Sunday, February 5, 2012

Enough is Enough

The Days of Lawlessness are over. It’s time to walk the walk. Talk the talk. Put my money where my mouth is. I’m tired of feeling like a hypocrite.

This weekend, we are starting a token economy system with Sophia.

My mother called me a hard-ass this week. Well, mom, my ass just got harder. I am finally going to do the thing I advise other parents of willful, defiant, oppositional children to do.

What took me so long?

The same reason it takes everyone so long. I just kept hoping her behavior would improve. That if I stayed consistent, if I routinely offered choices and contingencies and followed-through on demands and consequences, it would be enough.

It isn’t.

And then I’d get lulled into complacency by spells of excellent behavior. Sophia would wake up, and come into my room fully dressed. “I wanted you to be proud of me, Mommy.”

Or she’d solemnly pledge, “I’m not going to have any fusses today, Mommy,” And much to my surprise and pleasure, she wouldn’t.

Which made me think that somehow, she had it all under control. That when she acted out, she could reel it back in again. But lately, I’ve watched something different happen. The smallest thing sets her off, and then she is gone, screaming and crying at the top of her lungs, hysterical. Tortured. At times it is painful to watch, at others, the things she says are so funny--”That’s not how you should talk to your little child!”--it’s hard not to smile, which only serves to infuriate her more.

“You aren’t my parents! I want different parents! I want to leave and never come back! I don’t live in this house!”

It is quite a thing to hear a four-year-old belting out these words. I’m sure I was once inspired to shout the very same thing. Except I didn’t. I kept it inside. Sophie lets it rip, assailing anyone in her path. Her rage utterly consumes her. I’ve never seen anything so raw, so uncensored, so unselfconscious.

If I wasn’t so keyed-up, so drained, so frustrated, I might be in awe of her.

The most distressing thing about these episodes is there nothing I can do to console her. I have tried sending her to her room for “calm down time.” Holding her. Waiting it out.

And waiting, and waiting, and waiting...returning her to her room when she bursts out, holding the door closed when she comes at me, like a wildebeest, scratching and biting, body-blocking her as she steps up on top of her potty, and tries to hurdle herself over the baby-gate at the top of the stairs (in high-heels, no less).

“Sophie calm down right now! You’re going to give yourself a concussion.”

“No, YOU’LL get a concussion.” Sigh. It is best not to speak. Another thing I recommend that other people do, yet struggle with myself.

Afterwards, she is contrite. “I’m sorry, Mommy. I know that I have to have good behavior for us to have a good time.” Articulate about her feelings and what set her off. “I just wanted to wear my orange dress, Mommy. It made me mad when you gave me the wrong dress.” “I just wanted to have cherries for a snack. I got angry when you said I have to wait for dinner” I just...I just.....

Why couldn’t you have just said that, kid?

I have to help her find her voice, her self-control, her ability to regulate her emotions in times of distress. Intervening on the back end, I don’t feel like I’m doing much to teach her these skills.

So, I’m starting with a simple penny chart on a wipe off board. I’ll stick five little pieces of velcro on it, to which she can affix each penny she earns, an =‘s sign, and then write in the reinforcement du jour, e.g., playing with a friend, going to the library, reading a book, etc. The pennies will be doled out at our discretion for following her rules we generated as a family:
  1. Stay in control of my behavior
  2. Get dressed
  3. Stay in my seat and eat
  4. Let my mommy wash me
  5. Speak nicely to others
This way she’s not sure when it’s coming, keeping her on her toes and we can control when she gets the reinforcement. If it seems she can’t delay her gratification that day, we’ll reward her sooner. But if she’s having a particularly good day, I’ll space them out a bit more.

We gave it a test run. She’s so excited to get pennies, collecting them has been reinforcing in and of itself. I hope it works. I hope I can be consistent.

But more than anything, I hope that I can get back to the place I was before, when Sophie was two and I naively said to a friend, “I can’t imagine ever yelling at her. I don’t know what could possibly provoke me to do that.”

If we weren’t so invested, they wouldn’t make us so crazy.

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