Noah and I spent last summer in opposition. It was pretty miserable. At the peak of tensions, a hot afternoon in mid August, he threw a 6x8 inch white board at my head and managed to draw a long red scratch across my neck. I was horrified; less than the scratch and more by the way it actualized our wounded relationship. I'm pretty sure I never threw anything at my mother when I was 8 years old. I felt I had surely reached a parenting deficit so low that we needed to start figuring out how we could possibly afford boarding school. How were we going to make it through the tween and teen years if this was eight?
At the time, it was too rough and raw and painful to post about. The most challenging things often are. I was still thoroughly overwhelmed with trying to meet the needs of all three kids. I was so exhausted that I couldn't even admit the exhaustion, never mind posting about parenting fails. But I promised myself that I would post about our struggles, at some point, because I still think that posting openly about the different aspects real life is the heart of blogging.
That summer, Noah was perpetually angry at me. His anger was very directed at me. Other people would tell me how pleasant he was, or how kind he was, or what a good time they had with him. But in our interactions, he was just downright nasty, on a mission to hate everything I said, or point to how stupid it was, or threaten me for things he saw as unfair, or, sometimes, to just outright ignore me, and always, always, to say "No!" when I asked him do to something.
Like most parents observing a change in behavior, I went through the list of possibilities:
- Was it a change in routine?
- Was there a new influence(r) in his life?
- Was it a developmental phase?
Last spring had been a time of a great deal of change. We renovated 2 floors of the house. We took the kids out of school 3 weeks before the end of the school year so that we go to their uncle's wedding in Hannover. We traveled in Germany and Iceland for a month. These things were decidedly changes. There was only so much counterbalance we could do when that level of disruption was happening. Also, as I mentioned, I was overwhelmed and having a hard time pulling myself together. We had been as supportive and nurturing to the kids as possible given the stresses. If anything else was amiss, it was that we had an extremely high amount of togetherness. Much more than usual.
I also thought a lot about what I was like as an eight year old, trying to decide if his behavior was just a developmental phase. I think I was really not like Noah at eight. If I was, it's entirely erased from memory. I just couldn't relate to his anger. I talked to Fritz; he also didn't remember being like Noah at eight. These questions struck at the heart of a recurring theme I find myself asking as the kids grow: Is this merely a stage to be waited-out or is this something that needs to be addressed more directly?
I continued to ask around. The general consensus from other people was that Noah was testing boundaries and I needed to be firm. Fritz told me, "Parents who don't have authority get walked all over. Klaus's mother used to say, 'Just wait until your father gets home!' instead of dealing with the problems herself. And so nobody ever listened to her." So I didn't shy away from confrontation; I took Fritz's message to heart, because maybe Noah did think I was a push-over. Why else would he always being yelling, "No!" at me?
We entered into a period that I now think of as the Cycle of No. Each infraction had a consequence, because I wanted to make sure the boundaries were firm. It was a complete failure. Every new consequence seem to build momentum for the next incident. Our interactions were never positive, even as I tried to find something, anything to hold onto. His anger and my redirects were like a snow ball building girth and speed – until the day that the white board hit me.
Once I had calmed down from the white board incident (a whole different story), I asked Noah, "Noah, is there somewhere else you would like to be? Because you don't seem very happy to be at home with me. If you want to go somewhere else, or be with someone else, why don't you tell me, and we can figure it out." He stared out me with big eyes and shook his head that, no, there wasn't somewhere else he wanted to be.
"Well, I don't want to fight with you anymore. And I don't think you want to fight with me either. This isn't fun. So let's stop."
He was a little shocked and taken aback. I can't say that he changed immediately or completely. But it did stop the escalating tension.
Around this time my brother had some valuable insight. He remembered his own defiant No! streak with our mother as a child. He said,
"I would say ‘no’ just to say it... because I got a chemical release in my own mind through the defiance."
Which got me thinking: sure, kids need boundaries. But they also need challenges to be overcome. Fences to be jumped. They need these to feel in control, they need these things for the adrenalin rush/mental high that comes with it. And really, who are we fooling? It's not just kids who need it, adults do, too.
I'm not sure Noah had been given much control that spring and summer. (Something I posted a little about here.) Between the travel and the age differential, it had been undeniably difficult to allow Noah to push and grow and challenge safely while also parenting Trixie appropriately. At 2 and 8, they needed significantly different levels of freedom, and more often than not, Noah has suffered the consequences of the more tightly controlled world for Trixie.
Without fences to jump, Noah got his adrenalin rush by jumping my boundaries instead.
I never really made a plan about how I was going to give him control, but I did start making efforts like: letting him venture (physically) farther away without me, permitting him to watch more "scary" movies, breaking the rules that pertained to his siblings while pointing out why I was allowing him to do so, and moving him into his own bedroom.
I also decreased the amount of time I was spending with Trixie by letting Fritz put her to bed. I increased my time with Noah reading to him (alone) each night. This was possible in large part because Trixie was becoming increasingly amenable to Daddy. It helped Noah and I to re-establish our relationship outside of being Mommy-with-Three-Kids-Who-Only-Has-Two-Hands.
I like to think that Noah and I are heading into this summer from a much better place than last summer. I hope so, because summers are always challenging for us, and last summer was especially so.