The therapeutic parenting team over at FullTimeTired.com runs a fun contest wherein they ask readers to submit the best blog posts they’ve read each week. They recently published their readers’ favorite posts from 2016, and my most popular article (shared 895 times as of this writing!), “Here’s the Difference,” came in at number five on the list!
I’ve decided to reblog the article below to give those of you who’ve only recently joined me here at Trauma Mama Drama a chance to check it out. But before we get into it, I want to address a comment/question I’ve been asked more than once regarding the article below: Why do you make him take so many baths if he hates them so much and it’s a big to-do every time?? My answer: We have the nightly bath as a means of routine for him, so he always knows what is coming each night. We experimented with not making him take a bath nightly, but he just found other things to meltdown about. Little’s issue is not really about the baths… It’s about his difficulty with transitioning from one activity to the next and his need to control his environment. He likes baths! And on more than one occasion he’s offered to take them of his own volition. The meltdown is not about the bath, but about the trauma issues he struggles with.
I’d also like to report that he’s come a long way since I first published this piece – he only loses it at bathtime once a week or so these days. And that, my friends, is a huge improvement! 🙂
Be sure to check out all the other nominees and winners over at FullTimeTired for some more great posts on raising kids with trauma histories!
“Here’s The Difference,” originally published in April 2016
We don’t give in to fits in our house.
The kids can scream, yell, cry, throw things, hit things, hit people, whatever… And that never gets them what they want.
We try not to “punish” the behavior that happens during the fit because we use therapeutic parenting principles and believe that every fit shows us where the kids need extra help, that “every fit is an attempt to communicate a need” as someone stated at the Parenting in SPACE conference… And I say try because sometimes we get frustrated and dole out punitive consequences for throwing toys or screaming for over an hour… But we do not give in because we do still believe that giving in reinforces fit-throwing behavior and therapeutic parenting is not about letting our kids “get away” with behavior that they should not be engaging in. Therapeutic parenting is about correcting trauma-behavior in a way that does not trigger their negative reactions, because that only increases their undesirable behaviors.
That confuses people. Our society perpetuates the idea that unwanted behaviors can only be deterred by punitive consequences, and we’re told over and over and over again that bad behavior requires punishment or “they’ll never learn”… And we’ve been told this so many times that it’s almost impossible to switch gears when parenting kids “from hard places.”
And because therapeutic parenting seems so strange, because it looks like we allow our kids to lose their little minds when they get upset, we’re constantly asked why we parent this way, and the answer is very simple.
We parent this way because traditional parenting doesn’t work with Middle and Little. Their behaviors aren’t motivated by “limits-testing” or “attention seeking,” the typical underpinnings of unwanted behavior in typically developing children. Rather, their behavior is rooted in fear… Fear that their parents will hurt them, neglect them, or abandon them.
Husband and I have been asked, “How do you know ‘normal’ parenting won’t work with them?”
The answer, again, is simple. Because we’ve tried those methods and they’ve failed spectacularly.
Case in point: Middle and Little came to live with us when they were five and three years old, respectively. They’ve lived with us for 950 days, which means they’ve taken about 800 baths… And Little has thrown a fit at bath time at least 700 times even though he’s never gotten out of taking a bath by having a meltdown (oh, man… I wish I was exaggerating here. Seriously… I even asked Husband if I was being a little dramatic and he said, “If anything, you’re being conservative in your estimation.” Sigh). Never. Not once in those 700 times did we give in and let him skip the suds.
And we’ve tried everything to end the tyranny of the bath-time meltdown. Initially, we tried giving him control over some elements of the bath… we’ve tried giving him control over which bathroom he uses, when he has to get into the tub, how long he has to stay there, which toys he can play with while bathing, and the temperature of the water. All he had to do was get into the water without having an hour-long tantrum in the process.
We tried ignoring the behavior, thinking we were reinforcing his oppositional behavior by interacting with him while he kicked and screamed and writhed on the floor. “Surely he’ll quit when he realizes we aren’t playing around and that he won’t get out of taking a bath by acting this way,” we said.
Ha. Nope. After Little put some holes in his wall while we tried desperately to ignore his meltdown, we decided that ignoring his behavior wasn’t the answer we were looking for.
So, we escalated our tactics and tried instilling a reward system for taking a bath without incident. That worked for about three weeks before the meltdowns started sneaking back into our lives and we found ourselves once again wrestling a thrashing, screaming four-then-five-year-old boy out of his clothes on an almost-daily basis.
We eventually started punishing him for his fit-throwing behavior, which of course led to the craziest, most intense meltdowns we’d seen yet. Punishing him for his tantrums turned his one-hour fits into hours-long fits… Some nights he carried on with his rages for the entire evening. Even when he knew he’d miss watching a movie or eating ice cream or going outside to play, even when he knew he’d have to do chores or some other task to make up for his crappy behavior. None of those things mattered. In fact, losing privileges and imposing consequences only seemed to encourage him to throw scarier, longer fits.
Last July, Little’s response to me telling him to get into the bath was to slap me across the face and head-butt me so hard my brand new glasses flew off my face. Then he snapped the earpiece off.
He broke my brand new glasses, you guys.
But he still had to get in the bathtub.
Like I said, we don’t give in to fit-throwing ’round here, which would encourage most children to change their behavior eventually. Most kids “fall in line” with their parents’ expectations so long as the parents make those expectations clear and as long as they don’t give in to begging or fit-throwing. Right? Isn’t that what all the parenting magazines and books suggest? Isn’t that what all our friends and family keep saying when they offer their incredibly-well-meaning advice?
And there you have the difference between raising typical kids and my kids with trauma issues (or, really, any kids with special needs… But even then, a lot of children with special needs respond to Applied Behavioral Analysis methods which I know do not work with my stepchildren because we’ve tried them. And I even have some training in those methods!). There you have the reason we parent the way we do.
For now, the kid is just going to have an issue most nights we ask him to take a bath. He’s had a meltdown three of the five nights we’ve asked him to bathe this week. At six years old, three years after Husband got custody of him and his sister, he’s still having huge tantrums almost daily over having to take a bath. Even though he’s never been rewarded by us for this behavior, because he’s never once gotten out of taking a bath by throwing a fit. Not once. Yet, the fits continue.
And the most ridiculous part of all this? LITTLE LIKES TAKING BATHS!!!! He often emerges from the bathroom, all clean and damp, smiling. “I like baths,” he says, as I try not to scream (because WTF do you keep throwing these G-D fits if you effing LIKE BATHS OMFGAHHHHH?!?!?!).
Can you imagine this going on with a kid who has a secure attachment with his parents who consistently respond to such behavior in appropriate ways?
Heather Forbes would say it is this huge difference in the “intensity, duration, and frequency” of Little and Middle’s behavior that makes their mental health disordered. And mental health disorders such as Reactive Attachment Disorder, PTSD, and Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder (formerly RAD Disinhibited Type) require treatment, not punishment.
Which is why we engage in therapeutic parenting as best we can.
Meeting Little with empathy and patience, sitting with him through his tantrums instead of shuttering him away in his room until he stops raging, allowing him to express his displeasure at the prospect of bathing instead of stifling and shushing him, actually shortens the time-span of his meltdowns. We’ve been doing a pretty good job using SPACE (safety, structure, support, playful, accepting, curious, and empathic) responses to the kids’ behaviors this week since we just returned from the conference a few days ago, and Little’s bath-time meltdowns have only lasted ten minutes each… Which is way preferable to tantrums that last for an hour (or hours) if I do say so myself.
Last night when we told Little to get into the bath, he threw himself onto the floor and writhed around like we’d just shot him with a taser gun. “I DON’T WANT A BATH! I HATE BATHS! NOOOOOO!” he yelled.
I carried him to his room and sat down, putting him on my lap, his back to my chest. I placed my hand over his pounding heart. “OW OW OW OW YOU ARE HURTING ME! GET AWAY!!” he shouted.
“Shhhh. No one’s hurting you. You’re safe. You let me know when you’re ready to get in that bathtub.”
“Never,” he said, petulant but quieter already. “Because I hate baths. You’re mean.”
“Okay. I understand you feel like I’m mean. You let me know when you’re ready for the bath.”
I started inhaling and exhaling slowly, deliberately, and soon his breathing matched mine. “Okay. I’m ready.” He turned around and buried his face in my neck. The meltdown was over before it even really started.
Last night, it only took him a couple minutes to de-escalate from the danger zone of rage into the zone of regulation. No toys embedded in our drywall. No tears from him. No bruises on my legs from being kicked, pinched, or head-butted. No yelling from me or Husband. No stomping off in anger.
And even though this way is clearly better for my kids, it’s incredibly hard to do. It’s hard to stay calm when your kid has thrown the same damn fit over the same damn thing for almost three damn years! Sometimes I just want to scream (okay, sometimes I do scream) when I tell him to get in the bathtub and his eyes go dark and he totally loses his mind. Because OMFG it’s really, really, really annoying and time-consuming and exhausting and, sometimes, it’s scary.
And it’s hard to continue parenting this way when all the conventional advice along with most of our friends and family expect us to punish the kids’ less-than-awesome behavior. But, I’ve found, most of the sources we turn to to vent just don’t really get the differences between our kids’ behaviors and therefore they don’t really get the style of parenting we utilize with our kids.
Since so many people we care about seem to want to understand our situation but have had trouble “getting it,” I thought I’d write this in an attempt to explain our motivations for therapeutically parenting our kids. If you have more questions, please leave them in the comments… also, if you use therapeutic methods with your kids, please feel free to comment with your own explanation below!
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