We can do so much better. For the past few years, our patterns were stuck enough to seem hopeless. This past June, I made the choice to cultivate a more loving home.
After a long summer that included a stretch of five weeks apart, my son is back. This is the first night of his 4th grade year that he is spending with me. The evening coincides with a parent-teacher event. This means my boy runs wild around the neighborhood with his pals for a few hours before I have to leave him behind. He comes in, flushed and breathless, and parks himself in front of his video games. I lock the door behind me.
His teacher is tough but funny. She has bought yoga balls on her own dime, 24 of them, for her wiggly 9- and 10-year olds to make it through the day. As she talks through the year ahead, another mom and I bounce and roll into each other just enough to have fun, not enough to get in trouble. This is undoubtedly the tactic of every kid in the class.
When I make it home after dark, Bug is reluctant to shut down his screen. He does eventually, setting off a chain of mini rebellions against our long-established (if rusty) bedtime routine. He meets my reminders about dishes and brushing teeth by flinging himself on the couch. I turn out the lights. He turns them on. My voice is rising. He’s storming into the back bedroom and tossing things around. I say I need to catch my breath so I’m taking a brief walk, and he follows me to the door and puts his shoes on.
This is everything I had promised we wouldn’t do again. Even so, we were bound to slip back to here. The PEP classes, journaling, and reading that I took on during my boy’s summer travels were all abstractions. Now the real on-the-job training begins. Now we get to fumble our way through our relationship as we shed old habits and establish healthier ones.
It’s time to establish an environment in which mutual trust can flourish. It’s time to decide we’re on the same team. Doing so means starting with my own perception of the dynamic, and from there, adjusting my behavior. The smallest changes are investments. The interest compounds.
I shake my head and smile at Bug as I return the key to the hook by the door. “This is silly,” I say. “Can we get our night back on track?”
The mood shifts. Soon the dishes are in the dishwasher, the kiddo is in his bed, we’re in the bedroom together reading about a sea serpent and a lost dragon scale. Bug is loose and soft on his bed. The house quiets down and I make my way to the bathroom to get myself ready for bed.
That’s when I see the pills. Everything that I had counted and separated into the daily slots in my dispenser are now strewn all over the bathroom counter, the container opened and tossed aside. I am stunned. Turning on my boy, I boom, “What did you do? What in the world were you thinking?”
I’ve struck the match. His face hardens. He starts to say something, summoning his justification through tight lips. The cold flame is hissing now.
Down comes the mask of vengeance.
The character is instantly recognizable. It falls right into all the categories that the PEP literature identify as the mistaken goal-based behavior of revenge.
- Kid’s action: To cause hurt
- Parent’s reaction: Feeling appalled, offended, shocked, and embarrassed (if the situation takes place in public)
- Kid’s response to parent’s attempted reprimand: “So what? I don’t care.”
- Kid’s response to parent’s emotional reaction: Acting more vengeful and hurtful
Revenge behavior emerges from the mistaken belief that the way to belong is to get even for the hurts a child feels have been done to him. When we recognize the mistaken goal of revenge, we cannot effectively discipline or correct. Not in that moment. The child is feeling too disconnected and disrespected.
The parenting class instructors suggest this: when our child is burning through these intensely hurtful emotions and comes in attacking, our job is to imagine a little broken heart on his shirt. Tapping empathy, we can absorb the strong feelings in order to dissipate them. Only after the temperature is down can we start to problem solve.
These are the steps to take when a child is acting on mistaken revenge goals:
- Do not let the child hurt anyone, including the parent, emotionally or physically
- Refuse to hurt the child physically or emotionally
- Maintain order with minimal physical intervention
- Make the child feel safe
- Do nothing
- Then later… take the time and make the effort to build a sound relationship
- Accept that angry feelings exist, and problem solve when everyone has settled down
Here in the bathroom, we are nearly an hour past the initial destructive rush and raging behavior that created this mess. Nevertheless, I am feeling the shock for the first time, and my reaction is setting into motion another revenge cycle. He’s saying “I don’t care,” and I can see his eyes darken, his body tense. This is fight posture. Right before my eyes, he’s simmering to a boil.
It’s only spilled pills, and the whole night is about to blow.
As I stand here watching this eruption boil up in slow-motion before me, I make a decision.
I douse the flame.
“You were really upset earlier, weren’t you?” I ask. It’s the most easygoing voice you can imagine.
He’s wary but still within reach. “You were being really mean.”
“Yeah, we had a tough few minutes there. Why don’t you wash your hands and let’s get these back into the container.”
Simple as that. In a blink, he’s gathered the tablets into their little trios of blue, pink, and white. We find a few stragglers on the floor and hiding under the hairbrushes. As he crawls back into bed, I say with a sideways grin, “You know, throwing out my medicine might cause as many problems for you as it would for me.” I describe how the little thyroid gland has a big job operating the many functions of the body. If he thinks he’s got a mean mom now, he ain’t seen nothing. Without that tiny blue pill, not only would I not have energy to play with him, I’d be grumpy and lethargic and irritated because of my restless legs and poor sleep. The smallest thyroid imbalance can throw off the whole machine.
He listens, giggles, asks questions. The conversation meanders. We talk yoga balls and books. Soon enough we are turning out lights and turning in.
Before I head to bed, I scratch-rub his back the ways he likes. He purrs against his pillow. “You’re a cool kid, you know that?” I say, “And I love you.” He doesn’t respond, but I know he hears.
Image: Detail of woman pouring water, from “The Quest for Fodder” tapestry in a set of the Conquest of Tunis. Designed by Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen with Pieter Coecke van Aelst, ca. 1546–50. Woven under the direction of Willem de Pannemaker, Brussels, 1550–52. Wool, silk, and silver- and silver-gilt-wrapped threads; 17 ft. 2 1/4 in. x 30 ft. 8 7/8 in. (524 x 937 cm). Patrimonio Nacional, Madrid (TA 13/6, 10005907). Photograph by Bruce White