Imagine your child had the inability to focus and sit still with ADHD, the resistance to instruction and discipline of Oppositional Defiant Disorder, the need for routine and order and ritual of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and the normal tantrums, developmental struggles, and poor impulse control of a typical five-year-old. Oh, plus aggression. A lot of aggression. That’s my kid.
Before you read further, you need to know that that’s not all he is. He’s also sweet, clever, funny, and creative. He’s a sponge who can discuss his favorite shows and books in surprising detail and gets excited about the simplest things. Tonight, it was the soup he tried at dinner, exclaiming that it was ‘the best thing in the world’ and that he loved his big sister the most for making it.
He’s affectionate and soft-hearted, too. Most nights, he wants to snuggle nose-to-nose with me until he’s ready to fall asleep. He’s really the most tender little boy. You know, when he’s not wreaking havoc.
Since he was a baby, he’s been what other people have called needy and high-maintenance, always needing to be at my side or in my arms, screaming uncontrollably when left in anyone else’s care as an infant (including his own father), and insisting things be done a specific way.
I learned early on that not only was picking my battles the only way to keep our relationship intact and that fighting him often wasn’t worth the time involved but that he needed that measure of control to be happy.
People have frequently chided me for being too easy on him, but punishing him for his personality has never sat right with me. For things that did require discipline, I was at a loss, because discipline was lost on him. If I told him to sit in time out or on his bed, he’d just get up and walk out.
If I took away a toy, he’d shrug and say, “I can’t care.” If I told him not to hit, it was like talking to a wall — a wall with fists and a need to use them. He didn’t respond to rewards or choices, either. Nothing worked.
As he progressed through toddlerhood and preschool, he became more obviously anxious. Some days he would run into daycare happily but most days he would insist I carry him in. And while I did, he would bury his head in my shoulder and ask me to hide him where he thought nobody could see him — behind a chair, behind the coats, under a desk — where he would stay until he felt ready to join the group.
Other days, he would hold on to me and attempt to run after me when I left. He was becoming more dependent and regressing in other ways, too: refusing to independently get dressed, brush his teeth, sleep in his own bed, and perform other tasks that are developmentally appropriate for a five-year-old.
On top of that, things had to be done in a specific way and in a specific order. If we deviated from his idea of how things should go, he would melt down. There were a lot of meltdowns.
At the same time, his bad behavior was escalating and became more frequent. He was becoming more violent, more unpredictable, more oppositional, and more likely to be labeled a “problem child,” which broke my heart. In my gut, I knew he wasn’t that. I knew there was something else going on; I just wasn’t sure what.
Tantrums — complete with kicking, hitting, biting, and pinching — were a daily occurrence. He would break and rip up his sister’s things and hit her without warning. He went from zero to sixty instantly. It was as if he had no control over it. He was like a tiny Hulk, raging out and coming down; afterward, he was often more upset and scared than anyone else.
He would scream during these episodes, as I was trying to calm him, that he wanted to kill me or that I was trying to kill him. I’d never laid a hand on him other than to hold him back from hurting himself or others, so what was he talking about? Did he really believe that? My worry became intense.
Once, in the midst of a particularly explosive tantrum, he kicked me in the jaw so hard he almost dislocated it. I was stunned and devastated. What was wrong with my kid? How could he do that? How did I let him get so out of control? Was this because of the divorce? Was something happening he wasn’t telling me about? What was I doing wrong? What was happening? I sobbed as I tried to defuse his anger and mine.
I started looking for a counselor the next day. We had to wait months for an appointment. In the meantime, I tried to observe my kid’s behavior like an outsider, watching for patterns and listening to the words he chose.
As I watched him like a hawk, one day it hit me: my kid wasn’t only having tantrums, he was also having panic attacks. Holy cow. That’s why he freaked out so quickly and got so violent. That’s why he thought he was going to die or that he had to hurt other people. He was in fight or flight mode, and he opted to fight. HOLY COW. My poor kid.
When the appointment with the counselor finally came, I filled out packets of paperwork with questions about our whole lives. I told her everything. As I told her things about my son that I’d never been able to say to aloud, I couldn’t keep my tears back.
An assessment and observation were done and within a couple of hours, the counselor had a diagnosis: anxiety disorder with externalized symptoms that mimic ADHD and Oppositional defiant disorder. She assured me that even at his young age, we could help him. I hoped so. This wasn’t healthy for any of us. We came up with goals and made his next appointment as my son sat on the floor and played with Legos. I was spent, but at least I had answers.
He’s been in therapy for several months now and the skills he’s learned there have been invaluable. He still has tantrums and occasional panic attacks but they are far less frequent, far less volatile, and we all know how to deal with it more effectively when it happens.
He can tell me when he’s feeling his anxiety rise and when those moments hit, we have a pre-compiled list of things that help him get grounded. Even his sister jumps in to help instead of running away in fear — usually with her favorite strategy, which is holding a pillow for him to ninja-kick.
I’m better at predicting which situations are likely to exacerbate his anxiety and plan transitions and timing more accordingly so I’m less likely to be late for work or he’s less likely to have a meltdown.
He’ll still try to leave daycare with me sometimes but in those instances, he will usually agree to stay if he can feel a measure of control over it. He might say he needs five more hugs or for me to carry him down the hall and back, and then he will be ready for me to go.
He’s becoming more independent again, too, brushing his own teeth, putting shoes on by himself, and attempting to master things he’d been complacent not to learn before. His need for ritual is still present but less prevalent; his level of aggression and impulse control is more developmentally typical; his opposition … we’re still working on. Can’t win ’em all — at least not all at once.
This progress is a relief but it doesn’t come easy. Raising him well requires more vigilance than I’ve had to exercise with my daughter. It comes with a lack of cooperation from his father, so every time my son comes back home, there’s a re-establishing of a baseline because he has lacked the routine, structure, and strategies that help him regulate himself.
We’ve had to do a lot of explaining with family, friends, and teachers, and a lot of apologizing and asking how to make things right. One day, therapy and coping skills may not be enough and it will be up to me to know if that’s the case — and to stay vigilant enough to recognize it.
But for now, it’s helping. He’s happier. He’s more secure. And the only time his foot is flying at my face is when he’s begging me to eat his toes.
Alex Alexander is a pseudonym. The author of this article is known to YourTango but is choosing to remain anonymous.