What was going on with our son?

How long was this a problem before we realized it, saw it, began to acknowledge it? So many things can take a wrong turn with a child’s health and development that it’s a miracle when everything goes ‘right’. With a violent child, it can take months in the real-time world of a real-time family before a parent realizes something is awry.

Why? Because the line between normal-wild-toddler and domesticated-toddler is not straight and delineated. So the problem must become apparent. Then, once apparent you need to avoid sliding into a state of denial. The transition between perceiving your child as ‘normal’ and acknowledging a problem is hazy and confusing. We lie to ourselves and to each other; it’s now being understood it’s how human brains function — somewhat delusionally, it turns out.

I was very confused when I realized that my sweet toddler was regularly unlocking the Gates of Hell in a manner that was inconsistent with most other toddlers. I was confident of our home atmosphere and of our child-rearing. We weren’t perfect, but my husband and I had a nonviolent marriage and had already raised one calm, bright child in an atmosphere of clear boundaries and lots of love.

There was no trauma, violence, drugs, alcohol or any type of dysfunction that could have created one normally functioning child and one violent child. Plus, when our younger child wasn’t raging he was calm, bright and well-functioning. When he wasn’t raging. Because he did not explode morning, noon, and night. The math didn’t add up.

Oh, Just Look at That Brat!

Before I had my own violent child I was like everyone else; that is, apt to judge a parent or a family with a violent kid. I absolutely would have judged — not out of mean-spiritedness but out of the cluelessness of a parent who has never known this kind of child.

I would have thought that something must be wrong in some way for a child to act out violently. I would have thought that behind closed doors there had to be something amiss: that there was some dysfunctional factor causing a child to be violent. Substance abuse, family violence, child abuse, some family issue…

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that nothing need be necessarily wrong at all in order for a child to rage! A family can be ticking like a well-oiled machine and one child turns out to be different from the rest in how s/he reacts to a host of little challenges. All the same minor annoyances that don’t bother anyone else set this child off like a grenade.

Stock Responses & Made-Up Diseases

Professionals or well-meaning friends that I dared to confide in delivered shallow, trite replies that signaled lack of understanding or an empathy deficit. Sadly, few people are good listeners; and fewer still want to hear a story as complex and terrible as that of a violent child. And I knew no other parent who shared my experience. This was when I learned that a violent child is among society’s few remaining taboo topics.

People, as though with palms over their ears, didn’t want to hear it. “Oh,  he’ll grow out of it,” is the commonest stock response. Next, is the cheerily delivered, “Oh, it can’t be as bad as all that!” And the clueless educator intoned a stock institutional diagnosis as useless as it is meaningless, “Yes, it sounds like Oppositional Defiance Disorder,” as if turning symptoms into an upper-case name gave it more meaning. I wanted to haul off and Disorder his facial features with my own Oppositional Defiance. I had many frustrating moments during that time. These pros rarely question the validity of their phantasmagorical psychiatric inventions. Education and health professionals make, serve, and drink their own Kool-Aid.

The weirdest came from a mother who had actually known my son since close to birth and had only ever seen him be socially appropriate in public. After confiding in her about his issues, she asked, “Is he autistic?”, demonstrating both a remarkable lack of awareness in my son and in autism.

Godzillas and Bad Seeds

The difficulty that even the most well-meaning, and often well-educated people, have with childhood violence is because society has only barely begun to dismantle, delineate and define the issue. Violent kids are NOT a raging monolith, like a Godzilla attacking Toyko; there are different types of violent kids, with upset and violence stemming from different roots. Yet, our collective imagination has very few images of what constitutes a violent child, and these myths are sadly shared by the educators, caretakers and authority figures.

So, there are problems from the inside, which are to acknowledge, raise and love a violent child and transform his or her violence; and there are problems from the outside, which are how these kids are treated as a result of long-held, dangerous misconceptions in the public imagination. So many knotted ropes to untangle!

Violent children spark the popular fantasy of the Bad Seed: the chilling and titillating paradox of innocence exterior and evil interior. An old notion repeated in film and literature, unhelpful and sensational in its appeal. This image speaks to sociopathy, which represents only the tiniest sliver of the population of violent children. The overwhelming majority of children acting out violently are doing so as a result of slow development or early (or continuing) trauma, not sociopathy, which is an entirely separate issue and indeed a severe brain disorder.

Children like mine — the only type I can write about — are not cruel, not manipulative, not deceptive. They rage openly and to some degree indiscriminately out of lack of control, hurt and fear. They can’t control themselves upon feeling frustrated, humiliated,  or hurt. They act out when plans change quickly and unexpectedly. These distinctions need to be carved out since I repeatedly tripped across public misconceptions that a child like this is “trying to get attention”, an especially hoary mess of child-hating from the people who would never define themselves as such. Once violence enters the picture then all bets are off in terms of public comprehension from even trusted corners.

A Child’s Violence Opens the Door to Abuse

It’s not news that child abuse is a chronic, systemic, endemic disease of humanity. All children everywhere are at risk by the damaged adults who raise them, but violent children are certainly among the most at-risk since their violence gives open license and social consent for parents and caregivers to act out their own frustrations. A teacher or babysitter struggling with personal issues and scant self-control is perfectly poised to react violently with a violent child. Tragically, these children require the steadiest caregivers of all. They require years of caring, reassurance, protection, and self-protection for their brains to develop impulse control and other critical skills.

But I was shocked anew when I scrolled Internet message boards after a mainstream TV talk show on violent children, and viewers actually invoked God’s help to exorcise violent children’s inner demons! It’s a long road to haul when people actually consider exorcism a legitimate form of treatment. Indeed, a jaunt around the 21st-century Internet clearly demonstrates that Medieval notions of evil spirits in children are terrifyingly easy to come across. Plenty of people chatting online figure voodoo is the answer!

I am unclear on God’s treatment plan for violent children, but I am cognizant of what humans have to offer. Fortunately, the hard-line approach is slowly, slowly waning. Like the determined little flowers that grow through the cracks in city concrete, treatment plans and systems are finally sprouting that treat children with – egads! — love and support. Love and caring still has its hating detractors, as I see in the comments sections among even the most well-read readerships, but the corporal punishment ranks are starting to be outnumbered by liberal ‘mollycoddlers’ such as myself who seek to destroy society by hugging children when they cry.

So the fact that my son’s behaviour wasn’t normal was slowly dawning on me, and I could see what NOT to do about it…but where to go from there? What to do? This period was a long one.

What to Do?

Friends’ comments and advice proved useless. A visit to a family doctor whose child-rearing values were close to my own invited a very popular child-discipline book that I found shockingly simple-minded and punitive. More published material came and went, and I got to know the child-development experts I liked and disliked. In the meantime, my son and I endured scores of violent fits. Fortunately, he was still physically small and I was able to physically restrain him through a fit and then hug and hold him after it had spent itself. He continued development milestones in other areas, but the violence continued. All I could be assured that I was doing correctly was to continue to make him feel loved, cared for and supported.

I had long-since ruled out obvious family dysfunction as a cause. I peered at my own family with the cold eye of a detached lab researcher. When I held my metaphorical clipboard and clicked my metaphorical pen, I witnessed an intact, nonviolent, functioning family of stable, actively parenting adults; one happy, nonviolent older sibling; and one otherwise-happy and sometimes-violent child. I didn’t think we were perfect, but I just didn’t think we were doing anything wrong. My do-it-yourself ‘lab’ results in hand, I continued hugging and loving Don Quixote when he was still and when he charged.

That I had the confidence to diss the parenting experts was hard earned. I survived a traumatic upbringing, and when I decided to have my own children I raised them very consciously not as I had been raised. I pored over carefully chosen books and deliberately parented 180 degrees away from my own experience. Bad experience can be the best teacher! People have a most unfortunate tendency to raise their kids as they were brought up, but badly raised people don’t have the luxury of attending the My Parents’ School of Parenting. I carved my parenting out of the best information and worst experience.

I learned what was merely a passing fad versus information was the result of intelligent, informed thought and analysis. As such, I was well poised – that is, dragged, [by my son] kicking and screaming into the arena of child violence – to recognize truth and insight when I finally found it. A friend overseas, who was also dealing with an unruly child, suggested The Explosive Child by Ross Greene, PhD.

In The Explosive Child, Greene threw the lifeline for the water-treading parenting of my wild child. Greene delivered me from darkness into light, just as the hymn read. While I had not exacerbated my son’s behavior, neither had I improved it. Greene brought me something I could work with. He wrote how he had created a framework of ideas on violent children based on the trial-and-error failures and successes of his own family practice.

He describing how mistaken the psychology establishment was on the issue, blaming parents and children instead of reframing the problem as a brain development issue. No wonder I couldn’t improve my son’s behavior! It was a question of brain development. A mea culpa from the very bowels of the child psychology establishment! Sunlight and fresh air streamed in as the author outlined his brilliant-in-its-simplicity philosophy and framework.

The short form? These children suffer brain developmental delays in areas that include, in plain English: Being able to wait for things; being able to switch tasks with little or no advance notice; being able to handle frustrating situations; being able to solve problems at short notice. My life altered in an instant. In the time it took me to get the gist of his book, Greene altered the course of my child’s life. My gratitude is boundless. His work remains, for me, The New Gospel of the Violent Child.

So, why should anyone else contribute to the conversation when The Word has been delivered? Why should I write? Because Ross Greene didn’t actually gestate, birth, raise, and live with a violent child. I did. I labored with him for eight hours without anesthetic. I woke him up and fed him and taught him to brush his teeth and wiped his bum and tucked him into bed at night. All the time hoping and praying that he wouldn’t be in jail at twenty.

The voice of a mother needs to be a part of a conversation about violent children even if The Gospel has been delivered.

Additional Resources:

Liz Sydney blogs on all the issues that surround raising a violent child on her blog, Our Violent Child