Raising a child alone in a culture of quick fixes

Sam burst into the office, a two-year-old wild bundle of energy. Squealing with delight — or was it distress; it was hard to tell — he ran from toy to toy not looking at me or his mother, Jane. He was unable to engage with anything. Jane had brought him to see me in my pediatric practice because, “he hits me, has explosive tantrums, and I can’t take him anywhere.” She sank into the couch. I sat on the floor, wanting to listen to Jane, but also to include Sam in the visit. At first, I focused my attention on her story, while Sam continued his frantic exploration of the room.

Jane described a scene at the playground. The other mothers had been engaged in easy conversation, but she was on edge. She knew Sam was “inflexible” and at any moment could go from happy play to a full-blown tantrum. Sure enough, as she tried to join in the group, she saw him getting upset because his toy car was stuck. She rushed over to calm him, but his crying escalated. As the other kids and moms turned to look, she quickly went from embarrassment to rage. She yelled at Sam to cut it out. This only made him scream more. Finally, she grabbed him, her bag and his toys and ran to her car, where she collapsed in tears of helplessness.

Things had not been easy for Jane. Sam’s father had abused her and was in prison. She was afraid when she felt Sam’s anger that he would turn out like his father. Of her own mother she said, “She was never there for me.” Jane was frustrated and bewildered by the fact that Sam could relate to other people, yet reserved all his difficult behavior for her.

At the beginning of the visit, Jane made several awkward attempts to interact with Sam, but without success. She was anxious and her body language felt intrusive, which seemed to cause Sam to withdraw. As she opened up and shared more of her painful feelings with me, however, an interesting transformation occurred. Sam began to engage in more focused play. Mom and I talked about what Sam was doing, observing together how he was calming down. At first he talked to me, bringing me toys and naming them and describing what he was doing. But then he spontaneously ran over and gave his mother a hug. Her whole body relaxed, she leaned forward on the couch toward him, her pleasure and relief palpable in the room. Sam began to engage her in his play, and to communicate with her. Jane told me that she had been reluctant to come for the appointment, but was glad she had.

Being a parent of such a child is a hard job. Raising a child alone, without support from extended family or a spouse, is even harder. In our culture of advice and quick fixes, in seeking help for her problems with him, Sam’s mother would find many who would offer “expert” advice about how to manage her child’s behavior. An increasing number would recommend some type of medication to control his “hyperactivity.” Helping her to be fully emotionally present with her child — supporting her in the challenges she faced as a mother — is not a common approach.

Yet current research at the interface of developmental psychology, neuroscience and behavioral genetics is showing that it is just this type of intervention that will help children like Sam to manage strong emotions and relate to other people. A child’s mind grows and develops when the people who are most important to the child are able to think about and understand a child’s experience from the child’s perspective, without being overwhelmed or shutting down.

A parent’s capacity to “hold the child in mind” leads to a child’s increased cognitive resourcefulness, greater social skills, and better capacity to regulate emotions. If we -pediatricians, teachers, therapists, grandparents, neighbors — can help a mother like Sam’s to join her child, to accept his “low frustration tolerance” as part of him, not a reflection of her own failure as a parent, then she can help him regulate his frustration. He can then learn to manage his feelings on his own. Most important, if she can do this, she may actually change the way his brain handles stress and strong emotions.

Claudia M. Gold is a pediatrician who blogs at Child in Mind and is the author of Keeping Your Child in Mind.

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  • Suzi Q 38

    I had a child similar to this, It started when he was 9 or 10 months old and came to a head when he was about 2.

    Our daughter was 17 months older, and was so easy that I could not understand what his problem was.

    I decided to adjust my work and personal time schedule and stay home with him. I went from working 40 hours a week to working 25. Thank goodness we were fairly frugal, did not have huge bills, and with both of our incomes, we could make it.

    I held and hugged him at every opportunity. We sat and played on the floor, or we watched the juke box play 45′s for a half an hour.
    The woman in the story, being a single parent, does not have the same option that I had.
    If I were her, I would also closely look at his childcare situation. Maybe the childcare provider is not kind and may be verbally or physically abusive while the mother is working.

    Unlike our daughter, our son just needed more attention and time. I quit my old job that included monthly travel and worked part time for a different company. The travel was markedly less. His behavior improved.

    I was lucky I could do this. When he got older, I worked, but made it a priority to pick the children up after school.

    He ended up being brilliant in computer science. He became a computer engineer, and he designs Iphone games and sells them. He does quite well. No student loans to pay off, LOL. He lives and works on his own in NYC. When he was a child, I realized this strength and always provided him with the games, computers, programming classes that he wanted.
    I would take him to a computer club on Saturdays that would run “programs” as a competition. He was just nerdy and a little different.

    I am convinced that our daughter was easy and he was difficult, but I love both just the same. I had to make concessions for him with my work schedule, but I would like to think that his unique personal demands of my time made making a few changes necessary. These changes were better for the family as a whole. He, at the age of two (terrible two’s) brought me to my “knees.” After all, he was and still is very important.

    He was worth making changes for.

  • http://www.facebook.com/guylaine.riendeau.12 Guylaine Riendeau

    I quite know the feeling! Being myself a single mom of 3 boys, I sometimes feel I won’t make it on my own! Going to the grocery with them is a nightmare, not only because they won’t stop running around, but for the look of everyone else in the store. I know they are thinking that I can’t handle my children, that a little more discipline is necessary, even medication! Stop judging without knowing. I would have been glad to stay home with them, but can’t afford it.

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