Late last week, I’d had a good day at work, and was generally in a good mood, when I walked to Lily and Neve’s preschool/daycare and entered the building. Within seconds, though, one of the caregivers approached me in the hall and said, with a grimace, “Uh, some really bad news.”
Because she normally works in Neve’s room, my first thought was that Neve had fallen ill; but then she added, “Lily got upset a few minutes ago and hit one of the kids, and then hit a teacher who tried to stop her, and then she hit Miss Jenny,” Lily’s most beloved teacher. “Now she’s screaming and crying and will not calm down.” (Turns out she’d been assigned a group and a room that was not to her liking.)
I felt myself physically and emotionally wilt. Lily has had these awful bouts with anger plenty of times before, and she knows better than to hit me or Joe. But she’d never before hit teachers, that I knew of. So in that moment, I knew things were getting worse, not better.
Having dealt with these meltdowns before, I knew I’d be trying to calm her down for a good while, so I decided to leave Neve in her classroom while I tried to deal with Lily. (Which made me feel guilty on top of despairing, since Neve had been there all day and would spend even less time with me because I was dealing with my flailing, screaming, out-of-control older daughter.)
I entered the empty classroom where Lily sat red-eyed, red-faced, howling, and wailing on the floor next to her teacher, who was kindly trying to distract Lily by talking about something else entirely.
I sat down on a nearby chair, cupped my face in my hands for a moment, gathering my strength, and plowed into the conversation, knowing perfectly well that none of it would get Lily to a state of calm any sooner. Once she’s “left the building,” as Joe and I call it, she’s out for a good while.
She yelled about wanting to stay in the room that night with no teachers, and no one to take care of her. How Joe and I weren’t her Daddy and Mommy anymore, and that she didn’t love us, or even Neve. And whenever the teacher or I would explain why this wasn’t possible, or that I was her Mommy no matter what, she said, “I don’t care.”
Repeatedly. Like Pierre in Maurice Sendak’s book (which I’ve read with Lily). I even mentioned that she sounded like him, and guess what her response was? “I don’t care!” Awesome.
At this point, I realized her teacher normally picked up her daughter from the toddler room (across the hall) and left for the day, so I began working toward an exit strategy for her from this ugly situation. “You may not care, but Miss Jenny cares about her family, and they care about her. They’ll want to spend time together now, so she has to go now.”
“I don’t care!”
No way. (We’d begun taking away five minutes of her very limited and highly valued television time every time she talks back to us, so she was racking up time pretty quickly. Not that she, well, cared in the moment.)
Lily’s teacher finally got to leave, and I tried for several minutes, using various tactics, to speak calmly to Lily. No matter how many times this strategy has failed, I always, for some reason, think that if I do this, Lily will gradually calm down and gravitate toward my tone. And given my distaste for confrontation, this would be my preferred method of intervention. But it’s never worked. Not once. (I also think I reflexively “go there” because it takes me a little time to get to the level of crazy fury that Lily’s at in these moments; emotionally, I can’t catch up to her that quickly. I’m still processing the shock of walking into an explosion.)
So after being yelled at and hearing more nonsense and crying, I think how late it must be, and how long Neve has been waiting for me. (Feelings of incompetence and guilt = a classic parenting cocktail.) Since Lily was still stuck on staying in the room by herself that night, and nothing I could say was going to snap her out of her rage, I decided to let her experience her wish for a few minutes.
“OK, I’m going to get Neve,” I announced with a shrug, standing up and leaving the room.
A moment later, in stark contrast, Neve happily toddled toward me and said, “Mama!” Well, one out of two ain’t bad, I suppose. And given how much Lily and Neve adore each other, a small part of me was hoped that Neve’s arrival on the scene might alter Lily’s behavior.
I scooped Neve into my arms, grabbed her things, went down the hall to clear out Lily’s cubbie, and then returned to the dreaded room of doom, where Lily was now lying on her stomach under a low table, her head resting on her arms. She looked, at first glance, like she was asleep. Neve, excited to see her big sister, immediately went to touch Lily’s head, chirping a toddler version of Lily’s name, trying to wake her.
But Lily was awake and continued to sulk. Because Neve started raiding her snacks, Lily suddenly, sullenly demanded her snacks. “Maybe food will help,” I thought. But it didn’t. Not really.
So I finally raised my voice and lost my temper.
“Get your coat on! I’m sick of this!” I yelled.
Suddenly, I had Lily’s attention. And she weepily, sullenly did what I asked.
We walked home in the cold darkness, my anger in full bloom. Hitting two teachers?! I’d been trying to teach Lily empathy and respect and compassion, and here she was, demonstrating the exact opposite of all these things. I reiterated to her, in clipped language, what I’d said to her many times before: “You never hit anyone, unless you’re in a situation where someone’s hurting you and there’s no one around to help you. That’s the only time you EVER hit someone.”
She walked at an even more glacial pace than usual, so I had to keep stopping and urging her to run and catch up. “I’m going to have to talk with Daddy about what your punishment will be, but I can tell you this much: you need to apologize tomorrow to both of your teachers and whichever kid in your class that you hit, or I’m not going to take you to dance class next week.”
I practically felt the steam coming out of my ears as we walked, but while I seemed to be winding up, Lily seemed to be coming down, talking about other things. I was the one now who couldn’t leave the subject of her misbehavior behind.
By the time we got home, she practically bounced inside, where Joe and a delivery man who was dropping off and setting up our new refrigerator were conferring in the kitchen. I waited until the delivery man left – by which time Lily was her happy, animated, sing-songy self – to announce to Joe what our eldest daughter had done.
And now I feel lost and worried and scared and blindsided. Ninety or ninety-five percent of the time, Lily is a charming, imaginative, outgoing, fun, smart, sharing, sweet child; but the remaining time, when she is utterly inflexible and full of rage, almost always about something as ridiculous as brushing her teeth (I kid you not). In response, we’ve tried rewards, threats, ignoring the tantrums, talking her through them … everything. And the morning after this most recent event, I tried to remind her that screaming fits about not getting what she want never, ever resulted in her actually, finally GETTING what she wanted, and that in fact, she lost things she loved as a result of them. But honestly, though she’s a sharp kid, I don’t think she has the ability to control herself in these times, no matter how much she might understand this concept in calmer moments.
I was so consumed with worry about this that I posted a brief note on Facebook about Lily’s outsized anger issues – and several friends chimed in, voicing similar concerns about their little ones. (Yes, normally Facebook is like everyone’s daily highlight reel, where we record precocious, funny or sweet things that our kids say and do, but I’m also being honest and reaching out for advice and help when I need it.) My first thought was, “Why don’t we talk about this, then? Why does the crazy-rage of four year olds feel like such a dirty little secret? Why don’t we reach out to each other and be honest?” Which is what I’m trying to do now – both in the interest of exploring other means of handling the problem, and feeling a sense of support from others.
And I get that Lily is becoming much more aware of how everywhere she goes, and everything she does, is pretty much prescribed by her parents and caregivers at all times, and she’s pushing against that level of control over her life. This is why, I think, we’re STILL having potty training issues, years after we started the process. But even so, we’ve somehow got to get through to her about acceptable ways to express her frustration and anger. Let her know that she has every right to feel this way, but that she can’t go around hitting people because of it.
The difficulty comes in figuring out what’s “normal” for a four year old growing more aware of her limitations, and what necessitates intervention and therapy. We’re not ruling anything out (including therapy) right now, since, as Joe pointed out with a shrug, “Nothing else we’ve done so far seems to be working.” But I also got a book recommendation (“The Explosive Child”) that I’ll be checking out in the meantime, in hopes of getting more insights.
So stay tuned, and keep your fingers crossed for us, please. Looks like we may have a long, tough road ahead.