This morning, I saw a video on Facebook. Not an unusual thing since they’ve changed the way facebook feeds and every other update I see is either a video or an ad. Sometimes both at the same time. So not the point.
Back to this morning’s video. It featured a young man, probably around ten, who was in the midst of a pretty massive meltdown. The video showed him screaming at his mom. The comments indicated that he swore at her and hit her as well. I didn’t watch the video with the sound on, and I didn’t watch it all the way through.
I did read the comments from the poster and the people responding to the post. They were pretty common refrains about “my mom would never…” or “what a terrible parent to let him…” It went on and on and on, but the basic consensus was that she was a terrible parent and he was an out of control child in need of discipline, preferably in the form of being smacked upside the head.
My first reaction when I read the comments was anger. News flash, folks. When a parent hits her child, that’s child abuse. The age of “Just wait until your father gets home.” or “Do you want me to get the belt?” is well past over.
Here’s the thing, having a child doesn’t make a person a parenting expert. Most of us struggle with how to handle a “perfect” or “normal” child, let alone one with significant behavior problems.
I’ll admit, before I had kids and was still an expert at parenting, I was one of those people. You know, the one who would go to a restaurant and look at parents with misbehaving kids and think “Why don’t they control that kid?”
Then I met my son, Wyatt.
Wyatt is totally THAT kid. The one who makes strangers think “Why don’t they control that kid?” At ten-years-old, he is big and strong and so very smart. He sees the world with black and white clarity, questions everything, and protests loudly when he knows something is wrong. It’s impossible to change his mind, and sometimes trying to do so will result in a full on melt down.
But when I met him, he wasn’t this man-sized child who knows everything but understands so little. No, when I met him he was tiny and soft and so very vulnerable. I held him and wondered how I got so lucky to have such a beautiful son. I sang to him and fed him and promised to do everything to protect him and keep him safe.
I wrote my first published book, Edge of Darkness, while holding Wyatt in my lap as a baby. Later, I replaced that laptop because toddler Wyatt removed all the keys and lined them up in alphabetical order. QWERT wasn’t working for his little mind.
I worried because at three he still hadn’t started talking beyond a few words. I worried that as he grew, he became more and more frustrated about everything and would throw himself onto the floor and bang his head over and over. I worried that, if he could break my nose (twice) during a tantrum when he was still so little, what would I do when he got big? Still, all I could do was hold him because the most important thing was to make sure he didn’t hurt himself. I did get better at dodging, though.
I worried that this little boy who went from loving and sweet to frustrated and angry in seconds, would hurt his little sister who was born a few months after his third birthday. And then I watched as he marveled at HIS baby sister, as he touched her gently and held her and kissed her. He did those things with a kindness and tenderness I had never seen from him before.
To this day, he still loves babies and no matter what else is going on, he will stop dead in his tracks when he sees a baby. He smiles all big and goofy, asks in a shy voice so quiet that the mom/dad almost never hears, if he can hold the baby. Then he asks again, a little louder. He holds babies carefully, protecting their heads and talking softly to them. He will follow a toddler around for hours, picking up their toys and making sure they don’t wobble off into the deep end.
When he’s with a baby, it’s hard to remember that it’s the same kid who once threw the remote at his mommy’s head so hard that she ended up with a black eye.
We took him to a behavioral specialist when he was three, shortly after Lily was born. That’s when we learned that he’s not a terrible kid and we’re not terrible parents. He has Aspergers and his view of the world is just different than ours.
Here’s what I’ve learned from THAT kid.
- He already knows that he’s different. He doesn’t need you to look at him like that. It’s not helping him. And it’s definitely not helping his mom calm him down.
- He doesn’t want to be different. If he could change it, he would.
- He’s smart. Soooo smart. Smarter than I’ll ever be.
- He likes to know the rules. If he knows how he’s supposed to behave, even if he doesn’t understand why, people are less likely to look at him like that.
- He’s learned that it’s not okay to hit. Or throw things. Or bite. Does that mean he doesn’t get angry? No. It means that he’s learned to control the outburst of emotions that sometimes overwhelm him. But even with all that work, he still knows he’s going to get looked at like that.
- He feels everything with the volume turned all the way up. He can’t always stop himself from doing something bad, but he needs to know that we notice when he does hold himself back.
- He’s a kind, funny, shy, sensitive young man. If he’s having a bad day and acting out, it gets worse if I let my temper rule my behavior toward him. If I am able to talk to him in a calm voice, it calms him. If I yell, he’s going to get worse, not better. Smacking him upside the head would be catastrophic.
- He is capable of making responsible decisions. “Because I said so” will never work with him, but a rational conversation always will. If he can see the consequences of a bad decision, he will avoid that bad decision.
I’ve cried, worrying that we’re not doing enough to help him, that if we were better parents, maybe he wouldn’t have such a hard time. Then I’ve cried some more because how do we make sure that we’re being fair to both of them, Wyatt and his younger sister, Lily? How do we give him the room to find his way, while holding his sister to a completely different standard?
Lily, his little sister, is so smart, just like her brother. Only she doesn’t know as many facts. She doesn’t stare of charts and tables memorizing information. Instead, she understands people. Every awkward thing Wyatt struggles through, comes easily to her. And she sees very clearly how we expect different things from her, how we hold her to a higher standard of conduct.
I don’t remember how old she was the first time she asked why something was okay for Wyatt and not for her, but I do remember struggling with the answer. It’s hard to find words that a child will understand to explain that it’s actually not okay for him, either, but his brain works differently. That, even though it wasn’t okay, sometimes he has to work through things in a way that doesn’t make a lot of sense to the rest of us.
I wish that questions like that could wait until I’m ready to answer, but that’s not the case. As a parent, I have to find a way to explain, find the words that don’t devalue either child, yet still makes it clear that it’s not okay for her to throw herself on the ground just because she doesn’t want to brush her teeth right now, even though she saw her brother do the same thing last week.
For everything I’ve tried to teach my children as their parent, they’ve taught me so much more. They’ve taught me that no answer is universal. And every child wants a kind word, love, and understanding from his/her parent. So the next time you see a parent struggling with a difficult child, stop for a second before you judge. Maybe, just maybe, she’s doing the very best she can just to make it through the day.