When I feel frustrated I get very angry. I’m sure we all do. It’s hard to put the feeling into words but what I can say is that I feel the energy raging through my entire body and it eventually consumes me and all I want is for it to be OUT OUT OUT! I can feel myself about to explode and then become helpless to it as it takes me over. Even if I do succeed in keeping it contained for a little while I know it’s going to come back and erupt, sooner rather than later. And letting it erupt doesn’t really make it feeling that much better anyway. It’s been a helpless and exhausting experience for me made that much worse upon becoming a mom, which I have hear it fairly common.
Our terrible twos, started when he was about a year old. His body was moving fast (he was an early walker) and so was his mind. But he words were slow to catch up. There was ample opportunity for both of us to get frustrated. What became very clear was that my coping strategies were not healthy or positive. My go-to strategy has been to run away, to literally try to escape the rage inside of me. Escaping was a decent strategy for most of my life because I had never really been prevented from using it. I had developed a lot of independence in my 39 years before becoming a mom, which gave me lots of freedom to run away when I needed to rid myself of frustration and anger. But now, as a mom, I found myself both physically and emotionally unable to run away or escape. It’s hard to escape a child who is frustrating you when you are the only one of the premise and need to be with the child. It’s also really hard to escape a child who is the one frustrating you when the very act of separating yourself from them is part of what is causing the frustration (in us both). So the “put the child in a safe spot and take a breath” really didn’t work for me. It actually made things worse for both of us. So too often I found myself cornered without an escape path but still feeling like the energy was about to explode anyway and I had no way of directing it, no way of channelling it.
And so I would lose it. I would explode.
I have thrown more things that I can count. I have kicked the gate down the stairs and chairs across the room. I have slammed doors as loud as I possibly could. I have banged my head against the wall. I have screamed and cried. I have broken a lot of stuff. I have even pushed my child away from me more forcefully than I ever should have and I have been too rough with my loving dog. I am not proud of any of this. Actually, I am quite ashamed of it all and hate to admit it. But it is the truth that I am working through and I am not ashamed to share a reality that I know others can relate to.
And… as if there needs to be more… even more shameful was when I realized that my child had learned my terrible coping skills from me and started to display them himself. His little brain had been taking all of my reactions in so innocently and naturally like everything else he learns. And through the great power of social observation and modelling he started to do what I did. He started to hit… himself just like I would hit myself but then he would also hit me, his dad, our dog, our cat, his friends, his toys, the floor, anything in front of him… he was nonselective. And he started to throw things… soft things, hard things, little things, big things, at people and not at people. Throwing and hitting became his go-to strategy for dealing with frustration. He skipped the run-away strategy and moved right into the worst one possible. And I was to blame. Ne never saw me run away. He only say me cornered.
He had spent a good portion of his young life watching my frustration and rage be unleashed... after another walk that did not end in him sleeping, after too many hours of me holding his heavy toddler body, after stretches of days that lead into years of me being dangerously sleep deprived, after me being so low that I hated myself more than anything I could imagine and thought it would be better if I just gave him away so I didn’t ruin him any further. He watched all of this.
I feel sick to my stomach now as I write this more than 2 years than a year after I first began to notice it. I hid it at first. This is by far one of my most shameful accounts of my life. But I knew I had to change this and me. But I didn’t even know where to start. I was so helpless. I pleaded with my husband to help me but he didn’t know how to fix it either. But he listened and did everything he could to reduce my frustrations. That helped a bit. I started to talk to people but was selective, worried that someone might worry about safety and call the authorities. I felt alone, ashamed, and helpless to solve a problem I knew needed to be solved.
Then I started to do what felt natural to me. I started to share with my child when I was feeling frustrated. In many ways it was just a thing to say out loud because he was already well aware of when I was frustrated. But it started the conversation and that was something.
Then I did more. I taught my son deep breathing. I remember crying when he actually did it himself the first time. Finally, I gave him something… something that would eventually turn into a space for reflection. Then, I started to help him recognize when he too was frustrated or getting frustrated, essentially learning to label it like I had been doing for him. I simply asked “are you getting frustrated?” when I noticed it was brewing. It showed I was paying attention to him and cared about his feelings. Then, we worked on him asking for help when he was frustrated. I would see him trying to do something that his little body was not yet capable of but his mind had already decided he was going to do. I could clearly see the conflict emerging but didn’t want to thwart his efforts. I would ask “do you want some help?” He would answer yes or no but at least he knew I was there if he needed me. Again… inadvertently space for reflection was being created. Or “can I help?” Eventually he would start to say yes even after getting frustrated and having thrown things. And together we would complete what he wanted to do or at least learn why it couldn’t be done. The frustration didn’t necessary subside… but at least we were holding some space for it.
And the hitting… well, we’re still working on that one but yesterday I had a tearfully proud moment when he called out to me crying in frustration that someone was trying to take a toy from him. He often gets his toy snatched out of his hands (like many kids do) and for him this is really hard. Some kids are fine with it. He is not. He sees the injustice in it quite clearly. And so in attempts to retain it he will start to hit them. I can appreciate his reaction as an attempt at retaining what’s fair but I know (if not in practice, at least in theory) that it's not adaptive. I can’t say for sure I wouldn’t hit, actually. So I told him that if he wasn’t able to get someone to listen (and back off) using his words that he could come tell me and I would help him communicate. What got me in tears was later realizing that he actually circumvented a hitting episode… he actually used the space to reflect amidst his deep frustration and came to me instead of hitting. HUGE success.
He’s already doing what I have yet to be able to master: He’s finding space and asking for help when encountering frustration. I don’t know why I never found this strategy before. Or maybe I had and then somewhere along the way I adopted different strategies: the run-away escape strategy and then when that didn’t work the lash-out strategy. I guess they served me… until they didn't, until I passed them along, shamefully.
So here I am… on the one hand completely ashamed of how I taught my son to deal with frustration and then on the other hand now proud of how I am teaching my son (and myself) to deal with frustration.
And for what it’s worth… I’m open to other ideas… cuz hey… I need help with this one.
Click here if you want to listen to an voice memo I recorded well over a year ago when I was still in the low of the ashamed phase.