I know every so often my wife convinces herself that our son hates her, and when that happens she doesn’t have to work too hard to find evidence to support her conclusion. My arguing to the contrary requires a much greater effort.
Our son is 2 and a half now, and at this age is more than normal for a child to experiment with aggression as a way to deal with strong emotions and gain a sense of control. And for the time been I’m sticking with that, more than normal. Because it’s easy to label a child’s behaviour–ADHD, SPD, RAD, have your pick–and even more so when the child is adopted. I’m not trying to ignore a potential problem, I’m just trying not to manufacture one all on my own.
For my wife is harder to accept this behaviour as normal when our widely moody child decides he can’t stand her for that day, and he makes sure she knows by mean of the occasional punches, kicks, scratches, and bites. And when all those proves ineffective, he still has the option of shouting mean phrases at her, ordering her to go away, or not to take part in group games. I wonder if these would be more painful if he knew how to swear. But in reality, it’s the tone of voice that gets you. A “go away” is not better than a “f**k off” if yelled with the proper amount of rage. I never knew a child so small could show so much anger.
He gets angry, no matter where we are, or who with. Playgroups, for example, can raise some embarrassing situations. People tend to question your suitability as a parent at the first sign of open confrontation from your child. It might be a natural reaction to hearing a child yelling in distress–we are all parents after all–but they all stop and stare at you. Not the child, you. And since the reaction of the child cannot be justified by anything that happened at the time of the incident, they can only conclude that something that warrants that response must have happened prior to the incident, if not on regular basis. They stare absent-mindedly at you as their brains run through all possible foreboding scenarios.
On other days he’s just adorable, and we are none the wiser.
The thing is, we cannot change our children, at best we can model good behaviour, a fancy way to say “give a good example”. But we can also try to make life easier for them, and there are remedies that have worked in the past.
The simple advice “physical activity, plenty of water, and something to eat every two hours” has spared us many miserable afternoons. Why that works is far beyond my comprehension–something to do with brain neuroreceptors and the release of chirpy hormones and the likes–but thankfully there’s no need to grasp the science to reap the benefits. It’s a bit like flying, you just need to trust it’ll work.
Hide and seek is a personal favourite of my little one at the moment; it’s been for months. Me, not such a big fan to be honest, but just like running, playing ball, or shoot hoops, anything that gets them moving works wonders to redirect their excess energy in something fun and that usually does not end with any of us hurting or feeling ashamed.
It doesn’t have to be a formal 45 minutes session of interval training either. A high-energy two minute chase around the house can change my son’s mood in ways no amount of Ritalin could.
So, if your house rules include the clause “no running in the house”, I suggest you scrap it.
Plenty of water
All children need water. Children that have or might have been neglected or abused need it more. They need water to regulate their internal state and their behaviour. Dehydration can trigger a long scary list of side effects, which include irrational behaviour, rage, checking out, and seizures. Children might not realise they are dehydrated, particularly very young ones, and need to be reminded to have a drink often.
Just a note of caution: “children need water” is not another way to say “children need anything that comes in liquid form”. It means actual water. Sodas, sugary drinks, caffeine drinks, carbonated drinks, they all help dehydrate our children’s body even more.
If you can manage it at all, push them to drink plain water instead. Keep bottles around the house, get them in the habit of drinking in small sips, and often.
Food every two hours
I stopped using the expression “I’m starving”. What people actually mean to say with that is “I feel quite peckish”, which is a problem of a very different magnitude.
Some children have learned from a very young age what starvation feels like. It’s very simple to understand how the two hours rules would apply to them: they should never ever suffer hunger again or worry about dying because of it.
But all our bodies work the same way. When we haven’t eaten for some time our body signals that something is wrong, and needs our immediate attention. It might start as a simple suggestion, then it increases in intensity, until it becomes an absolute priority. If you ever get there, then you have my permission to use the expression “I’m starving”.
For young children, these signals can be distracting, but for neglected children, these signals can bring back past memories, and with them anxiety. As hunger increases so does anxiety, but at a much faster rate, until anxiety becomes fear, and fear causes a meltdown.
The memory of starvation doesn’t even need to be conscious. Children who suffered hanger in utero or in their first year of life are also affected in the same way. Being pre-verbal, these memories are even more damaging; a child cannot make sense of them–their brain cannot recall them–as if they existed in the form of pure feelings.
Out of trouble
So the rule “food every two hours” is a way to keep anxiety in check. In fact, all these measures are a way to stay out of trouble, help out little ones gain control of themselves, learn, and grow in confidence.
They might seem like a way to work around a problem, and it might well be that the same problem can be treated with medications. But it stands that treating a problem is not the same as curing it.
And if physical activity, water, and food are going to keep my child away from life-long ever-varying cocktails of medications, then I’ll be his personal coach until I’ll be able to stand, nag him about drinking water until we are no longer on speaking terms, and follow him around with food as any self-respecting Italian parent should do anyway.
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