Stubbornness, outbursts, lack of effort in school and brooding. These all were elements of the parental challenges we faced with our son. A strong-willed child with an abundance of passion communicated through high emotions (good or bad) and lots of noise to go along with it. There were days when I didn’t think we’d survive.
I read books on discipline. (“The Explosive Child” by Ross Greene was quite helpful.) We tried harsher punishments, lesser punishments, being his friend, being the strong-arm, counseling, groveling and selling our souls to the devil.
As he got older, I saw much of it paying off. His joy and humor sometimes shined through, but it was often overshadowed by an anger. The anger followed him, colored our interactions, and cast a shadow on our home life. I constantly fought off self doubt — worrying that all his problems were the result of my inept parenting.
He struggled socially, coming home in tears, repeating mean things kids had said to him. He bumbled through those moments of hurt with little-boy immaturity — lashing back, deepening the divide between him and the group of kids he so desperately wanted to befriend.
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Never did I expect to find the answer to these problems in the cesspool of all adolescent turmoil: middle school.
I worried, on his first day of middle school, when he came home and told me he hardly knew anyone in any of his classes.
Yet, within days, my son was making friends. Lots of them. A couple weeks in, he was invited to a birthday party of a new friend. And then another birthday party after that. He had plans on weekends. I was carting around a minivan stuffed with hilarious, smart, vibrant kids. My son had found his tribe.
The finding of his tribe initiated a multitude of changes in our lives. Suddenly, his grades went from barely scraping by to solid A’s with the occasional B. He won awards. He got top grades in his classes.
“Mom, I like school. I like having friends,” he told me.
His transformation followed him home. His sharp temper disappeared, and he became the gregarious, easygoing kid he’d longed to be.
Throughout the process, I found out things. Things that made me sad and angry. Multiple people confessed that other moms had disparaged him throughout grade school. That he’d been tagged — by adults — as the kid to avoid. His missteps had started the ball rolling, but the ball ran out of control, and nothing he could do could stop it.
He came home a couple weeks ago sad again. A kid from grade school, he had not seen in several years, told my son’s new friends that they shouldn’t like my son. The kid had been a thorn in my son’s side; history was repeating itself.
I could see old wounds reopening. He worried he’d be ejected from the tribe.
And then, I had an epiphany. That my response to this mean kid was important to more than just my son, it affected this other kid, too. And his family. Labeling a young kid as “unworthy of friendship” may seem like a good idea, but it also might be the root of the problem.
“Maybe he’s worried that if the boys like you, they won’t like him,” I said of his past-enemy. “Maybe he’s hoping they’ll be his friend, but worried you’ll try to stop them. Think about how bad this feels — you wouldn’t want to do that back to someone. And anyway, you two might be friends someday.”
He shrugged, and the whole matter dissolved. Because he has, in fact, found a place of emotional safety where he could define himself, not be constricted by a preconceived ideas. Emotional safety is fertile ground for someone to blossom. And boy, I sure love watching that kid grow.