Because Sometimes You Need Help: Parenting a Strong-willed Child

I watch helplessly as my daughter rips the cushions from the couch and heaves them to the floor.  “I’m not going, and there’s nothing you can do to make me.”  She picks up a tray off the coffee table and stares threateningly into my eyes, daring me to move.  “Put that down,” I say calmly in my firmest “I mean business” voice.  “No!” she says and hurls it at the wall.  Before I can respond, she grabs my arm and sinks her teeth into the muscle above my elbow.  “Go.  Go.  Just go to your room and leave me be!” I shout.  I sink into the one remaining cushion on the couch and allow the tears to flow.

I hold my throbbing arm for a moment then curl into fetal position and rock back and forth, asking over and over, “Why?  Why God?  What did I do to deserve her?”  Just as quickly, I take it back.  “I didn’t mean that.  I didn’t mean that.”  I cry until my heart feels as if it will literally break.  For ten years, I have fought the battle to love my daughter through her defiant temperament, and in that brief moment of weakness, I am tired, lonely, and helpless.  I observe the wreck of the room displayed before me, pillows strewn haphazardly across the floor, a tray on the dining room floor, and the coffee table overturned by the latest in years of tantrums.  The room outwardly resembles my emotional upheaval inside.  Moments later, my daughter timidly enters the room, tears trickling down her face, “Mommy, I’m so sorry.  I don’t how to stop once I start.” I pull her into my arms and pray quietly for wisdom while stroking her hair.  Clearly, we need help.

img_4750I often jest that my daughter came throttling out of the womb shouting, “Here I am, world! Watch Out!”  Her trying temperament made its debut in forty-eight hour long stretches of sleepless crying fits.  Upon a visit to the doctor to see if some health issue were the culprit, our pediatrician just shook his head sympathetically and wished us luck.  Our attempt at Ferberizing resulted in a battle of iron wills.  A would cry for hours on end, daring her father and I to sleep.  Attempts at time out at the tender age of two could easily evolve into three hour stretches of me chasing her through the house to return her kicking and screaming to the time-out chair.  As she got older, these fits of defiance continued to escalate with A crossing every line drawn in the sand, daring us to define another. Full cups of tea have been tossed into computers, and slamming doors have left gaping holes in walls.

Please don’t misunderstand, my daughter is beautiful, intelligent, and mostly delightful.  I love that kid with every fiber of my being.  Her tantrums can lay latent for months at a time before a simple request sparks an all-out meltdown, leaving my husband and me utterly baffled.  While our son falls apart and back into line with a mere glare, our daughter scoffs at the simple suggestion of correction.  Our family can be chugging along harmoniously when a lost shoe suddenly sends my sensitive girl over the edge, leaving us bewildered in the wake.

Hours following the most recent episode, after my husband and I put the kids to bed, he sits on the couch across from me.  “We need to get her counseling.”  I brush tears from my cheeks.  “I agree,” I whisper.  “We all need counseling.  She needs help controlling her emotions, and we need help understanding how to raise her.”  After a few moments of discussion, I agree to call some trusted friends for recommendations and shortly after, schedule our first appointment.
I’m not sure why it took ten years for my husband and me to make that call.  Perhaps we felt it would mean we were throwing in the towel and admitting we didn’t know what we were doing where A is concerned.  It’s hard to admit “failure” as a parent.  Shouldn’t we know what to do?  No one else’s children were tearing down the house over a mere lost shoe.  What were we doing wrong?

Maybe, we feared what others would think about us, that we would be judged as incompetent.  I’ve img_4446heard it all concerning my daughter.  We are too lax; we are too tough.  We are indulging her and making excuses, if we just set the boundaries and instilled more serious consequences, she would straighten out.  Ultimately, it comes down to understanding that our daughter isn’t like more compliant kids.  She definitely marches to her own beat.  If she had cancer or a broken arm, I wouldn’t hesitate to get her the help she needs physically, so why was I hesitating to get her the help she needed emotionally?

Weeks later, my husband and I are sitting on the couch of a counselor.  He sits across from us and points to a photo of his beautiful family.  Four smiling faces greet us from the frame.  “There’s a story you don’t see behind those smiles,” he begins.  I feel a knot in my stomach as I nod.  I get it.  I absolutely understand where he’s headed.  I fight back tears of relief when I realize for the first time in ten years that I’m not alone….that A is not alone.  “My daughter is very similar to yours,”  he continues.  He proceeds to describe A perfectly:  extremely sensitive, introverted, easily overwhelmed, explosive, defiant, insecure.  He explains that her brain is wired to handle emotional overload differently than most kids and outlines a therapeutic program that will teach her how to retrain her reactions into reasoned responses, allowing her brain to be controlled by reason rather than impulse.  Our counselor even admits that as a therapist he also sought outside help for his own defiant daughter, and that her therapy has been successful.

My husband and I affirm that we have a long, hard road ahead of us, but we now understand that our daughter truly does need help. I’m overcome with emotion: guilt for waiting so long to make this call, relief for knowing that we aren’t in this fight alone, hope in understanding that God has led us to someone who truly understands our family dynamic.  For the first time in years, I’m optimistic that we can not only help our girl understand and control her emotions but that we can build a healthy, vibrant relationship with our daughter that will last a lifetime, creating lasting peace and joy in our family.  We leave that first appointment with hope and with a plan.

My hope is to write about this journey as we progress into therapy.  It isn’t easy to so openly invite others into this struggle, but I feel compelled to let other parents who face this same struggle in their own families that you are not alone.  You. Are. Not. Alone.  You are not bad parents.  You are not.  Our counselor assured us that our great love for our daughter and willingness to admit we need help means we are on the right track.  So, know you aren’t alone, and if you are raising a strong-willed defiant dear, don’t be afraid to seek help, knowing that it may be the most courageous and most loving thing you’ve ever done as a parent.

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