My five-year-old son is like a thoroughbred: bright, quick, talented -- and explosive. He has always been this way, since birth. He can be the most charming, mature, and productive human being within a few miles. Rubbed wrong, however, he can go off like a rocket. We have been working on controlling his temper for a few years now, and it's coming along. Slowly.
When he was three, I taught him the nursery rhyme about the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead. (When she was good, she was very, very good. And when she was bad, she was horrid.) After I recited the poem, I turned to him and asked if it reminded him of anyone. "Yeah," he said, "It's you."
It took me a minute to digest his comment, but I swallowed hard and let it sink in. He was right. It was not by chance that he was high-strung and relentlessly stubborn. He had an amazing teacher.
I considered the many hours I spent each day, fighting with this child over everything. EVERYTHING. There was absolutely no request, no matter how basic, that was followed by compliance, acquiescence, or even silence. Everything had to be an issue with him. Everything was a huge drama.
And I got dragged in. Every time.
My husband would often walk in to what must have looked like my son breaking up with me after twenty years of marriage. Here was a little child, speaking at age three in terms that I didn't use until college, crying and gesturing. Here was his young mother, slumped on the floor next to him, also crying. We were totally wrecking each other. We must have looked ridiculous.
Until I decided it had to stop. Besides making both of us a mess, I realized that ultimately, this would hurt my son as a human being. Kids need parents to be solid. Not perfect or stony-faced or martyr-like, but dependable and emotionally reasonable. I needed to stop getting so embroiled in these arguments with him, for his sake, as well as for mine.
Once I had made this decision, it wasn't that hard to implement. In fact, it was the first time that I had ever seriously attempted to control my own tendency to freak out first, ask questions later. It was high time. Besides, knowing that fixing one of my own flaws was actually good for my kid added an incentive that was hard to beat.
So this is what I did. When he started going nutso, I'd just lower my voice an octave, instead of raising it, and I'd say something like this: "I see you are very angry and upset. That's okay, but you can't have your tantrum here. You will have to leave the room, otherwise, I will. When you are ready to talk calmly, we can discuss this like normal people. The way you are now, you can't be with other people. Go now."
And that's it. I'd turn away, and refuse to respond to his attempts to drag me further in. After a while, he stopped trying.
I must admit, I felt like some silky voiced radio psychologist for a while. Like I was acting. But after some time, it sunk in: I was calmer. I was in charge. I felt my son responding to this. He was dying for this all along.
He now welcomes the acknowledgement of his anger, and looks forward to the space he is given to work it out himself. Of course, he still freaks out initially: He wants to be told to leave. He is not yet emotionally ready to remove himself before he blows.
That's our next project. I have no doubt that he will be up for the task.
In the meantime, I try to keep in mind that volcanic ash is the most fertile soil there is. Perfect for planting the lessons of life.