Monday, June 18, 2012


A year ago last month, we first sought refuge with our attachment disorder specialist therapist. Neither Progressive nor Old School nor any other parenting efforts with Z seemed to be working and home life had become nightmarish. Within days of our first session we were able to make significant changes and improvements to our actions, Z’s behavior and quality of life for our whole family.

The therapist’s most useful suggestion was to tell Z, at the very first sign of acting out, “You need help. It’s my job as your mother to help you.” I would take her into my lap and bundle her up into a snuggle position and say this, sometimes tailoring it to particular circumstances, i.e., “You need help right now with being a good listener,” or “…with doing safe things.”

In this way, I would stay in charge, thereby helping Z to feel safe, yet at the same time be nurturing and loving. This strategy nipped many a giant blowout in the bud, which saved lots of energy for Z to grow in more healthy ways.  It would not be hyperbole to say this plain phrase changed our lives considerably.

Z, however, is far too smart for such a simple approach. It took a few months, but it was not very long before, in inimitable Z fashion, she wrangled control of these words of wisdom.  If, by some chance, I missed her signals that she was decompensating, or if I was just too dang tired or busy to drop everything and get down on the floor and “help” her, and, if, then, things degenerated and she began a ginormous tantrum she would often begin screaming at me along the following lines: “YOU BETTER HELP ME! I HATE YOU! YOU WON”T HELP ME AND I TOLD YOU TO HELP ME!” and so forth.

One might well argue that a parent’s duty is to help their child, no matter how distasteful the prospect might seem at a given moment.  Z’s attitude in this context is certainly not conducive to cuddly, helpful helping, but FSM is a big girl and usually able to transcend such reactions. The larger issue is the fact that Z is able to wrest control of the situation, and put Mama in a position of being unable to do the very thing she needs to do (“help her”) because allowing Z to be in charge would be destabilizing and frightening for her, especially in meltdown mode.

I have a WROE (wide range of emotions) when stuff like this happens. Somewhere, rather deep down at the moment, I feel love and empathy for my child. I partly feel the way I felt when Z was little and would cry in this jagged, angry way that made me feel like running away from an enraged spitfire, rather than mothering a small and helpless baby. An aunt told me these sounds are known as  “non-attachment-promoting crying,” because parents do not naturally respond to such sounds in positive, nurturing ways. Also, I am confused: I have no idea what to say instead of “You need help,” and the phrases I do come up with in the moment are either unprintable or saccharine. I want to mean what I say.

In addition to never going anywhere again (please see I am also never going to a party again. Invariably, I find myself flying solo at parties (Pardner is a chef and is essentially gone from Thursday morning early until late Sunday evening) with two hopped up kids, feeling overwhelmed before the sweat beads even form on my single margarita.

G starts to get anxious days in advance: “Will there be anyone there I know?” “What if there is no one for me to play with?” I try to give him strategies for socializing, but by the time we arrive he is in full needy force, hitting the ground running, armed with his customary, hand-extended, no-eye-contact “Hello-my-name-is-G–I-like-Legos” introductory act. When this falls flat, he usually follows me around saying, “There is no one here I know,” and “No one wants to play with me.”

Z, falling as she does on the high social acuity slice of the spectrum, makes friends immediately. At this particular party, her new friends helped her climb about ten feet up in a tree and then removed the ladder and left her there. She asked a passerby to let me know that she had climbed high up in a tree, and to please come look… Neither passersby nor little friends seemed to notice the potential danger in a small child being several times her height in a tree with no way to get down. She comes across as that capable, after all.

Post-rescue, while I was cheering G on in a race, in which he would come in near last but not notice (go G! Seriously!) I happened to look inside to the drinks table, where Z had a two-liter bottle of cola in two hands and was pouring what remained of it down her gullet.

I ran inside.

“What are you doing?” I asked, aghast. (This is exactly what one is not supposed to do: children with attachment disorders need surety from their parents.)

“You said I could have a drink,” she replied in a saucy tone. Several admiring girls a bit younger than Z stood around watching wide-eyed.

“Didn’t you know that I did not mean coke? That children don’t drink caffeine?” (Wrong question: see above.)

“Yes.” (Reluctantly, with sulkface.)

“I guess right now you need help with making healthy choices,” I told her, pulling her to my side and taking the empty bottle. ”You are going to stick with me for awhile.”

I thought she would like being doted upon. Apparently, at this particular juncture, doting was humiliating.

What next ensued can only be described as a major, whomping, shame rage tantrum. After offering clear guidelines in a deceptively calm voice as to the consequence of being removed from the party if she could not stop raging, I carried her kicking and screaming to the car. I shut her in while she flailed and shouted and tore anything in the car she could get her hands on. 

Having previously childproofed the car, I had only to remove G’s precious “Complete Pokemon Guide” as a precaution. I sat down on the hood with that large, well-worn book in my lap, and tried to wave cheerily to the faraway people enjoying themselves in a variety of pastimes on the lawn. G had given up on the party kids and followed me to the car. He lounged companionably next to me. We watched the festivities with mixed feelings: it would have been fun to be casually part of it all…But was that really a realistic option?

Inside the car, the screams raged on, punctuated by punches to windows and seats.  G and I tried to be positive, chatting about what a lovely, green day it was. When I turned my attention to the sounds I could hear Z shouting, over and over, “I! NEED! HELP! YOU! STUPID! MAMA!”

A sort of funny thing about all this – funniness being, I suppose, relative and contextual – is Z’s miraculous resilience. Once she decides she is done with a tantrum, she appears to be immediately 100% fine…Unlike the rest of us, who are still reeling hours later.

I returned to my perch on the trunk to wait for that eventuality. G is, unfortunately, accustomed to Z losing her temper and was, fortunately, unphased by the state of affairs. “Hey,” he said, noting the Pokemon guidebook, “This seems like a great time for a Pokemon battle!”

“It sure is,” I sighed, and mustered a smile. “Sounds fun!”

I meant it. Sure to be better’n the parenting battle I had just lost to a gaggle of little girls and a large bottle of soda.

Full Spectrum Mama


  1. Hey! You might want to look at AskMoxie's writings about tension increasers versus tension decreasers. Your statement that "the rest of us" would be upset for hours, I think, means you're a tension increaser. But that might not be the case with Z.

    In my limited experience, I basically have to change parenting techniques about every three months. Whatever was the issue and whatever worked to deal with changes that quickly. He grows, is dealing with different things, the seasons change, life happens.

    Which is my way of saying, I'm not surprised that you need to switch from the phrase once it's worn out its usefulness.

    While I know our situations are very different, I have to tell you I am on a full-court press right now to get my little guy to ask for things nicely. I'm just sick of the demanding (and the whining). "Do this!" Ugh. So I'm like a broken record, "Could you please ask nicely?" "That's not really asking nicely." "I want to help, but it's hard for me when you don't ask nicely" and of course the rare "That was really nicely asked. Good job!"

    I have a lot of ambivalence about this, but it's a genuine response to my feeling put-upon. He needs to learn how to ask things so people will want to help him. So I continue.

    1. Very nicely put ;)
      I would *hope* that on the *outside* I am a tension-decreaser; internally, though, I feel these outbursts for days. And yes, she just gets it OUT!
      I, too, continue.

    2. Also, working on that kind of FLEXIBILITY and evolving...


  3. Love this idea, suggested via email by a wise man: "I don't know but would it sometimes be helpful to Z for you to say, "I need to find a way to get us out of this trap"?"


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