The “Growing Up” section at Barnes and Noble has something for the bullied kid, the child of divorce, the grieving kid, the kid with two mommies and the one whose mommy is pregnant.
How to Stop Being a Bully is nowhere to be found.
Bug’s defiant behavior has been ratcheting steadily upward over the past. . . six months? Year? It’s hard to say. I have not been paying as close attention as I should have been. It has also been tough to admit that something abnormal is going on. Bug’s intensity is not entirely out of character for a boy who punched his way into the world and latched onto me with a grip that made me writhe in pain for six straight months. All sorts of words are used to describe a kid like Bug. High-need, demanding, defiant, strong-willed, stubborn. “Charismatic” is on the nice end of the spectrum. The words on the other end are the ones you bite back when you see a child like mine lording over your kid at the playground.
As for the specifics? Let’s put it this way: Bug’s favorite clip on YouTube these days is Steve Martin’s evil dentist number from Little Shop of Horrors. He giggles with glee all the way through.
Most days, sunny strains of Bug’s goodness rise above the darker chords. He is playful and athletic, curious and agile, imaginative and silly. He dances like a fiend to rock star music and makes epic pirate ships out of old sheets and dining room furniture. However, his foul temper is a rising crescendo, drowning out his better self. It is chilling to watch my beautiful baby unfold into a mean-spirited, unlikable child. It is also tough to come to terms with the possibility that these characteristics are not just “a phase,” and that this may be his hard-wired disposition. I worry so much for the young man he will become, and I want him to learn how to manage his big feelings so he does not land in a vortex of reactivity feeding negative self-image feeding delinquency.
We have a tough road ahead. In helping my boy manage himself, I also have to face the role my constitution plays in his. He has inherited the wide arc of his emotional pendulum from me, and he learns how to calibrate (or not) the intensity from me. My reactions contribute as much to Bug’s behavior as my nature does. I cringe when I recall any number of the shameful ways I have responded to his button-pushing over the years. The explosive words I hear coming out of Bug’s mouth of late are perfect recordings of my voice.
Children’s books on the topic may be in short supply, but grownup books proliferate. Reading about tools like positive discipline and loving guidance has given me insight into the needs behind Bug’s behaviors, and the way my choices help or hinder him as he tries to get those needs met. There are no shortcuts. Accepting that something has to change requires me to discipline myself, all the time and in every setting. My knee-jerk snapping or weary permissiveness serve as a perfect model for the behavior I am trying to eliminate. Is it any wonder my kid’s grouchiness grows worse when I am at my worst? Responding with enhanced mindfulness is the only choice.
For nearly five weeks, I have been attempting careful consideration when responding to my son. No matter how hot under the collar we are, how loudly he is shouting hateful things at me in the supermarket, how exhausted I am at 11:15pm after two hours of bedtime struggle, and how much I feel like crying or punching the wall when he is up again at 4:30am complaining of a nightmare, I try to silence my Nurse Ratched instincts. Whatever my first reaction is, my job is to pause and subvert it. Taking a breath deep enough to turn down the heat allows me a moment to consider Bug’s perspective and our options. I do not always succeed (like after gymnastics this weekend. Yeah, that was me forcing my child into time out right in the middle of the parking lot), but my track record is, I hope, improving.
The blowouts are diminishing in frequency and intensity. Bug may still be experiencing the lightning storm of big emotions, but his behavior does not ignite me as quickly. I keep telling him I am going to help him figure out how to manage his feelings. That he is not alone. After a few minutes, his temper settles, and we are back to some kind of equilibrium – even pleasure – in each other’s company.
Wouldn’t it be nice to wrap up this essay in a neat little bow? It would go something like this:
In time, practicing mindfulness becomes habit. Children are as resilient as the platitude suggests, and they can learn new ways of handling themselves. Parents can, too. Eventually, measured responses supersede knee-jerk aggression or defeat. Whether the human brain is capable of developing new instincts is a topic of debate. I hold out hope that with intention and patience, mindful responses become an abundant source of inspiration, as easily tapped as whatever came before.
If you want the happy ending, then stop here. The messier truth is that subverting one’s instincts is incredibly exhausting. The self-control muscle grows fatigued from overuse. If making the transition to new behaviors is this tiring for me, imagine how tough it is on a five-year-old! I keep seeking settings in which good behavior comes naturally to Bug so we can both let down our guard and he can succeed without Herculean effort. This seems a critical counter-point to the hard-earned victories of the long game.
As of today, we are still seeking. Sadly, few low-pressure venues exist in our world. Even on playgrounds, even in the back yard, my boy appears almost to look for things to hurt or reasons to lash out. It is like watching an evil villain in training, rubbing his hands together as he decides where to sow seeds of discord. I have to tell myself that my son is just a strong being with a hair trigger, a bottomless pit of energy, and a few too many bad habits for handling disappointment in a world that does not turn on an axis of Bug.
This is an important realization for a mommy who is still learning to accept the same humbling truths. Habits can change. Doing so is a matter of re-orienting ourselves in the right direction then allowing our momentum to carry us forward. When we veer, as we inevitably will, we check the compass and make the necessary course corrections, as often as it takes, as long as the journey lasts.
Maybe Bug and I should add our own title to the “Growing Up” shelf at the bookstore. We can call it White Water: How to Change Course Mid-Stream without Capsizing.
My backup plan is to start saving for a top-of-the-line drill and dentist’s chair. As it goes with all children, whether doom or destiny, Bug is going to follow his own path wherever it takes him.
My mama said,
“My boy I think someday
You’ll find a way
To make your natural tendencies pay.”