When child behavior threatens to tear a family apart
I feel like he’s tearing our family apart.
Those were my exact words. I was at the height of desperation with my son’s behavior. I wanted help, but I couldn’t ask because the tantrums, the negative self-talk – ALL of it – only happened within the confines of our home. At school, with friends, and around other adults, he was a well-mannered, bright and engaging little guy.
This is part one of our backstory and what life was like in the early years, before a diagnosis. This is also the story of how Thrive Inside Nutrition began and the passion that drives me to help children with focus, mood and anxiety problems.
If our story resonates with you, I’d love to connect! My mission is to uncover the cause of anxiety, poor focus, and mood problems in children and teens so that they can showcase their true selves. There IS hope!
Hi everyone. I know, I said I’d pop on today to talk about my backstory and to really get vulnerable. It’s kind of funny – we are having a day here. I don’t know how you guys are fairing with everybody at home for COVID-19, if you are home. I have one kid that flies through schoolwork and another one that does a little bit less. One doesn’t fly through quite as fast. One in public school, one homeschooled – both just want to be done and play Minecraft all day, and one wants to sit in my office ALL DAY LONG, which makes it very hard to do things like this. So anyway, I think we’re all breathing through this. I know I am and the reason that I wanted to do this is because it’s not something that I’ve talked about really with very much detail at all.
Maybe some of you that follow Thrive Inside Nutrition or are friends with me know our story. But the way I tell our story is a very bare bones kind of this is what happened and this was the effect and yay – there was a transformation. I really haven’t gotten into the nitty-gritty of just how bad it was before things changed. And I think it’s important to speak out about something like this because,when I was going through it I was embarrassed to say anything. I felt like nobody understood and I felt like,you know, there was nobody else going through this. Now there may have been, but when you go through something like this,it’s not something you want to share. It’s not something you’re proud of. So, in any case, one of the reasons that I hesitate to share this in such detail is because it’s not only my story.
I joke around and I say that my son sent me to grad school because he did. That also is a way of acknowledging that this is not only my story; this is his story as well. For him and for me, this is only a chapter in our stories and obviously things have changed tremendously for him. I’m still very cognizant of sharing his backstory because… I don’t know – because social media. Because here we all are sharing and oversharing. I don’t want to do that. Anyway, maybe, maybe in another video I’ll share with you his perception now looking back on all of this because it’s really, it’s really pretty amazing. All right, so to get started: My son, he was born in 2007. He was my first kid. We were brand new parents.
He was not colicky. He was happy kid. He slept through the night fairly quickly as a baby. My folks have told me that he was not easy to soothe. When I wasn’t around or his dad wasn’t around and he wouldn’t take a bottle (he was breastfed). But if we had to go somewhere, if we went to an event or something like that and left him in somebody’s care he wasn’t easy to soothe and he wouldn’t take a bottle and, you know, first time parents, and even now as an experienced parent, you think, “Okay, that’s normal.” It doesn’t raise any alarms. Right? I just thought this was normal. So when he was, I don’t know when, whatever age they are, when they’re kind of crawling and they’re mobile and they’re playing with their little Thomas trains on the wooden track, we started to notice that he would lie down right next to his train track and kind of take the train up right next to his eye.
I don’t know if you can see exactly how close I am, but it would be right next to his eye and he’d watch it go back and forth and back and forth, just like that. Like there was some stimulation there. And he would do that for, for minutes on end really. I thought it was strange, but you know, everything else was normal developmentally. There was nothing to set off any alarms. And so it’s just something that we watched around that time. He also started to have some pretty big tantrums and you know, these are the twos and these are the threes and they say the “terrible twos” or the “terrible threes” or both (if you’ve had kids). So again, nothing out of the ordinary that would make a first-time parent stop to take pause.
So, fast forwarding into a little past the toddler years, his sleep was awful. He went from being this baby that would sleep through the night, really pretty quickly. Really, you know, no issues at all – to a child that would NOT go to sleep. There’s some pretty funny books about this. I know this is not out of the ordinary again. But we are talking for HOURS. He would not go to sleep. Now, he wouldn’t cry. He wouldn’t really fuss in his room, but he absolutely would not settle down. And just like I told you about him with the train right next to his eye, he would do this at night and he would watch his hand and that would be the stimulation to keep himself awake. So it even got to the point where my husband would go in the room with him when he was in a toddler bed and my poor husband had a pillow or something right out on the floor next to him, trying to get him to settle in.
He’s going like this (with his hand) the whole time, you know, which is really frustrating. This would end a couple of hours later leaving the room frustrated, or you fall asleep before the kid does. So in any case, this was something that we just could not seem to solve. We could not figure out anything that would help. We actually ended up putting a gate across his bedroom door because he would just get up and wander around. And we wanted him to be safe, but we could not stay in there for hours and hours every night. I’m going to pause here and just say that, we weren’t eating the Standard American diet. I have always been into health. I was an athlete all the way through school and into college. Diet meant a lot to me, even if I wasn’t really immersed in the science at the time.
We would eat whole foods. We would have convenience foods here and there: things that were packaged here and there. But it was mostly a whole food diet. For example, every Sunday I would make a big breakfast for us because the whole family was home. I would make eggs and home fries and a fruit salad and, maybe get a kielbasa or some type of meat to go with it all. And then, on Friday nights we started this tradition where we would have a homemade pizza night. So that just gives you an idea of kind of the splurges that we had in between typical meals where there’s a protein, a veg, and a starch. It wasn’t boxed this and boxed that or drive through or anything like that.
Just like our diet was pretty well in hand, sleep – the idea that his poor sleep could contribute to his behavior was really obvious to me. I am militant about getting enough sleep for myself, so I understood this behavior and sleep connection. But I again, I, I could not influence his sleep. So during this time with all of this going on, his sister, my daughter, was born a couple of years after him. And around this time, his tantrums got a lot worse to the point to where by the time he was four, or say from four to six, his entire personality would change. So he would go from this sweet kid who wanted to learn like any normal kid, right? They are sponges! But then, his whole personality would change at the drop of a hat and he would rip apart his room.
I don’t mean that in a cute like four- to six-year-old way. I mean, he damaged the doorframe and pretty much ripped his door off his hinges. And we don’t have hollow-core doors. We have a house that was built in 1890. We have the really heavy wood doors and the heavy wood frames and yeah so this behavior was really, really disturbing. He would try to hurt or hit and punch. When you tried to calm him down, if you tried to, you know, put your hands on him and just kind of have him chill or physically move him to a timeout chair or anything like that – he would physically lash out at me, more so than my husband. He was very, very forceful, very, very strong for that age. He started doing a lot of negative self-talk and I think this might’ve been the most disturbing of all.
On a funny note, I think he was four-years-old when he told me (with all the rage of a teenager) that he was really upset with me and that he was going to run away because nobody loved him. Specifically, he was going to find a new family in California. So, we live in Maryland – and this was a four-year-old. I have no idea how these concepts came into his head. He’s watching, stuff like the Backyardigans and PBS. I have no idea. That aside, he would say things like, “I hate myself.” Again, you’re four-years-old or you’re five-years-old! The access to words to describe how he felt about himself was really, really disturbing coming out of such a little person. And I want to underscore that this behavior was not 24/7.
He was not always like this. He was a bright kid. He was really, really sweet. Typically, he didn’t have trouble with focus unless he was hyper-focused. So, like running the train next to his eye, doing that hand motion before bed, and things like that. He would absolutely hyper-focus, but otherwise focus it wasn’t a problem. When tantrums struck, they could easily go for an hour, sometimes more. It was absolutely exhausting. The reports that we would get were that he was doing well in school. He wasn’t having tantrums, he wasn’t lashing out at other kids, but he also wouldn’t stay in his seat. I remember the guidance counselor at the time saying that he would get up and just wander around, wander to the bookshelf, wander behind the bookshelf, wander here, wander there, and he’d be directed to go back to his chair and he just would not even respond.
It was like he didn’t hear well. And he did – he had passed all of his hearing tests and everything very well. So with the tantrums, it was hard to get any support from the school. That’s not their fault – they just didn’t see the behavior. But, the tantrums really started to affect me because I had another child and I knew that she was witnessing all of this. I didn’t know how that was affecting her. I knew that it was pulling away from my attention, my ability to give her the same attention that I gave him which is always the case with a second child. But this was even more so because he was so demanding of attention in those times. I’d worry that he would hurt himself or something else. So at my very, very lowest point, I remember being in tears with my husband and just saying to him, I feel like he is pulling our family apart.
It took two of us to divide and conquer between the kids. But, Colby got the lion’s share of all the attention. I didn’t feel like it was fair. I was frustrated because nothing worked. I didn’t know how to help him. I had all of those feelings like you should be equipped with how to help your kids when you become a parent, and in this case that just was totally lacking. So, it is embarrassing to say that I had that thought, but I remember it clear as day: I felt like he was tearing our family apart. I fantasized about what would life be like if things weren’t like this. I mean, my God, is there military school at the age of five? Is that a thing?
The desperation was for real. None of my friends seem to have anything like this going on in their homes. I was embarrassed, like I said earlier, to share the extent of exactly what was going on, even with the people that I was closest to then. I probably expressed my frustration with how I couldn’t get him to sleep and the tantrums to stop, but I never, ever really got down to just how bad it was. And he didn’t exhibit any of those symptoms to anyone else. If I had a friend over or he had friends over, he was fine. At school he was fine. I kept asking for help, their help, but they didn’t see that behavior from him. So, between my own frustration with not knowing what to do, and his on- and off-switch, I felt like I was kind of crazy.
I felt like the only person that understood was my husband because he would witness it as well. But otherwise, I’m asking for all of this help, but I have no proof that I actually really needed it because he seemed like such a sweet kid who is really smart. I felt like an absolutely terrible, terrible parent – bottom line. I felt like there’s this big secret in our house that nobody knew about and I didn’t even know who or how to ask for help to get the validation that I needed: “Oh yeah! You know, something is probably wrong here!” So it was a really, really dark time which nobody wants to feel about raising their child. There’s a lot of guilt.
I mean, Mom Guilt is for real. Right? I don’t even remember how we progressed to this point, but we did manage to secure a reference for Colby to have a full evaluation by a psychologist. I almost believe this was tied to the school, somehow. Maybe I’d complained enough that finally we got something moving – I really don’t remember, but it was a full evaluation. There were two separate days that he had to go for two- or a four-hour stint, just him and the psychologist. The initial feedback we got from the psychologist was pretty incredible. It wasn’t all that shocking, but it was the first time that somebody validated to us that his behavior was different – and different around somebody other than us.
I believe that he was asked to do some tasks on a computer – to click here or click there and raise his hand when he heard this or that. Instead, he really wanted to spin. The doctor had one of these spinning office chairs and he really wanted to just spin in the chair. As often as the request was repeated over and over again, he acted like he couldn’t hear anything and he would not respond. He wasn’t angry, he wasn’t having a tantrum – his behavior was otherwise fine – but he was not going to do what he was asked to do. The poor psychologist, right? Anyway, the results came back and he received a diagnosis of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder) for the hyperactivity and his inability to focus.
The doctor talked about the hyper-focus, since that is part of the diagnosis. It was also determined that he had ODD as well, which is an oppositional-defiant disorder. That’s a big one. That’s one that, if you’ve worked with anybody who is dealing with this, when you say one thing the child will say the other – they’re oppositional and they’re defiant. I could see this, I could see both of these in Colby, but not all the time. His behavior would be like a switch turning on and turning off. Still, these were pretty earth shattering diagnoses for us. They were in one sense validation that there was something going on, but in another sense what do you do with a diagnosis like that when you have a child who is clearly smar, can be very sweet, and wasn’t struggling in school?
Aside from the wandering around, his grades were fine and feedback at parent-teacher conferences was fine. He was getting along with his peers. So what do you do with diagnoses like that? And so honestly, we sat on it, we sat on these diagnoses. We didn’t know if these labels were going to be harmful for him in the future if we made them public. And we didn’t know what supports were out there for him? You think about a diagnosis as something that is delivered and kind of placed in the laps of parents as this sense of, “Oh, well that explains it all.” But even if it does explain everything, then what? There was no place to go after the diagnosis.
We had no idea. There was no link back to the school that this is what’s available or if it makes sense to go see your pediatrician for X, Y, Z. I was very clear that I would not medicate. Maybe that had something to do with it. I don’t know. But in any case, we really did just sit on this information. And I started researching like crazy because that’s in my nature. We were just at this point of indecision. We sat at that point of indecision until something happened that changed everything immediately, overnight. So, I think I’m going to stop here because that’s really the backstory and the detail that I wanted to share up to this point about just how bad it was.
I know what it feels like if you’re going through it. If you feel like there’s this big horrible secret in your house and you’re crying for help and everybody is like, “Oh, your kid’s fine! What a great kid!” but you feel like, “Oh my gosh, if you only knew…” That’s the hard part of the story for me because there is mom guilt and there’s alsot he mama bear who wants to protect her Cub because this is his story. I’m pretty protective of this story. Plus, it’s amazing how visceralthis feels – I can feel these reactions that I had in my skin, to this day. I just have to keep telling myself that sharing stuff like this is now out there to help others. It’s now out there to point to the elephant in the room.
There is an elephant in the room and it’s big and it’s depressing and it can weigh everything down. So anyway, I will pick up this story tomorrow. I’ll talk about what happened that really changed everything and set us down a different path. Thanks for the opportunity to get vulnerable with you today. I hope everything’s going okay for you. If you have any questions or comments or anything you can pop in the comments. You can direct message me, you can reach out to me on email or through the Thrive Inside Nutrition website. I’d love to chat about it because I know exactly how vulnerable you feel when you’re going through something like this. It’s important to know that you’re not the only one. So you guys have a great day. Hang in there.