I have not led a sheltered life, and yet I haven’t been involved in much violence. I once had to block the blow of a profoundly personality-disordered aunt; as a parentless child I smashed my clinically narcissist brother with a phone receiver after he slammed me against the fridge. I was once mugged in Montreal. It all looks awful to me on print as I write it, but so many women have endured so much worse. I haven’t been through war or lived with chronic violence.
My toddler’s lengthy, hyper-violent fits caught me off guard. I wasn’t prepared for them in any way. I wonder what other families do with a fighting child? So many children must be injured as a result of the uncontrolled wildness…and so many must suffer more injuries when adults lose control and try to discipline or restrain them. Or much worse. A violent child is certain to be injured by a thoughtless, uneducated, angry, violent adult. Small children have great strength and yet are still so vulnerable in every way.
My mind raced in a hundred directions during each lengthy outburst. Once the Baby Gates of Hell were opened – in the car, in the stroller, or at home — I carefully manoeuvred my still-small, kicking and screaming child through our narrow hallway into a bedroom that had a double-size futon on the floor. A spot I designed over time, where he couldn’t hit his head against anything and where I felt I had physical control.
Pas de Deux
Once I’d managed to carry him, kicking and screaming, I spent the next 45 minutes in a violent dance, a nonstop and pointless pas de deux of attack and defense. I recall feeling a certain meditative calm deep in my bones because I knew that he did not want to be raging…kicking…flailing…scratching…howling…kicking…pinching…or biting me, but that he could not stop. An exhaustive kind of meditation, and nothing that soothed anyone’s nerves or boosted anybody’s alpha brain waves.
In the beginning, I managed the rages as a sort of committed bystander, as if I was containing a treasured little tree in a windstorm. I grew up in a tiny town sandwiched between the Rockies and prairies, in a place so windy that it shows up on international meteorological wind statistics. People tied down trees to keep them from being ripped out of the soil. My son’s rages reminded me of those winds storms. I knew that he didn’t mean to rage any more than the wind meant to beat down the landscape; it was not anger but nature that spoke.
The first explosions were shocking and surprising. I was blindsided by my toddler’s violent episodes that I saw could last almost an hour each time. I’d never seen anything like it. The first outbursts made me angry, confused and miserable! But I already had a parenting value system in place, and I was adamantly against corporal punishment. I consciously refused to use any violence against my first son, and I wasn’t prepared to shift those values. You can’t react with violence and expect a non-violent outcome; it’s against logic. But what to do with a child who is prepared to destroy anything and anyone in his path?
Defusing My Human Ego
I believe that it was paramount that I arrived at the problem already committed against using violence against my children. If I couldn’t react with my own rage and ego, which is primarily how our world is constructed, then I had to quickly construct a new framework with which to deal with the issue or to view it. A logical view and set of concepts didn’t come for a couple of years, until after I had finally read Ross Greene’s The Explosive Child. Until then, I got by with a framework of my own behavior. That is, I suspended my ego and anger and rode out each storm as it passed. I took physical charge of my son and made sure nobody got hurt…period.
No easy task, I restrained him in as nonthreatening and non-aggressive way as possible until the fire was out. I removed my ego and emotion from his rage, and just rode out the storm with him. When the violence had spent itself my atomic little son collapsed and cried, or sank into himself in shame and sadness. And I responded each time with unconditional love. Love was the only thing that could possibly heal his hurt and shame. I felt his hurt, confusion and helplessness inside my self. I knew that any anger on my part would wound him further.
[Normally, I am as prone to anger as anyone. There’s nothing particularly calm or especially self-controlled about my natural temperament. I am as enraged by the stupid behavior of others as anyone. I’m no Buddha.]
I hugged him, held him and cuddled him for a long time each time, until he had recuperated from the awful force that had eclipsed and overtaken him. My embrace was intended to communicate pure love, which is without a doubt a violent child’s best education and best route to brain development.
My arms and my warmth told him, I will try to protect you from yourself. This wasn’t my first emotion! After each explosion I was angry, stressed, and both physically and emotionally exhausted. Distanced from myself, I understood that my ego and my own frustrated anger with him came from a primitive and unevolved part of my brain that wanted to push him away and leaving him alone with his feelings of sadness and shame. I did not. Sometimes we rise above our lowest human selves. He was a tiny soul who needed love. In those moments I knew from my soul that love healed. What, except love, could heal that hurt? And then the entire episode would repeat itself in one day or in a few.
Rooms with lots of furniture, hard surfaces and sharp edges scared me. It was more difficult to hold and control him in a more physically complex environment. I was most scared of him hitting his head; less terrified about a hurt limb, though later on as he grew physically bigger and that became more possible. I took precautions on that front since I knew we could be in trouble if we ever ended up in a hospital emergency room as a result of injury. “Well, nurse, I was restraining my fighting child…” is pretty much an invite to an interview with Child Services, I figured.
Public Stoic: Private Neutron Bomb
At the very least, we were lucky that my son was one of the violent kids who only detonate in private. I was mystified by why, or how, our son kept the pin secured in his grenade in public. He didn’t detonate in stores, at the playground, at playdates, or at preschool. I was especially bewildered that he didn’t explode for the couple of months in Grade One while being bullied by an alpha-male brat twice his size.
Again, it was The Explosive Child‘s Ross Greene who wrote that, indeed, he saw kids in his psychology practice who exploded only privately. He didn’t seem to know how or why. Future research will bear out that violent kids constitute a group with sub-groups of types who display their own characteristics. I guessed that his instinctively felt fear of public humiliation by his own lack of control was powerful enough to make him wait until he could let off his steam in private.
My heart goes out to families whose children explode in public, because that obviously creates a chain of events — and forced interaction with a host of unwelcome outsiders — that can’t be controlled. As it was, we were shielded from public scrutiny and ill-informed reaction by a throw of the dice. That lucky throw afforded me the time and space to research and read about children’s problems without being hounded by anyone.