Sunday, April 8, 2012

Easier Said than Done

Parenting is an ever-humbling endeavor. Everything you think are is good at is called into question. Maybe people considered you to be a patient person, or admired your spotless home, or assumed you were decent psychologist, before you had children. And then came along the person to shake things up. This tiny being that would, unwittingly, unravel years of growth and hard work. Who would simultaneously bestow you with a new identity and cause you to wonder who the hell you’ve become.

Kevin and I have been implementing Sophie’s behavior plan for well over a month, perhaps two at this point. She loves her rules and can identify, by number, exactly which one she is breaking.

“I can’t get a star because I didn’t do number two, Mom.”

(Rule Number 2: Get dressed [when I #!@$% tell you to].)

Initially, there was a honeymoon period. When one first starts to implement a plan, one of two things happens. Either the child comes at you ten times harder, trying to find your breaking point, or she behaves beautifully, lulling you into a false sense of security, at which point she comes at you ten times harder, successfully reaching your breaking point much, much sooner.

Perhaps the honeymoon period could be attributed to the fact that, in the beginning, I, too, tried to do everything “right.” I talked about my expectations. (“Staying in control means, if you start to get angry you either go somewhere by yourself to calm down, or you tell me how you feel.”) I tried to keep her motivated through the difficult moments with the promise of earning her reward. (“If you earn all your stars, we’ll get to watch Charlie and Lola!”) I allowed her to select her own rewards. I made sure these rewards were only accessible when she earned her stars. I kept the bar low, so she could have success early and often. And, perhaps most importantly, I kept up with the chart, reviewing her behavior and doling out stars each night before bed.

But then, just when things were going fairly well (and, most likely, because of it), I started to slack. I verbally awarded stars, but didn’t record them on the chart until days later. I raised the bar too quickly, putting of the potential to earn her reward by four days at the earliest. And slowly, Sophie started to slip backwards.

Sophie has always had pretty bad melt downs. Since she was two she viciously fought against all impingements that interfere with her MO: that is, to play all day. So, whether I’m simply trying to brush her teeth or ask her to put her shoes on, if she does not want to do it, she will rapidly morph into a vicious animal—hitting, biting, kicking, scratching. Now that she’s more verbal and physically adept, she has graduated to using cruel language and ripping the curtains off her windows in fits of rage.

I have learned that the best approach tends to be to disengage until the adrenaline stops coursing through her veins. At which point she is generally contrite and willing to make amends. This is fine if we don’t have something we absolutely must be doing or if we’re at home. It’s a little more difficult if we are out in public. But I’m still strong enough to overpower her, remove her from the situation, and shackle her to her car seat, should the need arise.

Upper body strength is an essential for effective parenting.

But Sophie made a recent discovery that has me over a barrel. She’s figured out how to undo her car seat.

The first time she undid it, she was in a rage because I had the audacity to take her home from nursery school when she didn’t want to leave. She had already threatened me with bodily harm (“Mommy, if you don’t let me stay, I’m going to hit you.”), had succeeded in scratching me until I bled, and had somehow ripped off her tights and underwear, while buckled into her booster, and was threatening to pee in the seat.

For the record, my mother says I was never like this.

In retaliation, I turned on NPR and told her I was not going to turn off the “traffic music,” until she calmed down. (Negative reinforcement.)

So, she did what any evil mastermind would do. She upped the ante, unclicking her five point restraint and shrugging out of the top portion. All of which occurred, just as I was about to pull on the highway.

She had me there. What could I do? I had to pull over to the shoulder and wait her out, which I did.

The second time it happened, we were on the highway, doing about 70 (not 87, because punishment works with me). With each exit seven miles apart, the next rest stop about 13 miles away, and no shoulder during construction, there was little I could do. I reached back into the seat. First I took away her books. Then, I turned off her music. Finally, I ripped Snakey-Pie out of her hands and I announced she would get nothing, NOTHING, until she re-buckled that seat belt.

It took a few minutes, but she did.

That afternoon I googled seat belt locks, which, I learned, they make for regular seat belts, but not for car seatbelts.

I can’t believe I’m the only mother who has ever dealt with this. Haven’t other people given birth to rageful evil geniuses?

The third time it happened, I still didn’t have a device.

I had taken Sophie to a bookstore to purchase a birthday gift. She was tired and hungry after a long day at school so I told her we could get a fruit snack at the coffee shop within the bookstore once we had found our gift. Sophie brightened at this, and though a bit cranky, was compliant in the store.

I, of course, had made the cardinal parenting sin of promising something I wasn’t 100% sure was available. When we got to the coffee shop: no fruit snack. It was close to dinner, so I casually said, “Let’s just go home, Soph, and I’ll give you a little something to tide you over when we get there.”

She was not having it.

Just as we were exiting, she grabbed a Dora the Explora book-like substance and demanded that I buy it.

“Sophie, I am not buying that. We are going home.”

She lay down on the floor.

“That’s it. I’m carrying you to the car.”

A man who was also trying to exit the building (having difficulty because we were in the way), held the door for me, as I carried her out thrashing and threatening. He did not mask his irritation.

Almost to the car, Sophie kicked off her sneakers. “Crap.” I said. I hate that word, but it seems to be the first thing that comes to mind in these situations. I let the sneakers go, but I had to set her down as I pulled out my keys. As soon as I did she made a break for it. In the parking lot.

“Damn it.” I muttered, and made chase, catching her just as she hit the next row over. I managed to open the door while still holding her, tossed her inside, ran and got the shoes, and returned to put her in the car seat.

But oh, how to contain her?

I grabbed the blue stuffed rabbit she had been carrying, which has with elongated arms, and lashed it around the seat belt, tying it in a double knot.

Sophie was beside herself; she screamed bloody murder.

I was pleased and a bit relieved that I had found a solution, albeit temporary. Now granted, this wasn’t the safest way to go—if our car was to get into an accident, it would be difficult to remove her. But I had to weigh the relative risk and opted for the bunny restraint. We were only about a mile from home.

The whole way back, she protested and I ignored her protest:

Mommy, you have two ears, I know you can hear me.”

Mommy, step one: listen to me. Step two: TAKE OFF THE BUNNY!

As I pulled into the driveway, Kevin happened to be coming up the walk. I calmly stepped out of the car and warned him that Sophie had gone nuclear. Then, I tried to release Sophie and realized: I couldn’t untie the bunny. All of her frantic efforts to remove it had only served to pull the knot tighter.

In the time that it took to run into the house to get a pair of scissors, Sophie managed to rip the cover off her car seat and tear at the EPA foam underneath, utterly destroying her nemesis. I restrained her while Kevin severed the rabbit’s arm.

(I did feel kind of bad about that.)

Kevin took Sophie upstairs and left her there to get back in control. For a while, there were sounds of destruction and dismantling. And then it got quiet. I tiptoed upstairs to survey the damage. The entire contents of her closet were on the floor and Sophie was fast asleep, in bed.

That night, Kevin and I had a heart-to-heart. It is his sense that she can do better. That there needs to be consequences for her behavior. That if she can use her power for hurling insults, tearing at my flesh, destroying her car seat and trashing her room, she can use them to reel herself back in. “It is never okay to hurt people,” he told me, “we need a consequence that is of the same magnitude as her behavior.”

Though I agree that Sophie should not be allowed to draw blood, I am less sure that more severe consequences are the answer. I know I have not been implementing my plan faithfully. I believe she is on the path to developing internal controls, but doesn’t yet have them. These rages, I think, are one part developmental, one part genetic, and one part skill deficit. It’s my job to teach her, and to be her control until she grows into or something finally clicks.

I resolved to redouble my efforts. In the days that followed, I prepared Sophie better. Gave her more warnings. Praised her effusively. Rewarded her more immediately. And her behavior improved. I’m not sure we have the solution yet. The only thing I am sure of is that it is a lot easier to teach behavior modification than to do it.

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