As my hand smacked the small, defenceless leg in front of me, I knew I had lost control, it wasn’t even a light smack, it was hard, hard enough to make my hand sting, and leave an instant red imprint on his young milky smooth skin. It was wrong! Of course it was wrong, but it felt so good to lash out and hit the source and cause of my frustration. The shock and instant pain worked with alarming immediacy. The child, my youngest son, who up to that point had been carelessly and mindlessly pushing my buttons, was rendered silent, as he stared at me, wide eyed with hurt, doubt and confusion written all over his face.
‘STOP IT’ I could hear myself yelling at the top of my voice, ‘JUST FUCKING STOP IT’! DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT AN ANNOYING LITTLE SHIT YOU ARE?
The obscenities and anger spewed out of me like a burst water main. Each appalling, inappropriate, damaging word hitting its target with cruel accuracy, whilst simultaneously but slowly giving relief to the tension within my hijacked body and mind.
Like a roller coaster ride I was powerless to stop, the outburst demanded I completed the course. On and on, shouting and screaming. Words and phrases now totally incomprehensible and wasted on someone so young. A monologue of pent up, adult, complicated crap. A mother who had totally, albeit momentarily lost the plot!
As is thankfully inevitable, these outbursts tend to be short lived, but afterwards I always find myself in a relationship vacuum, the silence hanging heavy in the air, and the sadness, guilt, defence and insecurity almost palpable
With eyes now full of tears my son looked at me. Reunited with a slightly calmer state of mind, all I wanted to do was scoop him up into my arms and erase the last five minutes from both of our memories. The look on his face told me to do no such thing, not yet at least! I’d overstepped the angry mummy mark and although compliant and wiling to take orders now, there was no way he was going to be leaping into my arms any time soon just to relieve my pain and guilt.
I wish I could say that this was an isolated incident but that would be a lie! It certainly wasn’t a daily or even weekly occurrence but it happened too often, and there was something about this particular time that was different. I don’t know whether it was him, me, or the disgusted look on the faces of my two older children as they resisted stepping in to protect their little brother, for fear of the same treatment I suspect.
Something had to change and that something needed to be me.
As we got in the car to go to school that morning I quietly vowed to myself that I would find a way to parent him that didn’t involve hitting him when nothing else seemed to work!
That was about 4 years ago and a great deal has changed I’m pleased to say. I’m still someone who has to be conscious of losing her temper, but I have found a patience I never thought I had, and it’s not because I’ve become some super human being who has super human levels of self control, it’s because I’ve come to understand my little boy in a way I never did before, and in seeking to understand him I’ve also come to better understand my other kids, my husband and very importantly myself.
So why am I sharing this? Well it’s not because I’m feeling smug that’s for sure. As I’m always telling Monty (the little boy), when you are mean or smug life has a way of putting you in your place by taking you down a peg or two! I’m sharing this story because I hope it might reach some parents who are in the same position I was, struggling to find a way to be the parent their child needs them to be. Nowadays, in my opinion there is too much emphasis on ‘normalising’ the child rather than extending the skills of the parent and that just can’t be right!
So, without further ado here is our story……..
Monty was born on 3rd January 2006 after a pretty straightforward pregnancy. He’s the youngest of three children with an older sister, Georgie who is 7 years older and an older brother Joe who is 5 years older. He was very much wanted, both his Dad and I are from big families and we wanted three children. Monty was born in his waters, make what you will of that! It is apparently unusual and lucky and certainly protects the baby from some of the trauma of travelling down the birth canal (not necessarily a good thing!). He was a very very active toddler who could kick a ball before he could even walk. He was very adventurous and the early signs of a non compliant, extremely willful personality were clear to see!
Life was hectic. Monty’s dad Paul was busy climbing the corporate ladder, and I was working part time as an executive coach, regularly away for days at a time. It was a familiar gig experienced by a great many parents trying to get ahead. I was always reluctant to use a nanny because I still wanted to do the lion’s share of the child care. Monty had a child minder, Liz, who was truly amazing and I don’t suppose ever lost her temper! The gaps in childcare were filled by my mother in law (can’t thank her enough) and my good friend Louise who ran a breakfast and supper club for my older two. In fact, she may not know it but she was probably the first person to hold up the harsh but necessary mirror of truth in front of my eyes where Monty was concerned. One night, after far too many glasses of Sauvignon Blanc, she stopped me in my tracks by pointing out that my youngest child might not be so tricky if he had more of an idea of who is mother was! You can imagine how well ‘that’ went down!!!! As I’ve come to learn all too often in my job, it can take years for someone to thank you for being the one who tells the truth of a situation. So, true to form I’d like to say a belated thanks to Louise for having the courage (albeit aided somewhat :-)) to tell me what I needed to hear.
Soon after this, life took an interesting turn when Paul had the opportunity to take an overseas position for the company he worked for. We’d always wanted to travel and here was our chance. In April 2009 when Monty was 3 we moved to Sweden. I took the opportunity to give up working in the hope that being around and available all the time would enable me to be the supportive wife and calm, brilliant mum who existed in my dreams!
In Sweden Monty joined the kindergarten of the international primary school that Georgie and Joe went to. It was a fantastic school with brilliant teachers and although he was always described as a very active child who found it hard to listen and do what he was told, he had a very close, loving relationship with his teachers. At home I still struggled. Most days were a catalogue of battles. He constantly resisted being given simple instructions and seemed to take great pleasure in doing the exact opposite to whatever he has been asked to do. It seems silly now but at the time, when you are battling with a 3 or 4 year old 50 – 100 times a day over simple requests and activities, you can start to feel like you are going mad! Most days I have to admit ended with a less than fairly tale bed time, with me just relieved he’d gone to bed, but then later going and sitting with him, watching him sleep and wishing I could have handled the whole day so much better.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all crap! He was a happy, funny, cheeky little boy who was also cuddly, warm and charming, but I was conscious that ‘I’ wasn’t getting it right and I was still losing my temper far too often.
No sooner had we settled in Sweden than big changes were announced in the company Paul worked for, and after a few weeks of uncertainty a move to Warsaw, Poland was scheduled for the end of the school year.
It wasn’t ideal timing, particularly for our older two kids who had formed firm friendships, but that’s for another story about the benefits and drawbacks of moving kids around the world! Good timing or not we found ourselves in Warsaw for the start of the academic school year, September 2010.
In Warsaw Monty was again blessed with fantastic teachers, and it was during a parent / teacher meeting with one of them that I remember feeling distinctly out of my depth as a parent and that I was failing my child. She didn’t mean to make me cry but it was one of those moments in life when the planets line up and there is nothing you can do to stop the tears. Sitting on a chair designed for a four year old, listening to someone gently tell me that perhaps my child had more difficulty than most paying attention and listening and was I aware of the challenges he faced, I felt very small, vulnerable and exposed.
I was doing my best, I was watching what he ate and drank; not too much sugar, not too many additives, plenty of exercise. I was a control freak where sleep was concerned and I didn’t allow many electronics. All this was definitely making a difference but there were still far too many battles, far too many shouting matches, far too many ineffective punishments, and still too much reliance on the fact that I was bigger and stronger than him so that meant I was in charge!
Life ticked on and through year one and two Monty continued to luck out with great teachers, in particular his year two teacher who adored cheeky, mischievous boys and knew just how to have them eating out of her hand. The message from school was consistent; he’s a sweet but highly energetic boy who struggles to concentrate and listen. On the football pitch he was becoming a bit of a legend, but at home and in the classroom he could safely be described as a handful.
I’ve always loved all my children, this has never faltered, not even for a second and I can honestly say I love them totally equally. But I am ashamed to admit that sometimes I did find myself wondering how easy life could and would have been if we had stopped at two, and at times I definitely struggled to like being with the little boy who defied me at every turn and seemed to relish being foul to me.
They say in life that when the pupil is ready the teacher appears. If this is true then I so wish I’d been ready sooner! But be that what it may, the pupil was finally ready and the teacher duly appeared. A good friend of mine in Warsaw had gone along to a parenting course which was totally different from anything else I’d ever heard or read about, and very much defied the ‘consequence’ based practices and habits that I had grown to rely on. Her enthusiasm was relentless and within a few weeks I found myself at the beginning of one of the most enlightening and rewarding journeys I have ever been on; discovering the world according to developmental psychologist Dr Gordon Neufeld.
I’m not going to into enormous depth here about everything I have learned about the healthy psychological development of people. Thanks to this brilliant man. If you want chapter and verse you can find a great deal of information about his theories and explanations on u tube, generally on the internet and also in his book; Hold onto Your Kids, or you can get hold of me and I will happily tell you as much as I know! However, what I have done below is bullet point some of the most critical, helpful information, as I see it! In no particular order:
- The emotional attachment between a parent and child is not a foregone conclusion, to be truly emotionally attached to another human being requires having a deep, meaningful, loving, relationship, one in which the child feels truly significant, known and understood.
- It is this strong emotional attachment (relationship), that allows us to effectively parent our children. With it, they naturally (within reason) want to be good for us. Without it, you don’t really stand a chance. Ok, we might be able to bully or bribe our kids in to doing what we want and being who we want when they are young but really? Is this the way to do it? It might work with a naturally complacent or compliant child but with a wilful one? forget it! You’ve got a battle ground.
- Punishments don’t really work, especially not if they are administered too often. All they often do is threaten the relationship. If you have a particularly ‘alpha’ child, the over use of punishments just pushes the alpha buttons and the child will withdraw from you emotionally in order to protect themselves from getting hurt.
- You will never ever ever be effective at teaching your kid anything in the heat of an argument. Survive the moment and teach the lesson at a time when you are close again.
- The prefrontal lobe is the part of the brain that allows humans to see both sides of a situation simultaneously. This part of the brain doesn’t get wired up till a kid is at least 5 and often older. Without this being wired up they literally can’t see what they want and what you want at the same time. For example, they want to finish drawing or playing and you want them to go and put their shoes on. They are simply unable to assimilate both these things at the same time.
- Most kids under a certain age (4 or 5) will present symptoms of many psychiatric conditions!
- Counter will is a massive deal. Wanting to do the opposite to whatever we’ve been ‘told’ to do is completely natural, and is a protective instinct. If we are in a strong, loving relationship with our child (or whoever) and we appeal to their natural sense of responsibility and ‘ask’ them kindly, the chances are they might do whatever we need them to. If we are not, either permanently or temporarily, they are likely to want to do the exact opposite to whatever it is we have asked (or demanded!).
- Not getting your own way or everything you want (experiencing futility) is an important part of maturation (the process of healthy psychological development). Allowing kids to express their frustrations about not getting their own way, and loving them while holding firm boundaries for them (for example, no, you can not have an ice cream (aged 3) or, no you can not have a new phone because you’ve broken your other one (aged 13)), allows them to see they can survive a disappointment, come out the other side, and that their relationship with you is not threatened by them expressing their emotions.
- In the western world we are in a great rush to have our kids grow up and be independent. Nature will grow our kids up perfectly if we focus on tending to their emotional and physical needs. If my kid still wants me to tie his laces sometimes at 9 so be it, he wont still be asking me at 16, unless he isn’t developing as nature intended.
- Adolescence is not a stage in it’s own right, it is the bridge from childhood to adulthood which is why it can be so complicated for both adults and kids to understand.
- Kids are like plants and parents are like gardeners. A good gardener knows that you have to provide a plant with the right environment, the right size pot or plot, the right nutrients and the right care and let nature take care of the rest. You can not force a plant to grow (unless you use dodgy chemicals), and you can not force it to produce something nature did not intend it to produce.
- Just because something becomes ‘normal’, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ‘natural’. This is mostly in reference to kids being activitied up to the eyeballs, and involved in electronic activity so much of the time. The brain was designed to output as well as input, probably more so. In this day and age of such ready information, stimulation and entertainment, it’s possible to be on input most of the time. but this is not necessarily healthy for our brains. If we ate food to the extent that we expect our brains to consume ‘stuff’ we would quite literally be sick. I’m no expert but I can’t help but feel there is a strong link between overfeeding/over stimulating kids brains, and the incredible rise in attention related syndromes. Kids were designed to play, get bored, be creative, make suff up and rest, a lot.
- By the age of about 12 most of our work is done in terms of laying down the values and behaviours we wish to instil in our kids. After that we are a gentle rudder, a guiding light and pretty much there to pick up the pieces!
- Finally, it is rarely the kid who needs to change.
Over the course of two years I literally inhaled everything Dr Neufeld had to offer. In particular I changed my parenting approach from behavioural to developmental. In other words, rather than looking at the behaviour I wanted to change in Monty, I looked at where that behaviour was coming from and what the triggers might be; was he frustrated? was he tired? was he trying to get my attention? was it just immaturity? The naughty step disappeared and I pretty much stopped using threats and consequences, although I have to admit to totally destroying a football with a kitchen knife on one particularly testing occasion, which I am constantly reminded of and not very proud of!
Understanding the role of the pre-frontal lobe was huge for me. Monty was certainly a late developer and I suspect that this part of his brain did not get wired up until he was at least 6 or 7 years old. Knowing this, and understanding his limited capacity for empathy allowed me to be a great deal more patient and handle certain situations totally differently,
In a nutshell I concentrated on nurturing our relationship. I treated it like a precious, delicate flower. This was not to say I treated ‘him’ like a delicate flower but I preserved our relationship above anything else. I focused my efforts on understanding who my little boy was, what made him tick and how his brain worked. I saw his behaviour as a symptom of where he was developmentally, rather than just seeing it as defiant and bloody annoying! I constantly tried to live by the philosophy of ‘when your child deserves your love the least, they need it the most’.
Things at home started to improve. He was still absolutely the same little boy who struggled to concentrate, struggled to listen, someone who wanted to be constantly active and felt he should be in charge, but our relationship was shifting, for the better. Armed with newly found confidence I navigated my way through the battles in a very different way. If I couldn’t avoid battles I would survive them, allowing him to vent his frustration if he wasn’t getting his own way. I’m not saying I was a pushover, I wasn’t but I tried to calmly stand my ground and be there while he vented, rather than enter into a shouting match or sending him to another space to ‘get over himself’.
Over time, my ability to be the parent he could safely predict and lean on, even at his worst grew more solid. For the first time in Monty’s life I was truly enjoying him for days at a time, and was no longer wishing he was calmer, more sensible, more tempered, more ‘normal’ whatever normal means! I just loved him for who he was and was becoming proud of being the one who knew his operating system better than anyone else.
In August 2014, life took another turn and we moved to Paris. A move that presented us and Monty with an amazing but challenging opportunity; to be schooled in French. Although he has never been top of his class academically he has a good ear for languages from living abroad much of his life, so we took the plunge and applied to an International Lycée. After some tests and an interview Monty was offered a place.
We knew it would be intense and it has been. Monty has had to learn how to write from scratch because the French demand a style of writing that is quite different than the free style writing he had been used to. Learning to speak and write another language in one year, alongside studying your own native language is no mean feat for the most diligent student, let alone one who can’t sit still and chews his own clothes because he struggles to calm the busyness in his head!
Over the years it has been suggested to me, on several occasions that my little boy has ‘attention problems’. Recently I sat in a meeting with his English teacher who told me that he displays some of the signs of a child with ADHD (something I have always suspected). She offered me the chance to have him assessed but after talking to my sisters and brother in law, all of whom are teachers and experts, we decided that the assessment probably wouldn’t tell us anything we don’t already know (no disrespect to the assessors at all). The teachers and I understand the challenges he faces and have strategies and tactics in place to help him, both in the classroom and at home.
I have no doubt in my mind that Monty is a child who (and I know this will sound controversial), with a less healthy diet, with less sleep, less sport, more electronics, more over stretched teachers, and parents who don’t have the confidence and knowledge that we now do, could be on a list somewhere with a ‘statement’. He might even be on mind adjusting drugs to calm the noises in his head and ‘normalise’ him.
Instead, he is a child who is being schooled in a second language, and doing really well at it. He’s a child who happily reads a book or plays independently. He’s a child who is developing healthily. But I know I can’t be complacent, not yet. I’m often tempted to conduct my own scientific experiment to see how little effort it might take to turn him into an aggressive, rude little boy who doesn’t care what i think and can’t listen or concentrate. Just a few late nights, too much time on the I pad and too little investment in our relationship over the course of a busy weekend is enough to tell me what I need to know!
Today I feel lucky. Lucky to have three kids, all of whom are healthy and none of whom have really tricky problems. Lucky to have had the friends and teachers along the way who’ve been supportive, honest and kind. Lucky to have discovered Dr Neufeld, before I did too much permanent damage to my child or our relationship. Lucky to be able not to work full time so I have the time, patience and capacity to be who my kid needs me to be. Lucky to have had Monty because he’s expanded my mind and caused me to question my own pre-conceptions, beliefs and judgments.
I do appreciate that for many parents it’s not quite so simple and that the challenges they face are far more complicated than the ones I faced with Monty. But, I have a sneaky feeling that a great many parents are in the same position I was, and that with the right information and support could be feeling a whole lot better, be helping their kids more, and be enjoying the kind of relationship with their child that I can honestly say at times in the past I wondered if I would ever have.