About 6 months ago I was lurking here, in tears, of course, over the vast difficulty involved in raising my little guy. I read a blurb written by you, Bearsmama, about how our children are sent to us to teach us a particular life lesson, and our job was to be open to receiving and learning it. Around that same time, I read Alfie Kohn's "Unconditional Parenting", and re-read "Hold on To Your Kids" by Gordon Neufeld.
The lesson I've learned (well, one of them) is that parenting challenging children isn't about the minute-by-minute strategies for discipline, but rather, seeing the big picture, and how our attitudes about our children and our own childhoods come into play in creating this disfunction. I'm certainly not claiming to know whether or not any of the children described here have "actual mental health issues" but as a mother who has asked for referrals for professional help on more than one occasion, I know the fear, and the feeling of *knowing* that something isn't right. Sometimes, though, I think it seems easier to accept a diagnosis and then manage a condition, than to just recognize where we have failed as parents. I see so many people get down on themselves, blame themselves for their kid's challenges, and I don't think that's helpful. BUT! For us, recognizing how we had been screwing up (or, more accurately, not parenting our extremely emotionally sensitive kid in a way that was good for him) was the first step in solving the problem.
After reading Unconditional Parenting, I cried and cried, raged (silently, of course) at my parents for parenting me the way they did, forgave them, and forgave myself. Then I totally changed my attitude about trying to control my kids, and immersed myself fully in HELPING them get through life, minute by minute. This was best acheived by not worrying AT ALL about mental health issues -- I decided that my maddeningly quirky 4 year old just needed to know that I was on his side, and I hadn't conveyed that to him well enough. We've never done punishments at all, but he HATES feeling like anyone is at all disappointed in him, and often the tactic is to push the envelope further to convince himself that he had done it intentionally and seal the deal, so to speak. He also had all kinds of rituals we had to go through every single day, and the more we tried to control them, the more embedded they became. It was hard to know when to just go along with something and when we were reinforcing his belief that a particular ritual was necessary. He'd lose it over a friend not handing him something the right way -- 20 times a day we'd have to "start over" and redo getting out of the car, etc. I think this was his way of exerting control, testing how far he could go before I cracked (and I've cracked a couple of times and swatted his bum, which breaks all of our hearts, of course).
Anyway, Gordon Neufeld (Hold on to your kids) has been monumental in helping me to see that ALL of this was a result of the breakdown of our relationship. I saw him speak at the BC homeschoolers convention, and one thing he said that really resonated with me was something to the effect of "we have a generation of little ducks leading their mama duck around, when little ducks NEED to have a mama duck to follow." Basically, that lack of confidence that you mentioned earlier is so destructive to your role as a parent, and kids sense that and flounder. It really strikes me when I hear many of you feeling worried about your kids having time off from school -- relax!! have fun!! just go out and do silly, crazy things with your kids, and if they have a meltdown, who cares? You can't skip life because you *might* have a bad experience!! And uh, if I may plug for the homeschooling life, for those of you with school issues, you might find that the extra time you have to connect makes your relationship more solid, rather than less.
I don't want to come in here and seem judgemental at all -- I really do know where you are coming from. But what has helped me the most has been to shift my whole mindset about raising kids, and reading Unconditional Parenting, Hold on To Your Kids, and various other books, has really helped me a lot. Maturity helps a lot too, both mine and my son's.
He's been a basket case for about 3 years now, but here we sit, two months shy of his 5th b-day, and I can safely say that he's not mentally ill (and lots of people feared that he was, from reading what I wrote about him) he just needed a stronger mama duck. A lot of our problem stemmed from the fact that our philosophy was one of respect for the child, but in the heat of the moment, our backgrounds as repressed children came spewing forth, and we often felt that we "couldn't let him get away with this", and tried to control him rather than help him through it. It takes great strength to not give a rat's a$$ what people think of you and just really listen and help your kid.
The situation you described of your son being locked outside raging while you and your dh were locked inside broke my heart. I'm not casting blame, because it's often so hard to know what to do when things escalate to that point, but that poor kid was really trying to tell you something, and you shut him out, literally. I'm not saying that what you did was wrong, necessarily, but if you look at it from his perspective for a minute, it changes everything. Instead of feeling like he has to regain control before he can be let in the house, maybe you needed to firmly grab him by the shoulders, tell him he needed to stop, and restrain him. Maybe he needs a figurative "padded room" so to speak, or just to feel like when he's out of control, you can help him regain control, instead of being left to his own devices. I'm just throwing out ideas, because at some point, something that someone says will stick, right? A few weeks ago, my son was flipping out over not being able to have another turn at a computer game he and his sister and a neighbor were playing (it was the neighbor's turn). He was flipping out, so I picked him up and took him to the bedroom, trying to talk calmly, but he was freaking like he hasn't freaked in months. So I eventually wrapped his body in a blanket to keep him from hitting me and kicking me until I could see in his eyes that THAT was possibly a little, uh...damaging to him
. I just kept him from leaving the room (he was trying to get back to the computer to enforce his turn) kept him from hurting me by using my most FIRM (and a little scary, I think) voice to tell him that he was NOT going to hit me, and he backed down. Eventually, after going through this for about 20 minutes, I sat on the floor and reached out to him and he accepted my snuggle, and we just sat for a bit. I had already said my piece about taking turns, and there was nothing else to say. I weathered the storm, but without abandoning him, without engaging him, without ignoring him, being there for him but not abused by him. I was a strong mama duck, and he eventually followed my lead. The main problem, really, was that because he had been playing that computer game for about 30 minutes, he wasn't connected to me at all (or the real world, really!!), so when it wasn't his turn anymore, it was really jarring for him, and because of our lack of connectedness he wasn't up for cooperation. That one was fairly easy, because we had nowhere else we needed to be, no food burning on the stove, no other child needing attention, etc. But, he hasn't had a fit since then, and I do think a clear boundary was set that day that has had a lasting impression. I've stopped catering to his every whim, and he's learning to accept that -- both with age and with a growing awareness that he can't push me around, but MOSTLY, with his realization that I'm here to help him, and I'm on his side. I've always known that, but he is just figuring it out. One important "Neufeldianism" is that it doesn't matter how much love you have for the child, but how much love the child has for you. A good relationship with your child is based on how the child feels about you, and whether he wants to cooperate with you or not. I agree with what other people have said here about not taking things away or punishing in any way, because that's totally disrespectful, not at all helpful, and really just a way for us to exert power and control over our kids, which never makes them love us or trust us. It was a hard lesson for me to face, but it has made all the difference in the world.
I liked the quote: "the larger fabric of our relationship with our children is not ruined by one errant thread". But I would argue that we've come, in our society, to accept a less durable fabric as the norm, and that what seems like one errant thread to us may be more like a run in your nylons to a kid. Am I making any sense? It's hard to accept that after all our hard work and devotion we still may be screwing up, but facing up to our shortcomings and seeing them through the eyes of our kids (and remembering what it's like to be a kid!) is the only way to really help them through life. We all screw up, but how we deal with those screw-ups says so much!!