Today our guest writer shares a moving story about how she survived “The Terrible Two’s”. She answers the question “What do I do when everything else has failed?” Share this with a parent that needs to know there is a light at the end of the tunnel. – C
When my son Nano was born, my oldest, Zavi, lost his mind. I remember him screaming and howling while he watched his father give Nano his first bath at the hospital. Our reprieve from his outbursts came as Nano did what newborns do – sleep. Zavi was not too disturbed. When Nano became colicky, and cried all evening every evening, Zavi panicked and tuned him out.
When Nano was about 6 months old, Zavi was about 2 and he realized that Nano was not going anywhere any time soon. Zavi was astronomically pissed off. He started to hit me, and became more reactive whenever I was holding Nano or nursing Nano. I was, and am, fully committed to positive discipline. Yet, when he would come at me with such vitriol, such anger, such rage, he made it hard to remain positive. Over several months it built up and he exploded into a phase where he would attack me, and Nano. Zavi would be hitting, kicking, biting, and be in a blind fury.
All of these episodes seemed to be instigated by not getting his way or not getting all of my attention. And then sometimes it was also completely random. My positive discipline techniques were thrown out the window, I decided he needed real consequences. I started giving him time outs, but he would refuse to stay in his room. I would yelled at him – he was unfazed. One time, I basically dragged him to his room and he still would not stay. He walked back out and clawed at me, scratching, kicking, biting, and hitting any part of me he could get.
I was really shocked at how all my positive discipline theories and all of my non-violent communication training withered in the face of his 2-year-old tyranny. I really felt like I was failing. Zavi never broke down like this with his Dad, or our sitter. We started separating the kids as much as possible. It started to feel like a hell for me. Family life was a disaster. I was mad at my husband, Gabriel, because I thought that his level of intolerance of Zavi’s slightest transgression was causing him to bottle up his rage and then take it out on me. Gabriel has this resilience that allowed him to maintain immediate and very clear boundaries with the kids. It was miserable and terrifying to think that I somehow had created this.
As a kid I saw a lot of violence. My best friend’s dad beat up on her mom a lot. At my house I was afraid a lot. My Dad wasn’t physical towards me but he was very intense. I experienced my Dad’s intensity as really scary, and my brother beat me up regularly. To have this type of violence happening in my own family, one I thought I had created, provoked a desperate darkness in me. I talked about it with people but no one seemed to have any ideas for me.
One day a supervisor of mine – I was still finishing up my internship hours for my M.F.T. – told me about holding. ‘Holding’ is a technique that was practiced in this family systems therapy modality when a child is out of control. When that child is in a complete tantrum – kicking, screaming, hitting, throwing stuff, the parent essentially just puts the child into a gentle but firm restraint. The important thing about the holding is that the parent create the boundary from a place of total love and support, and express to the kid the truth: I love you, and I’m not going to hurt you, but you cannot hurt mommy, or anyone else.
The next day for what seemed like no reason at all, Zavi got wound up. I remember him coming up to me in the kitchen. I was holding Nano and he started escalating – I put Nano in the swing and as Zavi tried to hit me, but I gathered him up. I sat on the floor of the kitchen between the fridge and the cabinet. I sat with his body in my lap. I held his head so he could not bite me. I wrapped my legs around his legs, my arms around his arms. He writhed around to try to bite me, he tried to wriggle free. I told him – “I’m going to hold you tight, Zavi.”
As I was telling him I loved him and was not going to hurt him, I arrived at a valuable moment – Zavi melted into exhaustion, and then softened into sleep. I realized that in holding Zavi tight I was also holding myself tight. I was creating an atmosphere within myself where I was essentially holding every part of myself. All the grief, the fear that this would last forever, that it was my fault, that it was Gabriel’s fault, and all of the madness of the mind. In trying to figure out how to make the pain go away, I had effectively made things worse by trying to mentally sort out who was to blame.
If a family is going to come to any peace, violent outbursts (no matter whose they are) need to end. And the the family is a system – blaming the child for the outburst doesn’t work. Similarly, blaming your partner doesn’t work, nor does blaming yourself work. The mind wants to chop things up, categorize, compare and contrast, and sometimes the mind doesn’t land on a appropriate response. The heart knows how to hold all the messy brutality of the life experiment quite beautifully, if we choose to soften the divisive mind for a moment and let it. – Kelly
Marriage and Family Therapist and Dharma Teacher
Founder of DharmaBridge, SomaPsychotherapy