learned helplessness

The last three months have been difficult. It’s still difficult and frustrating and lately, I wake up with my pulse racing and the feeling of an anvil on my chest. Raspberry has been very challenging the past few months. When she’s in a great mood, everything’s all well and good. But when she’s in a bad or sub-par mood, she’s horribly stubborn and throws the most raging tantrums. Today, I plugged my ears because her screaming was making my head hurt and she made herself scream even louder, even more forcefully. I saw her face, red and trembling, as she screamed and my heart just broke and right there, my tears just spilled. That’s been common the past few days… the crying. I cry because I’m so frustrated by her behaviour. I suppose that’s better than being angry and then saying or doing things I regret because I’m unable to control my temper.

She often regresses into helplessness, wanting me to pull down up pants for her, or to pick something up that’s less than a foot away, wanting me to do every fucking thing for her. She wants me to hold her hand during most of the things she does. I believe that if I did everything for her, she’s the type of kid who’d get very quickly accustomed to it and wouldn’t do anything for herself. A few days ago, she had to pee and I was sitting barely a foot away from the potty but she wanted me even closer. I told her I was already very close and wasn’t going to get even closer and she threw yet another god-awful tantrum. Two days ago, there was a crazy tantrum because she wanted me to put her up on her chair for dinner because she couldn’t do it. This is the chair she’s climbed up on by herself since she was two.

The picture above? That was from today. I came home to find her curled up in a ball with her outside clothes still on (she usually takes off all her clothes when she comes home). She didn’t want to take her sweater off by herself and even after I helped her with one arm and encouraged her to pull off the other, she wouldn’t, and there ensued a very long raging tantrum. She comes up with these excuses not to do things by herself — “my arm is sore,” “I’m really tired,” “I’m tired and hungry” and so on. Sometimes, she does things out of spite. Yesterday, I asked if she wanted to put a new sheet of paper on the clipboard and she took the paper from my hand, placed it misaligned on the clipboard and said agitatedly, “no, because I’m going to do it like that.” Sometimes if we ask her to do something, like pick up her toys, she’ll run to the other side of the room and say, “no, because I’m too far.” Ohhhhh, she sure knows how to push our buttons.

The learned helplessness thing is the major issue right now. It’s the source of all the tension and conflict and frustration. I don’t understand where it’s coming from. We tried to think of an event that might’ve triggered it, but we’ve come up with nothing. The only thing I can really think of is when I had pink eye and had to sleep in the living room — the first night, she woke up, found that I wasn’t there, freaked the hell out and it took us (mostly Lucas) two hours to settle her back to sleep. And two weeks later, when she got pink eye, she slept by herself in the bedroom, woke up and freaked out that I wasn’t there, and I ended up sleeping at the foot of the bed with her for the next few nights. I can’t really explain her behaviour beyond this this.

After her massive tantrum today, Lucas and I talked. He’s frustrated that she won’t let him do anything and her behaviour makes him not want to spend time with her. We’re both at a loss as to what to do and I think we need some help. I’ve suggested on a number of occasions that perhaps we ought to talk to somebody about this, but we can’t afford to visit a child psychologist. I said that if we talked to our doctor, he might be able to recommend some available resources, but Lucas seems reluctant to do so. I hate waking up in the morning and wishing for Raspberry’s bedtime. I hate wanting to do anything else except spend time with her. I really feel like I need to talk to someone, if not someone who can help us, then just someone to so I can stop feeling this way.

Today, once she got all that emotion out, she was all right — pleasant, even — for the rest of the day. That’s usually the case. It’s like she’s got all these emotions that she doesn’t know what to do with and instead of using her words, she explodes. She’s so verbal and intelligent and yet, she can’t explain what’s happening in aggravating situations or how she feels. I’m hesitant to say it, but sometimes I wonder if her behaviour falls outside the realm of the “normal” personality or temperament spectrum. We brought this up with our doctor last summer, when we thought there might be some issues, but he assured us that as long as she wasn’t hurting herself or others, that it was okay. But really, I just want talk to someone who can help us, because we’re at our wits’ end. I hate that we can’t afford to find some help, even for a little bit, and I hate even more that mental health services aren’t covered.

I want to wake up tomorrow and not hear screaming and not have my heart racing and not wishing for evening to come. I just want to be sane tomorrow.

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16 responses

  1. wow, Dawn…it’s outpouring like this that makes me wish I could say or do something to help. ‘Maybe she’ll grow out of it’, or ‘try doing this or that’ doesn’t quite cut it, huh, since you both know best. I’m sending positive energy your way, and to Raspberry! Hope things will get better.

    March 28, 2012 at 4:27 am

  2. i have things in my mind that i’d want to try in my imagination as you, but obviously i have no idea what it’s like, so bear with me.

    the first thing i would try is repeating back to her what she says in a similar tone. not like mocking her, but if she’s like “i won’t taking off my sweater because my arm is sore!” i would be like, “you won’t take off your sweater because you’re arm is sore! your arm is SO sore!” and again, not mocking her, but just saying it like, Yeah! I hear you! This basically just acknowledges that you’ve understood what she’s saying. You aren’t agreeing to its truth, but that it has been spoken and felt by her, and there is a good chance she might respond to that. Once she does respond to that, you’re on a different playing field and you might be able to bypass the tantrum through more empathetic talking, or if you’re feeling up to it some playful strategies, like “My arm is SO sore too! Look how sore it is!” and then wobble it funny or do something weird and kind of slapstick.

    This kind of talking/playing would also mean that you aren’t giving in to what she wants when you find it unreasonable, but just that you are acknowledging what she’s feeling.

    the other thing that i am totally clueless about, but can sit here and think about objectively, is try not to take it personally. don’t stay angry with her in little ways, because those creep into your reactions in the future and everybody’s on edge, Rb included. just remember that kids live in a totally different state of mind than we do!

    anyway, those are my two cents. obviously i’ve only had dax as a child, so i have A LOT to learn — but there are things that i’ve used with kids in elementary schools with behavioral issues, and it was in an environment where although getting upset or emotional definitely did happen, we had to work on strategies that deflected those emotions and got right to the heart of behaviors, if that makes sense.

    March 28, 2012 at 4:57 am

  3. A huge number of child specialists agree (and I hate to be a jerk and say ignore the advice above, but ignore it!!) that the only way to combat tantrum is to completely ignore the behavior til it stops. Refuse completely to engage, in any way- eye contact, verbal, AT ALL- and it will shorten the length of the tantrum. I was actually listening to NPR recently (lol I am a douche) and hey we’re discussing tantrums- its a much-studied phenomenon, nobody knows exactly why some children are more prone to it, but it doesn’t necessarily point to a behavioral disorder. One thing they did stress was to ignore the tantrum! Any attempt to make contact with a child having a tantrum actually triggers further tantrums. I know a couple of parents who have tantrum prone kids (one of them is my sister) and you can actually see them prolonging the tantrum sometimes, it’s such a bummer to see from the outside- as soon as te kid starts to calm down, the parent will offer some kind of respite (“want some water? Some juice?”) And the whole thing starts over again.

    My advice, if you want it, is to calmly place her in a safe time out space like her room so she can lose her shit, then come to her when she is done. Over time, it will help shorten but probably not stop the tantrums.

    And kudos to you because I have said some spectacularly nasty shit to my kid when he’s been freaking out. I am a human being with emotions too! We just put Eli into the corner and leave the room when he is being a dick but he is a lot more of a whiner than a tantrum kid.

    Good fucking luck man. That sounds awful.

    March 28, 2012 at 6:01 am

  4. Haha now I feel like an even bigger dick because I was telling you to ignore kristens advice haha

    I dunno as my kid has gotten older I’ve gotten way less crunchy on the discipline front and it seems to be working out for us. We don’t hit or spank or verbally abuse, but we are clear with our expectations and consistently punish with time outs when we have to and if anything it makes me feel proactive.

    March 28, 2012 at 6:05 am

  5. tough shit.

    March 28, 2012 at 9:37 am

  6. ha, don’t feel like a dick. ignoring it is on the same wavelength, i think — in behavior modification, it’s called behavior extinction, as giving feedback to the undesirable behavior usually results in positive or negative reinforcement of the behavior. ignoring the behavior and learning to ignore it means not being emotional about it too, which is something that i was suggesting too.

    i think when parents try to talk to their kids with reasoning, like “little bobby now you can’t have your blah blah because blah blah complicated shit” then it spirals frustration and so does bargaining, like the juice or whatever it is that they DO NOT want.

    mimicking their tantrums seems to be psychological backdoor into peoples’ patience, and it actually works on adults too in a subdued way that’s just the mark of good listening. for instance (this is a really dorky example plz excuse me): your husband comes home and says “My job sucked today and everything is shit.” if you start to go on and on about how he can fix it or how you don’t want to hear about it, both scenarios will result in an argument or whatever. but if you’re just like, “Babe, your day sucked and everything was so shitty,” then he might be like, “Yeah, I’m so glad I’m home.”

    March 28, 2012 at 7:56 pm

  7. Hehe hello! I think you and I are addressing different issues, too- the behavior I am talkin about ignoring is the actual shrieking tantrum, which in my experience you cannot joke or reason your way put of. You seem to be talkin about the moments before the tantrum. So maybe both sets of advice are pertinent to different parts of the situation.

    March 28, 2012 at 9:30 pm

  8. yeah, that’s true! i am definitely talking about prevention rather than the tantrum itself. we are in accord!

    March 29, 2012 at 12:45 am

  9. Thanks, Jairo. Today was a complete 180 from yesterday and Rb and I had fun while Lucas was at work. It always seems the worst when you’re in the thick of a bad situation, but after the fact, you think that perhaps you might’ve overreacted. I don’t know!

    March 29, 2012 at 1:36 am

  10. Yeah, no kidding. At least today went well. One day at a time…

    March 29, 2012 at 1:36 am

  11. Thanks for reminding me about the repetition. I remember reading that in Harvey Karp’s book eons ago, but completely forgot about it. Lucas learnt that too, in his counselling training and I remember he used to do that too (acknowledging what’s being said) but he hasn’t done that in a long time. I’m not sure if you’ve read the Happiest Toddler book, but it suggests mimicking what the child is saying in short, brief sentences — I’m not sure if you’re referencing that? We tried that with her a long time ago and she looked at us like we were insane. Haha.

    I find the playful parenting thing works only if she’s in a good enough mood. If she’s in a foul mood, being playful only escalates the situation.

    And thanks for the reminder not to take it personally. That’s one of my flaws, even when I don’t realize I’m doing so. I think sometimes I do take it personally, even though I know she obviously has no intent to drive me crazy.

    Thanks for all the advice, Kristen! Today was a much, much better day and I can only hope for more days like this one. Reading my post now, I almost feel silly that I felt the way I did.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:45 am

  12. I actually follow the NPR photo blog, so I’m a douche too. Haha. And I found a (the?) post on tantrums on the NPR site, so I’m going to listen to that later tonight.

    We’ve actually taken to ignoring some tantrums and that works sometimes. Other times, it just makes her lose her shit even more. I guess I don’t help much either, when I feel bad for ignoring her, and then I make contact and it just makes everything that much worse. I need to work on that. Haha.

    I’ve been mean to my kid when she’s whiny and getting on my nerves too, so I don’t deserve any kudos. And when she’s especially infuriating, I’ve grabbed her roughly before and that’s when I have to step away before I completely lose it.

    I was never a believer in time-outs until she started these crazy tantrums and we had to place her in the bedroom so we could all maintain a sliver of sanity. And of course, she hates hates hates it when we do that. Figures. Anyway, thanks for your help, Alice. We made it through a nice day today and it makes all the freak-outs seem like such a distant memory.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:54 am

  13. i think when parents try to talk to their kids with reasoning, like “little bobby now you can’t have your blah blah because blah blah complicated shit” then it spirals frustration and so does bargaining, like the juice or whatever it is that they DO NOT want.

    Ha, that is SO me. Trying to reason with a 3 or 4-year-old when they’re upset is futile, and yet, when I’m desperate, I try it and Lucas is all, “why do you even bother?!”

    March 29, 2012 at 1:57 am

  14. That’s perfect!

    March 29, 2012 at 1:57 am

  15. Anonymous

    I have no idea what the system is like where you live, but I hope you can get some help. A situation like this would be extremely hard on anyone. (and I don’t have any useful advice either)

    – Marjolein

    May 6, 2012 at 8:41 am

  16. Things are better now, thankfully. But I do still wish resources were easier to come by. Thanks though! :)

    May 6, 2012 at 12:16 pm

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