My husband still likes to pull up his sleeve and show the bite mark our son gave him when he was a sharp-toothed, feisty two-year-old. We laugh about it now, but the honest truth is we were scared of our son.
He was small for his age, with big chocolate brown eyes and chubby pink cheeks. He looked sweet, which he definitely could be, but he was also a hitter, a biter, and the kind of kid who, when upset, would either attack anyone who was in reach or run away. He began this phase (or what I thought was a phase) when I was pregnant with our third child. There were times I literally could not run after him when he took off. It was terrifying being his mother.
It was also mystifying. This was my second child. I was supposed to know how to handle a simple tantrum. My first son had responded to the techniques I learned from books and we passed through his toddler stage without too much difficulty. I thought I knew what I was doing.
This child’s tantrums were more severe, more violent, and definitely more frightening. He did not respond to any advice I could find. I watched experts on TV, read Parents magazine, tried every technique I could find—from getting down on the floor with him to show empathy (a risky move, as it put me in closer proximity to his kicks and hits), to calmly ignoring him (also risky, as a mom looking the other way makes a good target), to giving him time out (not a good idea, as I was constantly afraid he was going to hurt himself)—but nothing worked.
Fast forward a few years to kindergarten. My son comes home with pages of homework that he needs to do right away. Perfectly. If he gets a stray pencil mark on his paper, he dissolves into tears.
In third grade, he emails an article to his teacher about how timed tests aren’t good for kids. He hopes she’ll listen, because they really stress him out.
In fourth grade, he constantly goes out into the hall to take a break, often in tears. He is afraid he won’t be able to understand his math. He is afraid his teacher will get mad at him.
In seventh grade, we have “worry time” every night before bed, where we take each worry, one by one, make a plan to deal with it, and then put it away for the day.
And that’s when it finally dawned on me. Those toddler tantrums that I had assumed were just a typical phase, or my son being naughty or willful, were an early sign of a truth I know so well now: my son has anxiety.
I’m not sure how I came up with my strategy to handle the tantrums. Knowing what I do now, I am grateful for the extra dose of mothering wisdom I received at that time—to simply love my son.
Each time he had a tantrum, I took him in my arms, gently but firmly controlling those flailing limbs, and I told him all the things I loved about him. I’d say, “It’s not okay to hit me, but I want you to know I still love you even though you did. There is nothing you can do to stop me from loving you. There are so many things I love about you.” And then I’d list them.
I’d talk about his sweet smile, his curiosity, his hugs, the funny things he said and did, and eventually he’d begin to calm down and listen. This response was helpful for both of us. For me, as it reminded me of how much I loved my son, who was so much more than a biter, a hitter, a fighter. For him, as he was learning that no matter what, we were in this together.
This method worked like magic. After only a few times, he began to quiet right down when I took him aside. He wanted to hear what I had to say. The tantrums began to taper off and he only had a few rare ones over the next few years.
Looking back, I can see more clearly. The most severe tantrums occurred when we got off schedule. As he began to give up naps and required an earlier 7 p.m. bedtime, I had to learn to put his needs first, even though people didn’t always understand. We stuck to a schedule as much as possible, which meant we might miss out on playdates, leave dinners with friends early, and turn down activities that interfered with bedtime. A predictable schedule helped him have security and order in a scary world; something kids with anxiety rely on.
He also had a difficult time with separation. Though I sensed other adults thought I was coddling him when I wouldn’t just leave him to cry, I had developed a trust with my son that I wanted to honor. I wanted him to know that I would always be there for him and I’d never leave him somewhere he didn’t feel safe. It took time, but we got to a point where I could say, “I’ll come back,” and he’d say “You’ll come back? Oh, okay!”
Over the years, we’ve both grown. My son knows he can manage his anxiety by getting enough sleep, exercising, and making a plan for homework. He can happily leave home for days at a time to go on scouting trips with his friends. I have found help in reading articles and books and talking to other parents. But nothing has helped more than simply putting our relationship first; letting him know that I love him, that I will take the time to be present with him, and that I am there for him no matter what.
QUESTION: Do you have a child with anxiety or frequent tantrums?
CHALLENGE: Next time you find yourself with a child who is acting out, take time to sit down together and list the things you love about him or her and see if it helps. It may not work the first time, but like anything, if you stick with it, you may see positive results.
Edited by Sharon Brown and Nollie Haws.
Image provided by the author.