How My Son's Horrific Behavior Transformed Me as a Mom
I thought I was a good mom until my adopted son began displaying uncontrollable behavior. God used a brutal 4 year journey to transform me as a mom.
neurodiversity, christian parenting, mom, special needs, adhd, autism
Sleep & Speech
“I’m not the mom for him. I think we made a mistake. I just can’t do this anymore,” I sobbed to our family pediatrician during my son’s 2-year well-visit.
Around the time of his second birthday, my son stopped sleeping. For more than a solid year straight, my son was unable to sleep for more than 2 hours at a time. No matter what we did or tried, we could not get our son to sleep. His mind was always “on-the-go” and in his insomnia he was prone to explore the house each night seeking distraction. The three of us (my hubby, my son and I) lived in a state of complete and utter exhaustion. The sleep deprivation was unbearable. No matter what we did, no matter what we tried, our son could not settle his mind to sleep.
He also had a severe speech delay and as he grew, he became increasingly frustrated at his inability to express himself. And so he found another way to express his thoughts: blood-curdling, life-sucking, make-you-want-to-hide screaming.
Disobedient or Perseverant?
There was nothing he couldn’t get into. He destroyed the house as he ricocheted from activity to activity. My son’s little body was fueled by an internal motor that rivaled a NASCAR engine.
At one point, my husband installed chain locks on all of the exit doors in order to keep our boy safe. My son sidestepped the locks by using a broom handle to release the chain.
- At two, he scaled shelves and pried open a shoebox full of vitamins & over-the-counter medications.
- At three years old, he hung from a two-story foyer.
- On multiple occasions, he ran into the street because he saw an oncoming car.
- He chewed on batteries. Batteries that had been taped into remote controls and “hidden” on top of the entertainment center.
Yep. My son could scale just about any height to achieve his goal. The slightest form of correction resulted in an explosive rage of kicking, screaming, hitting and biting.
Mom, the Punching Bag
Because I was a stay-at-home mom, I carried the brunt of his eruptions. I lived life “on-edge” as I dodged his multiple outbursts each day.
Desperate to keep my son alive and at the same time protect my daughters, I felt as though I was dying bit by bit each day. My son’s constant screaming and physical attacks, the agonizing effects of insomnia, the guilt I felt for my daughters, and the shame of not being able to “control my child” slowly suffocated me.
Willful Disobedience or Not Equipped Yet?
At that point, I had been an educator, home school mom, children's ministry leader and worked closely with children for more than 15 years. I had always been a no-nonsense, “nip-bad-behavior-in-the-bud” kind of lady. Because the majority of my son’s issues were “behavioral” and because he “appeared” so beautiful physically, it was natural to view his negative behavior as “willful.”
My husband and I tried every discipline strategy out there. The rewards and consequences approach, regardless of how it was delivered, only led to the detonation of explosive meltdowns and rages. Naturally, this led to increased isolation as I could no longer handle him in public.
Learning About the Brain (Fight-Flight-Freeze)
Bit by bit throughout that season, I developed relationships with some of the most knowledgeable pediatric specialists and read every book I could get my hands on. I learned about brain structure, function and how my son’s outward behavior was likely due to cognitive differences.
I learned about how the amygdala controls the autonomic fight-flight-freeze response. This fear-based reaction is responsible for negative outward behaviors in the face of perceived threats. For example, screaming, hitting (fight), running away (flight), shutting down and not responding (freeze). The amygdala is highly developed in children and is suspected to be even more so in children with “behavioral issues.” In contrast, the prefrontal cortex which controls executive functioning skills does not fully develop until the third decade of life. It is this part of the brain that controls a child's ability to navigate strong emotions appropriately .
Children who display “inappropriate” behaviors such as those of my son often have lagging development in the prefrontal cortex and have a lower frustration threshold which makes “controlling” big emotions that much more difficult. Over time, my eyes were opened to the reality that in order to effectively equip my child for a healthy life, I was going to need to change my perspective and approach to parenting and discipline.
I was the one who needed to change.
Looking Behind the Behavior
Fast-forward to today. My son is 6 years old and is thriving! Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever believed he would be living the life he is now. He is a happy snuggle-bug. He is much better able to control his emotions and is connected deeply within the family.
Is he perfect? No.
Does he still have delays and meltdowns? Sure does.
Does it define our lives? Nope. Not any more.
What was the biggest change? Me. His mom. This journey has led to a massive change in my perception of effective discipline.
4 Steps to Capture & Influence a Child's Heart, Beliefs & Behavior
I had to break-up with the mindset that says outward poor behavior is always willful and must be punished. My boy is a child who needs equipping for the long-term. Under the protection of a safe relationship, my son and so many other children are much better able to receive and process correction and guidance. I now seek to look behind his meltdowns to determine the real problems. This allows me to equip him with specific tools to appropriately respond the next time.
Ultimately, I had to be willing to do this parenting thing differently for the sake of my entire family. So what does that look like?
As the years have gone on and my mindset has shifted, I began to notice that I had developed a new and much more effective response to my son's meltdowns (and my daughters' as well). In the face of a meltdown, whatever that looked like, my response is based on 4 key steps.
Who was your favorite teacher growing up and why? When I ask my clients this question, the answer is always the same. Regardless of the teacher, the most significant reason behind those fond memories is based upon the relationship that the teacher created with the student. Teachers are most influential in a child's life when they develop a relationship with the child. A teacher who takes the time to care about the child as a whole (his interests, passions, family life, etc.) and not just academic performance, has the greatest opportunity to influence a student's beliefs and behavior.
Discipline has at it's root the implication of teacher and student relationship. I had to remind myself that the purpose of discipline is to teach and that in order to most effectively do so, I needed to invest in relationship with my children separate from outward behavior. It is through relationship, that I am most likely to influence their outward behavior.
For my son, relationship in the moment of a meltdown has me lower my body tand my tone of voice so as to remove any perception of threat. This lowers his fight-flight-freeze response so he can more easily .
Provide Emotional Vocabulary:
One of the most useful tools I can provide my children is an emotional vocabulary so that they are able to "use their words." We often think that kids understand the nuances of the thoughts and feelings they navigate in any given day. This is not true. When kids (and adults) finally explode, it is often because they simply do not have the language.
Offer Physical Input (If Appropriate)
- There is rarely a momma who does not LOVE a massage, right? The deep pressure of a massage releases chemicals in our body that create a sense of peace and calm. Kids are no different. By employing appropriate physical touch (specifically proprioceptive or vestibular input), we offer our child another tool in the emotional toolbelt. A back rub, a jump on the trampoline, swinging on a swingset... all of these activities have the potential to relax your child.
- Children, just like adults, don't enjoy an audience when they feel out of control. If a child needs a little additional assistance to "cross the meltdown finishline," shifting attention off of the dramatic situation is often a very effective strategy. For my boy, that often looks like me pretending to talk to his stuffed monkey. I engage in a silly voice and remove my focus from my son's meltdown and create a playful dynamic that lessens the tension.
I don’t have all the answers, but I do know this. My family lived in a war zone for years. I lived each day stepping carefully over the landmines that were lying in wait to be triggered into full-blown explosions. We don’t live in that any more.
I know who my son was. I know who I was. I know where we are now. Connected, growing, humble and trusting God in the midst of it.
Lindsay Leiviska, MA Teaching, is a parenting and eduational consultant. As a Christian mom and educator, she has worked with children for more than 20 years. She is the founder of A Heart For All Students with a mission to equip moms to empower neurodiverse children to thrive with confidence and purpose. Connect with Lindsay and grab the FREE Behind the Behaviors Intro Bundle at www.aheartforallstudents.com
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