Okay, I said I was only going to focus on the happy parts of last weekend, of which there were many, but I keep thinking about these sort of awful moments we had with Riley, and I could use your advice, or at least your ear.

First, a bit of backstory. I’ve talked about Riley’s various sensitivities here and there over the last few years. Maybe that’s not the right word—sensitivities—but it seems like the closest thing that captures it. Sensory issues seems a little more … I don’t know, official, sort of, than the kind of stuff I’m talking about. A lot of them he’s outgrown (he’s nowhere near as picky of an eater as he used to be, he isn’t freaked out by balloons any more, he can watch movies now without getting overly worked up over The Potential for Scary Scenes—all of these things were major problems before) but he can definitely still be a tentative, anxious kid about certain things.

A couple things happened last weekend that had us getting increasingly frustrated with Riley. First there was the Slip N’ Slide, which every kid was going nuts over. While everyone was having a blast on it, Riley hovered on the sidelines but couldn’t be talked into even sitting on it. He gave a thousand excuses for why he didn’t want to try it—he didn’t want to get wet, he didn’t want to get grass on him, he was too cold—but it was clear he was just too freaked out by it. Eventually JB got him to slide about six inches down the stupid thing while I snapped the saddest photo you ever saw. Like one of those awful roller coaster keepsake photos where everyone’s faces are frozen into a barfy expression of pure terror.

Anyway, no major deal, right? So this year he hates the Slip N’ Slide. Next year he’ll probably love it. Whatever.

Except … well, it kind of sucked, you know? I felt bad for him, I felt a little embarrassed (well-meaning family member: “Oh, I used to be an anxious kid too! Scared of everything!”), I felt annoyed that he couldn’t trust us that the slide wasn’t going to kill him.

The next day JB tried to take him swimming—not even swimming, just holding him in the water while he was wearing a life jacket—and WOW. I mean, wow. Riley just had an absolute meltdown, screaming and crying and carrying on. The water was too cold, the water had fish in it, he didn’t like it … he just lost his shit completely, at the top of his lungs.

JB’s reaction was to tell Riley that he was going to have to deal, that he wasn’t going to let go of him or anything like that, but that he had to stay in the water for a while until he calmed down. Which he didn’t. He just kept freaking out until JB and I were fighting with each other over what we should do. Keep him in there? Take him out? Push the issue? Back down?

We took him out, but mostly because I was humiliated by the scene we were causing.

I am ashamed to say that we both used language with Riley that was intended to make him feel bad about himself. We said he was being a baby, we said he was acting ridiculous. I remember saying that I was disgusted with his behavior.

You don’t have to tell me how shitty that was, believe me.

It gets worse. So a couple days later, we’re on our way back home and we’ve briefly stopped in Vancouver. The four of us were walking down the street through a bunch of people and Riley tripped and fell, skinning his knee. He instantly started howling and flipping out, and JB and I just . . . laid into him. I can’t imagine what someone must have thought if they saw us, reacting to our hurt kid by yanking him to his feet and hissing at him to stop it right now. I can’t say what JB was thinking, but I know for me it was the cumulation of several weekend frustrations, and the swimming freakout in particular, that had me feeling like my last shred of patience had disappeared. You are are TOO BIG to be acting like SUCH A GODDAMNED BABY, is what was going through my head. Oh god, we were so visibly irritated with him, and while he stood there sobbing with blood running down his knee, he turned his wet face to us and with this heartbreaking look of utter confusion said, “Why are you guys so mad at me?”

Well. I don’t feel good about telling you this, you know. I’d rather sweep that shitty memory under the rug for-fucking-ever.

But, okay, it happened, and I don’t want it to happen again. I know that’s on me, on us, that it’s our responsibility to not get mad at him in these situations, and definitely to not belittle him. I can’t stop thinking about how bad I feel for being so hard on him, and how it didn’t even help, for god’s sake. And worse, how I actually wanted, in the frustration of the moment, for him to feel bad about himself for the way he was acting. I wanted that. What the fuck.

I don’t know how to help him past these fears, and maybe part of what is so maddening is that we can’t help him, we can’t convince him that it’s okay, we can’t calm him down, and that feels like a failure on top of a failure. I don’t know how to pull aside the muddying issue of caring about what other people think, when these things happen in public. I don’t know if it’s better to hold our ground on certain things or back off completely. I don’t know how I can possibly expect him to act mature and in control, when clearly I can’t manage to do so myself.


231 Responses to “Mishandled”

  1. Monica on July 8th, 2011 11:47 am

    I can totally relate to this post. My oldest son is about Riley’s age and my husband is really hard on him about certain things. This week we went for a run with him riding his bike and the entire time it was just miserable for him. He’s upset that my son is still on training wheels and that he can’t even get up a small incline on the road. Yes, it’s frustrating but I feel that when he’s ready, he’ll be ready. It’s disappointing that he could only run 1/4 mile and ride his bike for only 2 (if that!). I was thinking that maybe we were asking too much from him, but I just can’t buy into it. We quit playing team sports because he cried a lot during the practices and the games. He only started playing the last game of the season and he’d cry when someone would take the ball from him. It’s embarrassing when your kid isn’t the star player, not even an avid player! He falls and screams crying all the time. My daughter (who is only 3) could hurt herself the exact same way and it wouldn’t even phase her. It’s so frustrating and my husband doesn’t handle his tears very well. He’s our sensitive child and I have to remind myself that when he’s crying and when he’s being such a 6-year-old baby. I want to be the mother to always encourage and never belittle. I want to be the mother that oozes patience in the grocery store when they have a meltdown. But mostly, I want to show him unconditional love. I go with the “when he’s ready, he’ll be ready” stance. I don’t push too much. And this year, he wants to play soccer again! So a 2 year break worked in our favor! Hopefully….we’ll see once the season starts.

  2. Rhonda on July 8th, 2011 12:39 pm

    Parent of three; 2 boys, 1 girl in that order; all 18 months apart. I would classify Middle Son (MS) as close to your Riley in temperament.

    Personal experience: Our family celebrated daughter’s birthday with annual visit to Santa Cruz, CA for day at the beach and fun on the Boardwalk. Daughter’s 3rd birthday at the beach was going well in all respects.

    Father had gone ahead to Boardwalk with both boys (Oldest son (OS), 6; MS 4 1/2) about 10 minutes before me. I was wheeling daughter in stroller with my mother alongside, when I heard blood-curdling screams that I recognized were coming from MS. I quickened my pace by leaving my mother in charge of stroller w/daughter.

    I followed the screams and arrived to find father trying to force MS to get on one of the rides. OS was already on the ride, sailing through the air, laughing, and having a great time. MS was standing at the railing near the waiting line. His hands had a death-grip on the rail and he was screaming and filled with fear. His father was leaning over him telling him to stop screaming and get in line. Clearly, MS did not want to get in line.

    When I approached the scene, I asked father what was going on and his version included all I had seen and the fact that because MS would not get on the ride, he had to miss the ride, too. I was also told that there was ‘no reason’ for MS to be scared.

    I relieved father so he could get in line for the ride. By now, OS had finished first ride and was ready to go again. He was busy telling MS it was a great ride and asking him to go with him. MS refused to budge, though his screaming had subsided to quiet sobs.

    I suggested we sit on a nearby bench and watch OS and father while they took their turns on the ride. MS quieted down in a few minutes and I asked what it was about the ride that scared him. He said he didn’t know, but he just wanted to watch the ride first before deciding if he wanted to do it.
    So I suggested we do just that and then, if he wanted to ride that I would go with him.

    We did just that for the next hour and for the next two annual trips to Santa Cruz’s Boardwalk. MS decided on the third trip that he would ride one ride. He did and enjoyed himself; not as much as OS and father, but in his own way he enjoyed his chosen ride.

    That occurred 32 years ago and MS is still cautionary in most of his life. He has definite likes and dislikes; he looks longer than most before he leaps; he is not a risk-taker to the degree that OS is and he is fine with it.

    I tell you all of this because from my perspective what I read in your post had more to do with you and JB than it did with Riley. Riley knows what he wants to do and what he doesn’t want to do; Riley knows what you and JB want him to do and don’t want him to do. They don’t always match up.

    In the bigger scheme of things, would it have really mattered if Riley just watched the slip and slide activities of others; if Riley had not gone for a swim with JB; if Riley cried because he fell down and it hurt?

    We all express our individuality in ways different from others. My MS distinguishes his individuality differently than others and I am glad for it.

    Respecting the differences of others is an admirable quality. Permitting everyone in and around our own orbit to feel safe and secure in their orbit is what gives us license to feel the same safety and security and freedom of choice we have all been granted but is so often readily snatched away by others with more power and control.

    My MS has two children, 5 and 3, and I get to see him interact with them and deal with their differences on a regular basis. It is a joy to watch him respect their abilities to have an inner knowing of what they are ready to do and what they are only ready to watch.

    Again, I respect your honest postings about life on life’s terms in your household. It takes courage to post the moments in our lives as parents when we don’t match up with the ‘ideal’ that has been constructed by external sources in our society. I so appreciate that you not only post your truthful perspectives, but you ask for feedback, suggestions, and honest-to-God HELP. Bless you and your family.

    My only other comment on this post is to suggest you and JB watch the movie “Parenthood.” This topic, and many others that are more often than not part of the daily living we do when we are parents, is acted out with the same level of honesty about how flawed we feel as parents; how ill-equipped we think we are when we are ‘flying by the seat of our pants’ most of the time; how bewildering it can become when we are flawed and ill-equipped and still have been blessed (?) to be the caretakers of our children that are the wonders of our lives.

  3. HollowSquirrel on July 8th, 2011 3:56 pm

    Thanks for posting — I’ve been at the bottom of the shame spiral from losing my own shit with our 5.5 year old (on vacation, as well). Love reading the comments, too. I haven’t been by in a long time, but this post reminded me why I need to come back and read more. Take care & SERENITY NOW!

  4. Kate on July 8th, 2011 7:48 pm

    My son is also a bit sensitive and takes a lot of time to warm up to new things. Most of the time he just needs me to back off and give him the space to get comfortable with things in his own time- I’ve noticed that he warms about in about the same amount of time if I do nothing as he does if I waste energy cajoling and encouraging. Mostly I’ve realized I just need to put aside my issues about how I want him to be and just accept that this is the way he is- and try to remember that just because it isn’t my style doesn’t mean that it needs to be changed.

    However, it can sure be frustrating! But lots of discussion about new places and experiences and what to expect ahead of time has helped a lot, too. And also telling him if he tries something and doesn’t like it, he can stop as soon as he wants- and that is his choice 100% – but he should try it. (I always praise the trying a lot, regardless of outcome).

    However, if you have any suggestions about how to get him to wear either jeans or any article of clothing with a button on it, please- I’m all ears!!!!

  5. Jen on July 8th, 2011 8:25 pm

    We are dealing with similar behavior with Maggie (she’s 4) and you know what’s funny? I think because she’s a girl, it’s more… accepted?? Like, it should be OKAY that she’s afraid of the slip and slide? (OMG THAT JUST HAPPENED TO US LAST WEEK.) And it’s OKAY that she flips the eff out at a paper cut? But to me, it’s NOT okay. It’s so incredibly frustrating and embarrassing and I have BEEN THERE with the language and the yelling at my crying kid because for the LOVE OF GOD, RELAAAXXXXX.

    I’m just trying to encourage her to try new things and help her to not be so afraid, you know? She has started gymnastics recently and I think that’s been helping- someone ELSE is there to help her do new stuff and it’s giving her a little more confidence, I think.

    So. Yeah. No advice for you, unfortunately. Just commiseration. And, from what I’ve gathered from talking with other moms, all kids go through these phases. SIGH. Hang in there!

  6. Penny on July 8th, 2011 8:35 pm

    When he asks why you are mad at him, tell him. He really is confused, he doesn’t know that his behavior reflects on the whole family. And it does. Tell him that when he refuses to play at playtime or swim with his parents or get up and let his parents see about his knee without him screaming bloodly murder that it makes you mad because all of those things were things he could have made better choices in. Sounds harsh but child-rearing isn’t a piece of cake. He wants to know, so why not tell him?

  7. Kellie on July 9th, 2011 5:33 pm

    Been there. You have to first get to the point where you and JB couldn’t give two shits what anyone thinks about Riley in these situations. Then you will be able to help him through them.

    Having been there, I would just recommend a developmental ped. Couldn’t hurt and you will find out if he’s just sensitive or maybe something else. No big deal.

  8. liz on July 10th, 2011 10:30 am

    My memories of childhood always include an apology from my mom after she yelled at or was sharp with us, and an explanation of why she yelled. Generally it was because she had been frustrated about other things….and no, she did not apologize for yelling when we deserved it. ;) I learned to apologize for poor behavior that way, and mean it. It has stood me in good stead as an adult. If you feel like you were out of line, apologize to your kids. And I SO get where you were coming from…I go there with my dog and feel terrible afterwards, I can only imagine how much worse I’d feel if it were with kids. You are human. Don’t beat yourself up for every misstep.

  9. bj on July 10th, 2011 3:44 pm

    I have no advice, but I wanted to say I’ve “laid into” my child to. I once told my 8 year old to stop acting like such a child.

    Everyone, including the eight year old, just looked at me. It took a while to dawn on me that I *was* talking to a child.

    I felt bad, but it still hasn’t kept me from loosing it when my kid messes up.

  10. Janet on July 10th, 2011 7:34 pm

    As someone who works with kiddos of all ages with anxiety, sensory sensitivities and difficulties with emotional regulation, I would recommend speaking to your pediatrician to see if you can get an OT referral. It really can help, the kids think it’s fun to go and it would give you someone to talk to who can provide support and more importantly, actual strategies you can do in your day to day life.

    Good luck!

  11. Holly on July 10th, 2011 8:00 pm

    Dude, you are way too hard on yourself and he’s too young to start flogging yourself for a little flip-out moment. He’s got a lifetime of things he’ll do that will piss you off – you’ll flip out on him a few more times, trust me. Sometimes it might even be good for him. In the meantime, don’t worry so much. I know fo’ sho’ my kid brings out the best and worst in me…you gotta forgive them, and yourself, and move on. Life isn’t about being perfect and sheltering them from the human parts of mom and dad – but teaching them how to move through the crappy moments onto the the better stuff.

  12. wwbd on July 10th, 2011 9:24 pm

    Been there. Done that. It sucks.

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  14. Jessica on July 11th, 2011 7:32 pm

    I don’t know if anyone else mentioned this, but I wonder if the expectation for him to not act like a baby is higher because he’s a boy?

    Don’t have any real advice, but this video made me think a bit more about how I interact with my nieces and nephews…


  15. Kate on July 11th, 2011 7:45 pm

    My dtr is going to be 6 on 7/17. She does the same thing. She can get hit in the face with a ball at T-Ball and be fine but completely flip over the stupidest stuff. I am guilty too but I just have had enough with all of the crying! I don’t know what to do..

  16. Lisa on July 11th, 2011 8:19 pm

    My oldest is very sensitive like that. We monitor him tightly and when he’s not able to be flexible, we try (if we can) to avoid things we think might set him off. We try (if we can) to remove him from situations where he is losing control of himself so he can retain control of himself. But on days that he does have good self control, we try to ask a lot of him.

    I say this as a teacher with more than a decade’s experience and a parent. Sensitive kids respond to adult feedback. The more energy you put into the system, the more energetic their response will be. If they’ve lost it and you yell, raise your voice, or in anyway add to it, it becomes that much harder for them to regain control. However, if your response is quiet and cool, it makes it easier for them to regain control.

    My best tools for managing my sensitive one when he is struggling to manage himself: a very quiet, calm voice, tight hugs, and adjusting my expectations/plans on the fly when I can. I also remind myself (a lot) that it isn’t that he won’t do it, he CAN”T do that today. That helps.

  17. Shanna on July 13th, 2011 9:44 am

    Ugh, I feel your pain. We have a very stubbord 5yo boy. I waffle between thinking his behavior is typical 5yo grasping for control and over the top/ridiculous. My husband and I routinely lose our cool with him. It is like all these years of meltdowns has permanantly altered our breaking point so now we go from 0 to “knock it the eff off” in the blink of an eye. I actually just had a horrible, guilt ridden night over how I treat my kid. When I look at it objectively, I know that his behavior is not that bad and that he is a really great kid; but man he can push my buttons like no one else. Try not to beat yourself up over it, kids are hard, we make mistakes, you’re trying.

  18. Fidi on July 13th, 2011 4:52 pm

    Oh god, I say exactly the same things / do exactly the same to my almost 6 year old, who is also frightend of everything. You are definitively not alone. Btw, my kid usually replies with “You are not my friend!” in such situations.

  19. Deb on July 13th, 2011 5:49 pm

    i know I am late to the discussion, but just a quick note to let you know that it all sounds perfectly normal for a cautious kid. My son is the SAME way and I will tell you that this year (he is going into first grade), has been SO SO much better than the last few. There are so many things that I thought he would never do and now he does them, no problem. Climbing, swimming, diving boards, monkey bars, etc. I think he doesn’t want to do anything until he can do it well.

    That being said, he did have a huge breakdown yesterday because no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t slide all teh way down the slip n slide (looking at your picture, I now realize it was probably due to the flat surface!)

    My husband is the one who often tries to belittle to no avail, but sometimes he does actually wear him down. I don’t think it the best approach and I balance it with it is ok, you are just more sensitive (case in point, he hates water in his eyes and always wears goggles swimming and one of those visors in the bath, but my husband hates it and always tell him how he never used them/didn’t need them. My son has been trying so very hard to prove that he doesn’t ALWAYS need them. i think it is sad that he is trying so hard and think it is absolutely fine for him to always protect his eyes if that makes him feel better and able to swim/put his head under the water. Really, you are embarrassed that he wears goggles, I tell my husband. That is ridiculous and you do not know how he feels when he gets water in his eyes – some sympathy would go a LONG way).

  20. lonek8 on July 13th, 2011 7:32 pm

    this post is just devastating to me because I am in the exact situation with my son. he freaks out over the stupidest things, ALL THE TIME, things like the bath water being too hot when both of his sisters are sitting in it perfectly fine. And i just can’t handle it. i try so hard to stay calm and patient, and work with him to calm himself down, but sometimes I can’t manage it and I yell and scream and threaten and find myself trying to make him feel bad about himself – like shame will change his behavior. It is absolutely horrible and I feel like the worst mother – my greatest fear is that every time I fail to keep it together I am further destroying any relationship i might have with him. Is he only going to remember me as mean rather than for love and support? Crushing failure as a parent.

    thank you so much for posting this, and please, please share any new changes you find that help!

  21. Christine on July 13th, 2011 8:13 pm

    I usually never comment, but omg, this brings back memories.. My son, who is now 16, was the most sensitive kid ever. I remember going to a birthday party at Mcdonalds when he was 3 and all the other kids were playing on the slides and climbing, frolicking, having fun. And he just sat there, content to watch but not to participate. I realize now, it was MY problem, but I felt embarrased for myself and him that he just didn’t want to have fun. No matter how hard I pushed him to just “try”, he would cry and carry on. I, too, lost my shit that day and many days at the frustration. I just wanted him to be normal. Even now, he’s not a risk taker. All his friends are psyched about getting their liscenses, not him, he could really care less/ There are still times, I feel sorry for him, feel he’s missing out on so much, but it’s my problem, not his.

  22. Barnmaven on July 15th, 2011 2:22 pm

    If you haven’t already had him evaluated for a sensory processing issue, I would recommend it.

  23. Kelly on July 15th, 2011 7:19 pm

    Thanks for posting these sort of entries. Preparing to become a Mom for the first time, I find it so helpful to get so many perspectives on how to deal with the parenting situations I wonder about. Over the years I’ve learned a lot from you, your boys and the commenters. :)

  24. K on July 17th, 2011 6:15 am

    I have no advice. I’ve felt the same way you do many times with both my boys. I get mad hoping it will make them act they way I want them to and then feel horrible after. I always try to apologize to them when I’ve lost my cool. But, I’ll admit, apologizing is a huge blow to my pride.

    My brother was somewhat like this and I can honestly tell you that even though it was frustrating for my parents he grew up to be a responsible, well-functioning adult with an incredibly kind and sensitive heart. He is an awesome husband and volunteered his time in college working with special needs kids.

  25. Marilyn on July 26th, 2011 6:24 am

    OMG, funny stuff. How many times have my husband and I found ourselves in those situtations in the past? Our children are older now (sometimes too old, sometimes not old enough (12 & 11 their twins boy and girl, no really) but I find myself saying things to my 12 yo son like “You need to grow some and stop acting like a baby”. After I say it I think ” Who says that to their kid?”

  26. jessi on July 29th, 2011 6:55 pm

    I hear ya. <3

  27. @Adelas on July 30th, 2011 2:30 pm

    Sometimes I suck too. I think more often than I get it right. But my kids do know that I love them. I’m pretty sure yours do too.

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