Thursday, November 17, 2011

What Makes a Parent Harm Their Child? I Think I Understand

If you think I'm being flippant with my title, think again. There have been too many news stories of late where little ones have been killed by their parents. Parental anger is no joke -- in fact, for many children, it's life or death.

While I know there are bad people out there who do terrible things to children, I also think there are good people out there who don't have the skills needed to deal with challenging children and who, as a result, find themselves doing the unthinkable.

"Not me!" you say? Well, I'm happy for you. Not me either, thank God, but that doesn't mean that raising a child with a mental illness (yes, ADHD and ODD are considered mental illnesses) hasn't given me a glimpse of my darker side, and I don't like it. In fact, it scares me. If I have the skills to cope and yet can still get that lost in my anger, how difficult must it be for a parent/caregiver who doesn't have the skills or who has anger issues of his/her own? I have often said that children with ODD are the poster children for child abuse, and I stand by that.

Let me tell you the true story of the events of one evening, one of many similar evenings I've lived the past few years.

It's 4 a.m and I haven't been to bed yet. Bear woke up at 11 p.m., just as TheODDDad and I were heading to bed ourselves. Given that I work from home and can nap if I need to and he has to get up at 5 a.m. to go to work, I'm on evening Bear duty. Bear's ADHD meds wore off about eight hours ago, so not only is he wide awake, he's wired. He's running up and down the hall yelling (we're in a 1000 ft bungalow, so he's running and yelling right in front of the bedrooms) and jumping off furniture. I've tried everything to get him to be quiet. I've played with him, cooked him a hotdog and made him a sandwich, watched him play video games and put on a movie, but as usual, nothing works. I say as usual because this is the third time in 10 days this has happened. I've tried to lie down on the couch to nap, but he runs in and jumps on me every time. For whatever reason, he needs to be with me at all times when he's up during the night. For the record, I need 10 hours of sleep to function properly and I don't do well with children bugging the hell out of me when I'm tired. I'm now at the end of my rope and am desperately trying not to scream at him. He's now decided that I'm the worst mother in the world because I won't play hockey with him or make him the hamburger he now wants. His aggression kicks in (for the umpteenth time tonight night) and he screams at me (again) that he's going to throw something at me and that he hopes he hurts me -- then he picks up the nearest toy and hurls it at my head. Neither my patience nor my reflexes are at their best at 4 a.m., so the toy hits me in the shoulder. I lose it. I scoop him up and storm down to his room where I literally drop him on his bed, screaming at him to stay in his room and how I don't want to hear a sound out of him, blah, blah, blah. He's up in a flash, screaming back at me, telling me I'm a stupid idiot, that he hates me, and that he's going to yell and scream til he wakes up Daddy and Stitch. But that's it...I'm done. I can't take it any more. What feels like torment and abuse at the hands of a pint-size bully has been going on for five hours, and I'm barely functioning in a haze of exhaustion. I raise my hand to hit him, but somewhere deep inside it registers that I haven't swung my hand back to catch him on his behind, I've raised it to slap him. Where, I don't know because I manage to stop myself despite how good it sounds at that very moment, but I can only imagine it would be across the face. Instead I storm out of his room, slamming the door as hard as I can behind me, fist balled in my mouth, teeth biting into my knuckles to stop myself from screaming my anger. Too many four-letter words are swirling through my mind, but I can't bring myself to tell my son to shut-the-f-up any more than I can bring myself to slap him across the face. But the slap was a close one, and so is the screaming. Instead I run into my bedroom and climb into bed fully dressed, telling TheODDDad that I just can't do it and that he has to take over before I do or say something I'll regret and how I don't give a damn if he has to call in sick but he has to take over. He knows I mean it, so he quickly takes over. Bear comes into the room to see where I've gone (because now he needs me to comfort him), but I don't trust myself to open my mouth, so instead I lay there with tears streaming down my face from the effort of not saying anything and feeling like the worst mother in the world. Now exhausted from the evening's events, a crying Bear allows himself to be ushered out of the room and back into bed by TheODDDad, where he finally falls asleep. It's now 5 a.m. and time for TheODDDad to get up anyway, so he comes back into our bedroom, turns off the alarm that's about to go off, asks me if I'm OK (knowing I'm not but that I will be, just like I've been OK every other time this has happened), wipes away my tears, tucks me in, kisses me softly, tells me he loves me and that he's sorry I've had such a hard night, gathers up his clothes and tiptoes out to get ready for work, closing the door softly behind him so as not to disturb the now quiet household. Bear wakes up four hours later and comes bouncing into the bedroom, once again my happy little Bear and having completely forgotten about the night's events.

I shudder to think how this story would have ended if I didn't have the skills to cope with Bear. I don't have a temper, I don't have impulse control issues, I understand that he has a mental illness and that there's a reason why he does the things he does. For the most part, these things help me to remain cool, calm and collected regardless of what he's throwing at me (literally). But what if that wasn't the case? ADHD is genetic, so what if I, too, suffered from the temper and the lack of impulse control that can come with it? What if I had ODD that I had never learned to control and got violent when I got angry? What if I, too, had been raised by a parent with ADHD who hadn't been able to control either me or their reactions and had been beaten myself? How, then, would I cope with Bear? Would I be able to?

Make no mistake -- I am in no way condoning child abuse or making excuses for people who hurt children. But am I saying that I can see how a parent who loves their child but doesn't have the skills to cope can be pushed to the point where they might hurt their child? Unfortunately, I am.

There but for the grace of God, go I.


  1. Groan, just posted a comment but google deleted it so I will attempt to redo...Wow Laura what a horrific night and sequence of events. You are so right, I don't know how any one, even with the skills you have, can predict how they would react to a night like that. There but for the grace of god go you indeed. It's one slog at a time, surive it and move on. You are an amazing mother and your humility in describing the challenges you face is humbling!

  2. Thanks, C. The thing is that 1 in 5 children has a mental illness, which means that similar scenes play out in households around the world on a daily basis. The shame in finding yourself so out of control is something felt by parents everywhere, except nobody talks about it. That has to change, which is why I do what I do.

  3. Laura,

    How many times have I been in the same place. Situations that have drained me. Children who have completely unravelled that proverbial last nerve. Exhaustion that has set in so profoundly that it's a second skin and my muscles ache beyond measure.

    This is when we have to remember to breath. We need to be able to turn to a support system. We need to be able to walk away (with the child in safety) and keep them safe from the eminent danger that they face - which sadly at the moment is us.

    Mental illness is not something that we can control. It is something that we will manage - at BEST!

    I hope that things have calmed down for you this week. Know that you are not alone. We are here with you, cheering you in your successes, and ready to hug you in those less then stellar moments.

    At least you recognized that you had to remove yourself from the situation. That is something to cheer for. And here is you (((HUG))) for having reached that point where you couldn't be the Mom that Bear wanted after he'd spent a night beyond measure and pushed you beyond exhaustion.

  4. This is my life everyday. I have struggled for years to get my son help and nothing has helped as a matter of fact one of the other kids were removed because of his behavior. My life feels like I'm already in hell. Cheers to the mons who make it and children who succeed.

  5. I've had many instances like this. Nice to know I'm not alone.