aggression is heartbreaking. In this case, it’s all due to a lost water bottle. I feel so sad for him; that his reaction is so disproportionate to the problem. He cognitively understands that he’s over-reacting, but he can't stop it. He’s mad at me, he’s scared someone will take his water bottle, he’s scared we won’t be able to find it, and he’s mad at his brain for not remembering it.
Authority. Add to this moment that I feel I must parent my son for these words flying towards me--set the limit not to be verbally abusive. I know that sounds obvious, but what if he can’t control being abusive? I must set the limit anyway whether he hears me or not. Right? Maybe. It's always a judgement call based on my estimation of his capability to actually learn from my limit in this moment and my bandwidth to teach him. My bandwidth is tiny by this point. My parental courage is basically cowering in the corner, hoping someone else will take over.
I’m stuck. Stuck in the Bermuda Triangle of Victim, Compassion, and Authority. In the Bermuda Triangle of parenting, I am lost.
In this case, we were saved by actually finding the water bottle, but it doesn’t always turn out this way. Sometimes, we have to come up with a new plan, which in the long run is good for his flexibility and growth, but often feels intolerable in the moment. I know his brain will continue to grow and develop, and maturity, I hope, will one day allow him to take such setbacks in stride. In the meantime, we will continue with all we are doing to support him, and me, and our family. And hopefully one day, we will all become unstuck.
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