Living with “The Hulk”
Flashback to Summer of 2015.
It was probably hungry-o’clock in the afternoon for my seven-year-old son (we’ll call him “L”). My girls were in the other room likely watching a show or playing nicely. I was crouched on the floor of my bedroom, taking a shaky breather and crying.
I could hear the thuds on the walls and repeated slamming of the door upstairs where my son was rage-screaming and completely melting down for probably the fifth or sixth time that day. For the first time ever, I was coming to terms with the fact that I had absolutely no clue how to help him. I just didn’t have the tools. I hit the wall.
This had started around the time he was two or three. I remember thinking it was hard then, but used every rationalization I could think of to get through it. He’s a boy, he’s not like his older sister and has more energy, he’s a toddler, he’s too smart for his emotions to catch up, he’s got the terrible twos. Terrible threes. Terrible fours…? And fives??
That summer was the worst it had ever been. He was seven and getting big enough that holding him down so that he wouldn’t hurt himself, his sisters, or break anything was getting harder to do.
He had holes all over his bedroom walls where he had chucked anything within arm’s reach repeatedly, and a growing collection of toys that he had broken in “hulk mode,” as we called it. Sometimes they were his favorite toys, but in the moment it didn’t matter to him. They ended up in pieces all the same.
Probably one of the most painful pills to swallow about it all was that he never had outbursts like that at school. His teachers rarely reported anything even slightly aggressive, and often praised him for being an example to others in class. So what was it that I was doing wrong? It had to be me. I had been absorbing the blame for it for years.
I had picked up the phone several times that summer to call a family counselor. This, I thought, was likely my best option. We desperately needed help. Even my husband was at a loss to know how to connect to him in his rage moments, and his dad was his favorite person.
But every time I went to dial a number for a counselor, I just didn’t feel right about it. I have nothing against therapists whatsoever, but for whatever reason, I just kept feeling like this wasn’t the route to take with him.
Thanks to an awesome recommendation from a couple of different mom friends, I came across a child psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Ross Greene and his book, “The Explosive Child” (see links under “Resources”). This book changed everything.
Strangely enough, it wasn’t really L that benefited from it so much as it was me. I needed to look at L with new eyes and understand what it was he was going through in order to figure out what was getting in his way.
Kids do well because they can vs. Kids do well because they want to
Dr. Greene explains right off the bat that in order to help “problem” kids like my son, we need to look at kids in a different way. More often than not, we assume that the reason kids act so poorly sometimes is because they just don’t want to behave nicely.
If that is true, then we approach those kids and assume the role of “motivator.” We punish when they act badly, and reward when they act well to make them want to do well. Dr. Greene believes that this is wrong.
He explains that he believes that all kids, every single kid, wants to do well. What person doesn’t want to succeed in life? We all do, including the seven-year-old hulk living in our house those difficult years.
This connected with me immediately. I just knew that L wanted to be a good kid, we were just missing the mark somewhere in between.
But some kids have fewer skills than others at knowing how to cope, how to reason, how to empathize, and how to control themselves. They just don’t know how to do it. Would we punish a kid who had a reading deficiency? No – we would figure out what was holding them back and help remove it so they could move forward.
Let it go
The very first step, among many, that I took after I started watching Dr. Greene’s videos and reading his book was to stop punishing L’s outbursts. This was a major mind-shift for me because it went against all of my parenting instincts. Bad behavior means negative consequence: how else will he learn that it’s not good to do that? But I decided to try it out, particularly because I wasn’t sure there was much I could do that would make things worse.
What I quickly learned is that L was desperate to trust me. Me telling him I was on his side was not the same as me showing him that I was. When he went into rage mode, I simply walked away.
This meant I was possibly rewarding him for the behavior, but that was okay, he needed a minute. This meant I couldn’t intervene and stop him from breaking something, but that was okay, it was just stuff.
And then later on, maybe even the next day, when he was in a good mood or we were just doing something normal around the house, I’d ask him something like, “hey buddy – remember when you freaked out yesterday when I asked you to turn off the Wii? What upset you so much about that?”
And if he didn’t have an answer, I’d try again the next time until he could really think about it and verbalize what was going wrong. Little by little, my actions were telling him that I trusted him, that I really believed he didn’t mean it, and that I was there always to help him figure it out.
Building trust and seeing results
Little by little, we worked on every step in the program. It changed him, yes, but mostly it changed me. I now can happily report that while he still has his moments, we all do, L turned the corner and figured it out.
I now look back at those years, strangely enough, with gratitude, because I’m not sure anything but hitting that wall would have forced me to be a better parent. I’d do it all over in a heartbeat, and whether L knows it or not, it made me love him all the more for it, too.
If you want to check out Dr. Greene’s videos, I highly recommend visiting his website, Lives in the Balance.
You can also find “The Explosive Child” on Amazon here.