What kind of parent calls the police when her kid has a tantrum? Or, even worse, tries to check him into a mental health hospital? Me.
Every time the cops arrived or we got to the hospital, my young son Devon transformed into an angel. I’d explain that he’d been throwing a terrible tantrum. Yet, his serene affect and puppy dog eyes would belie my words. It was hard enough to ask for help but to imagine the eye-rolls behind my back was humiliating. I probably reminded them of the woman who called 911 because McDonald’s had run out of chicken nuggets.
[bctt tweet=”I probably reminded them of the woman who called 911 because McDonald’s had run out of chicken nuggets.” username=”RaisingDevon”]
Time and again, I was turned away without the help I so desperately needed because we all know what a “tantrum” looks like—a kid kicking his or her legs, crying and screaming, for maybe 10 or 15 minutes. By calling Devon’s episodes “tantrums” I was unwittingly minimizing what was actually going on and no one was taking me seriously.
These were no tantrums. Devon was:
Screaming, spitting in my face, and making himself throw up
Ripping his bedroom door off the hinges, and putting holes in walls
Punching, kicking, and attacking his brothers and sister
Pulling out his eyelashes, and banging his head on the floor
These episodes of extreme behavior were happening several times a week and would often last for hours. I was in over my head and needed help, but because I was using the word, “tantrum,” people thought I was overreacting.
These weren’t “tantrums,” they were “rages.”
When I began to use the correct terminology to describe Devon’s behavior, health care and mental health professionals, even police officers, were more receptive. “Rage” was a magic word that made people pause, listen to my story, and try to help. Instead of brushing me off, they called in psychiatrists and social workers. They made referrals for local services. They stopped treating me like I was just a high-strung mother.
If your child’s behaviors are extreme, way beyond being a tantrum, your child may be having rages too. “Kids with developmental trauma can tantrum but they can also rage,” said Institute for Attachment and Child Development Executive Director Forrest Lien. “A child has a tantrum to attempt to get his way but it is contained. A rage is out of control and stems from the child’s fear and anger. It’s irrational and almost dissociative.” It can be difficult to tell the difference between a rage and a tantrum, especially when your child’s episodes have increased in severity and length gradually over time.
Here are some distinguishing hallmarks of a rage:
Rages are explosive
Rages feel scary and out of control
Rages last longer than a few minutes
Rages become physically violent and aggressive
Rages may include acts of self-harm
Rages often end in destruction of property or harm to others
These behaviors are not normal for a child of any age. If children acts out in these extreme ways, they need real help. Parents need help, too.
So, how does a parent get help? How do they get someone to understand the seriousness of the situation? They need to adequately describe and use the word “rage” when talking to therapists, pediatricians, and other professionals. The word “tantrum” paints a picture that is nothing like the extreme episodes the child experiences. When they start with, “My child has rages…” and then describe specifically what the episodes look like, how long they last, and how frequently they occur, people seem to listen more closely.
“Rage” is a word that works.
Has this worked for you? Are there other words that “work” you can share?
Williams, Keri. “Home.” Institute For Attachment and Child Development, IACD, 14 Mar. 2018, instituteforattachment.ong/rage-not-tantrum/.
An inspiring story of a family who used Disney animated movies to communicate with their non-verbal autistic son, Owen. Ultimately this creative approach led Owen out of the darkness. He went on to graduate from high school, get a job, live independently, and connect in meaningful relationships.
While this story is about autism specifically we can all learn from this family’s ability to recognize an opportunity to creatively connect with their child and help them live the best life possible.
Navigating the mental health system on behalf of our children, especially those with extreme behaviors, is like traversing hostile territory. The assumptions mental health professionals make about us and our families are quicksand sucking us into a quagmire of misunderstanding and bitterness.
Here are just a few assumptions that have been made about me:
You need basic parenting instruction and training; forget your idea of common sense, and trust the ‘professionals’
You’re being selfish and need to snap out of it; you’re not putting your child’s wellbeing above your own
You treat your birth kids better than your adopted child; that’s why he’s acting out
You don’t feel affectionate towards your adopted child because something is wrong with you emotionally and mentally
Of course, the worst, and most pervasive, assumption I’ve encountered is, “You’re mostly, if not entirely, to blame for your child’s behavior.”
Ouch. This one is perhaps the most difficult to grapple with–don’t we often secretly believe, or at least wonder, if it’s true?
As parents we must accept responsibility where appropriate, but with some perspective. Blaming the parent–especially an adoptive parent–is way too easy of a fall back position for a therapist. Lack of progress with your child can be blamed, not on their methods and approach, but on you. It also removes any agency and responsibility from your child.
Trust me, mental health professionals are making assumptions about you from the moment you walk through their door. The deck is already stacked against you. So, forget being charitable, assume the worst, and keep your guard up.
[bctt tweet=”Blaming the parent–especially an adoptive parent–is way too easy of a fall back position for a therapist.” username=”RaisingDevon”]
Be very cautious about sharing sensitive information with your child’s therapist. It’s easy to think of them as objective. They’re not. If it comes to taking sides, they are on your child’s side. Don’t do what I did and blurt out at your first appointment that you don’t feel maternal affection towards your child. If you do, that’s almost certainly the ONLY thing they’ll focus on going forward. They’ll immediately conclude this is the cause of your child’s extreme behaviors, not considering that it might be the extreme behaviors that has caused your lack of affection. I see a therapist myself now, and that’s where I blurt out everything and get the support I need.
Keep a journal
It is critical that you start keeping a journal. Starttoday. Every time you see a therapist or doctor–document the date, time, who you saw, and a summary of what was said. If your child’s teacher, foster parent, or caseworker calls you take out your journal and take notes. I once had a case worker insist my son hadn’t exhibited any behavioral problems in the last month to justify pulling his services. I was able to pull out my journal, flip it open and ask: “Well, what about last Wednesday when Juan called me to report that Devon was trying to stab a peer in the head with a pencil and had to be restrained?” I went on to list multiple incidents from the time period in question. His services were renewed.
Don’t believe it
Your own feelings of inadequacy and guilt are likely to be your biggest weakness, especially when some of your most self-judgmental thoughts are affirmed by the assumptions underlying the advice mental health professionals give. You’ve been living under a great deal of stress and instability. You may be traumatized by what you’ve been through.
Listen to the advice you are given and take what’s of value, but don’t automatically believe everything you are told. Just because they’re the “professionals” that doesn’t mean they speak gospel. You know your child and family best.
How have assumptions affected your ability to get help for your child?
The feelings of guilt and shame the parents are burdened with, as the child injures other children and pets, defies authority and is destructive to things around them, are very painful and destructive to themselves. The community looks for someone to blame rather than a solution to the problem. Finding someone to blame does not help! It is vital to let go of the guilt, let go of the shame and resolve to solve the problem. Whether another parent is the one that broke your child’s heart or you made the errors yourself is of no consequence anymore. Laying blame will not help heal the child. Carrying guilt and shame wastes a tremendous amount of energy that could be put to much better use healing the child.