Handle With Care: Contents Fragile
This post began as a book recommendation, but there’s a story before you get there. I want to set up the scene because it’s crucial to have a feeling for the watershed moment that preceded me searching and finding this particular book. The realization that I needed a new playbook was almost as important as the book itself.
One of my daughters has a tendency to react dramatically and sometimes violently to things that I consider minor “stuff”. This book and its perspective helped me totally re-frame my perception of these situations and has greatly improved my ability to understand what was happening and indeed, to anticipate and constructively deal with these types of issues before they spin out of control.
What happened, you ask? I suspect it will sound all too familiar to many parents.
Right before Christmas we had a particularly startling example of this seemingly out-of-proportion reaction to a small thing, which because of my daughter’s reaction and then our subsequent actions, ballooned from a non-event into a huge deal and ultimately led to a breakthrough in our understanding of her perceptions and a significant change in my parenting approach.
Not kidding- this incident and the subsequent book that I found, changed my whole world-view dramatically.
Back to the incident. It’s morning, a few days before Christmas, and we have about an hour before we leave to drop the girls at Drama camp. Sofia asks if she can have her “computer time” (30 mins/day). I say yes. Sofia’s twin sister Audrey reminds me that last night, I said she could have her computer time first. Oh, that’s right, I say. You can go first. No big deal right? There’s an hour- so they’ll both get computer time and it’s a minor and logical change, right? Wrong.
Sofia goes bananas. I’ll save you the details, but by the end she has been throwing stuff, kicking, screaming, crying, and as a result has lost her “big” Christmas gift from under the tree and her computer time for today and tomorrow. My husband and I actually thought we’d handled it well- not raising our voices, staying in sync, escalating consequences slowly- the things that felt like success to us. Our parenting toolbox contained all the usual tools- boundaries, consequences, follow through, the belief that challenging behavior can’t be “given a pass”. We remained mystified about what caused this over the top outburst, but it wasn’t the first time, so we kind of wrote it off. (Note: we aren’t to the bad part yet.)
Later that same evening, Sofia gets in trouble at the dinner table. It goes something like this: She is not using correct table manners. Mom (me) gives a warning that one more incident of “x” behavior and your dinner goes in the sink. X behavior is promptly repeated. Dinner goes in the sink. No drama but action met with stated consequence.
Suddenly (again, seemingly out of the blue), Sofia goes into this horrible, sobbing meltdown. She runs from the room, throws herself on couch, buries her head in the cushions, and then jumps up and goes over to her desk and furiously writes something on a piece of paper. She comes over to me, still crying furiously and hands me a paper that says in HUGE letters:
I am stupid
I am stupid
I am stupid
I am stupid
I am stupid
That’s what I think.
And that’s what you think too.
My heart implodes. What? What? No, no, no, no, no! THAT IS NOT WHAT I THINK! I am completely shocked and horrified to see how my daughter is perceiving this situation. What I am seeing as “defiance” and pushing boundaries is obviously NOT what she is experiencing AT ALL.
I gather my sobbing daughter in my arms and start to say over and over again, oh sweetie you are not stupid (this is not a world that is EVER used in our house to describe people). Every time I say that, she just shouts that YES, I AM! I AM STUPID!
I am at such a loss. I can’t understand what is happening in this moment, but I know it’s bad and I know I have to get my arms around it, just as I have my arms around her.
In response to my question of what does stupid mean, she replies that it means I am MEAN and BAD, and I can tell by how she says it that she means that she thinks these things to the bone. Oh no, honey. You are not those things. You could NEVER be those things- even if you sometimes have bad behavior or behave meanly in the moment.
I think to myself, what have I done? Without realizing it, I have not handled this precious, sensitive, bright, funny, loving child with the care she deserved. By using the standard set of parenting tools, I have been badly off target. I have used a hammer when I should have used a…. what exactly, I’m not yet sure- but something a hell of a lot closer to a feather, I think. Something gentle. Something that recognizes the fragility of the contents.
After finally getting her calmed down and pouring my soul into reassuring her that she is not in any way, under any circumstances, in any universe- stupid. Never, never, never.
The next step is to look for a new fricking toolbox. The one I have is obviously totally ill-suited to the job.
The gods of reading have always been good to me. I have always been able to find the right book for the right moment. Whether a book to lose myself in, learn from, recommend, or take inspiration from- I have a gift for finding what I need, like a person with a divining rod in the desert.
So, in the oasis that is the Elliot Bay Book Company, I begin my search. After quickly reviewing and putting aside probably a dozen conventional parenting books (full of consequences, defiance, and power dynamics between parents and children), I discover a wonderful book. The Explosive Child, by Ross Greene.
Let me stop you right there- I hate the title. Not only does it turn me off to the book itself, but it makes you think it’s going to be about how your kid is a bomb- and bombs, as we all know, are bad. Nothing good has ever come from a bomb. But this book and the author’s philosophy couldn’t be further from that. If I could, I would rename it, “Handle With Care: How To Deal Gently With Children”.
Dr. Greene begins with this premise, “Kids do well if they can.” Those may be some of the most meaningful words about parenting that I have ever come across. Kids do well if they can. He asserts and begins from the concept that what is happening in situations like the one I described above, is that the child lacks the skills to cope with the situation. They are NOT being bad out of some kind of dominance play or desire to assert their power. This makes SO. MUCH. SENSE. I absolutely believe this and starting from this premise is so important to making positive changes.
Throughout the book, the author uses examples that are far more extreme than what we’ve experienced with our children. Our incidents, even the great “computer time” tempest that we just endured, though far milder than those mentioned in the book, share that same kernel- the difficulty coping with change or ambiguity, the incredibly emotional and dramatic outbursts, that feeling of “why is this happening?”
I won’t recap the full philosophy or techniques recommended in the book, except to say that we saw immediate improvement. That’s pretty amazing and I am so grateful that my literary diving rod again steered me true.
So, the main points of my story and experience are:
Parenting requires adaptation. The tools that you start with, that you grew up with, or that you “think” are the right ones may not be. Over time, you are almost certainly going to need to add some new ones to your toolbox. Don’t be afraid to do this. Not having these tools when you start is not a failure- how can we? But, not adding them, when it’s clear that the conventional set isn’t working, well- then you’re gonna have a bad time and that’s on you. I am learning that parenting is deeply humbling and that although you shouldn’t put your child ahead of your needs necessarily, you SHOULD absolutely but your child’s needs ahead of your ego. Big difference.
Kids, at times, will have a COMPLETELY different experience of an event from what you are experiencing. You have to be open to the fact that their experience of that event is as real and legitimate as yours. Probably more so. We adults have years of practice rationalizing and understanding things that seem scary or foreign or intimidating. It is a skill. Think back to watching scary movies as a kid and about how you cope with them now. I remember running out of the movie theater in terror while watching Gremlins of all things. True Story. Guess it’s no surprise that my daughter also struggles with the suspense and dramatic tension.
Seek help. This book, The Explosive Child, is a godsend for me. It has made an incredible difference, even in just the few short weeks since I picked it up. But, as good as it is, it may not work for you or resonate with you. If that’s the case- don’t sweat it. Keep looking. Keep talking with friends, teachers, and other parents. Our struggles seem so unique and sometimes so overwhelming and yet, just like child-rearing itself, these challenges have played out over and over again for hundreds, if not thousands of generations. Maybe the fight wasn’t over “computer time” but the difficulty coping with a change to plan or a delay- there’s nothing new in that. And the book covers many other scenarios- that’s just the one that’s foremost for us.
I have seen an incredible and immediate improvement in my parenting and in the relationship I have with both of our daughters, especially during times of stress. That’s not to say it’s “easy” now (guess, it’s time to give up on that notion!) or to say that we’ve even seen the worst of these challenges (I’m sure we haven’t). What I do know, is that every time I practice and use one of these new tools, I get better with it- and it’s more likely to be my go-to tool when something starts to go sideways.
Like many others, my greatest desire as a parent is to raise happy, healthy, confident, loving children. My greatest fear is that I’ll do more harm than good somehow, that despite all the love and my best intentions, my actions and behaviors will “screw them up”. I take heart knowing that by recognizing and embracing the three points above, I am moving in the right direction.
Thanks for reading and sharing. I’d love your thoughts, feedback, and recommendations too!