Friday, August 17, 2007


First, let me reiterate that I adore my child, I don’t think he has anything “wrong” with him, and I am very very grateful that he’s my son. I don’t want to squash his personality in any way; I just wonder if there’s something I’m doing that’s making things harder than they have to be. (Some of you are uncomfortable with the nickname HellBoy. I’m wondering if those of you who find it not funny actually believe in the existence of a Hell? Because I definitely don’t. And maybe you haven’t seen the movie? At any rate, we’ve been calling him this since around two months of age, and it doesn’t mean we think he’s evil. To me, it’s just a variation on “hellion,” which I’m guessing most people don’t have a problem with?)

Your comments are terrific, and I much appreciate the supportive tone. I haven’t had enough time to digest all of them, but a few themes are evident:

Hey, He Sounds Just Like My Kid

These comments are immensely comforting, because it’s a very isolating thing, having a kid like this. Some people “get” it, but a lot of times people assume it’s your fault, or that you’re exaggerating, or that you’re a wimp. Or they’ll think you’re talking about a tough phase. Or they’ll spend a little time with your kid and say, “He’s perfectly good with me!” It’s a relief when people really know what we’re dealing with. Once at a daycare conference with one of his teachers, we asked, “Where does he fall on the willfulness scale?” and his teacher paused for a long moment, then said, “Well, I’ve met kids who were as willful …” and it just made us feel so much better.

One of my best friends (who reads this blog), mother of a charming toddler, was over the other night as HB went through his paces, and it was hilarious watching her face as she tried to think of ways that this or that tantrum might be truncated. Sort of like, “Hmmm …. Maybe … Ooh, no, that doesn’t work, does it?” (But she was over again last night, and HB was really quite charming. His only crying spell happened after her toddler refused HB’s offer of a stuffed frog to try to cheer him up.)

I found the “bottomless pit” description especially helpful. He is like that, and it makes me feel less awful about setting limits on how much I can give.

We need a support group: Parents of Bottomless Pits. PBP.

I Have a Good Technique/Book …

Victoria was worried I might ban her from my site (which I wouldn’t know how to do even if I wanted to, which of course I don’t) for saying, “Maybe I’m naive, but I’m sort of enchanted by the idea that there are some easily learned tricks that help reduce the frustration of having to live with people who drive you crazy. … So why not look for some child-management tricks?”

Yes! This is exactly what I’m trying to do here! I love techniques for dealing with tough people; I have to use them all the time with patients, in fact. I call them my “magic words.” (Most of them don’t work on toddlers, more’s the pity.) There’s a difference between taking a class on how to deal with difficult people and taking HB to a therapist, though. The former makes no judgments on how you in particular might deal with any specific difficult person. The latter seems like a setup for making my relationship with my son feel pathological. (I know it wouldn’t necessarily do so, but it could. Hey, I’ve been through a reasonable amount of therapy in my life.) I will try to browse through the books suggested.

TrophyHusband figured out a great technique that is making preschool dropoff much happier—a variation on the giving control technique (he’s outgrown choices, unfortunately). Now whichever of us is dropping him off asks him how long he wants us to stay. He will say “Two minutes”—or three or four or ten. “Okay, tell me when the time is up,” we’ll say, and within about thirty seconds he kisses us and says, “Time’s up! Bye!” I don’t know how this will work once he can actually tell time, but for now it’s great. Another thing that can work is distracting by humor, but you have to be pretty “on” to do it to his satisfaction, and I'm not much of a standup comic.

It’s Tough to Be a Hellion

This, I know. I know because I not only was one, I am one. The other evening TrophyHusband and I were talking about how tough HB is, and TH said, “Well, he might look just like me, but his personality is all you.” I thought he was referring to stories about me as a child, but he went on, “Honestly, sometimes interacting with him is just like interacting with you.” I sat for a minute thinking about this. And I realized that I am a HellDoctorMama. I remembered something that happened during our wedding ceremony. The woman who married us met with us a few times and had us give her details about ourselves and each other, which she incorporated into the ceremony. During the wedding, she described her impressions of us, including “[TrophyHusband] is generous and nurturing. ... [DoctorMama] has strong principals and doesn’t back down in tough situations.” This provoked such a gale of laughter through the audience that the officiant had to pause before going on. She hadn’t realized what an understatement she was making.

This little epiphany has been helping me a lot. It both makes me realize why I find it so painful to watch him go through this—it hits so close to home—and why I don’t have great techniques for ushering him neatly out of his tantrums. Those of you who mentioned that you were intense kids, and that the worst moments were when someone tried to criticize you for being that way—I completely remember the same feelings myself. I don’t remember what did help, besides time, but mocking didn’t, and hitting certainly didn’t. (What helps me now is still mainly time to digest all of my feelings.)

So I have a lot of empathy for what HB is going through. I know he doesn’t enjoy this. I know he’s not doing it to manipulate me. And this knowledge does help give me patience.

I’ll keep you posted.


Anonymous said...

I have said it before, I'll say it again: it will be fascinating to see how HB's personality manifests itself as he grows up. He'll be a fantastic person - a HELL of a person, even. Har!

I think HellBoy at three is a lot like a Ford Pinto with a monster truck engine in it... it has this wellspring of enormous energy and power and drive and it wants to GO GO GO, but it's perpetually being thwarted by the limitations of its physical form. So it revs and roars and sputters and is a bitch and a half to drive down to the 7-11 to get a Choco-Taco. However... HB won't be speed-limited by his current age forever. Language development seems to have helped a bit (he has prepositions! Awwww!)... I think each step towards independence will continue that process.

Anonymous said...

Hey DM,

I too was one of those intense, willful, and active children. I was also completely aware and sensitive of my disposition from an early age. I was labeled Wild Child by age two. My caretakers and teachers always had the same comments--she's so bright, but so bossy and stubborn and she talks way too much in class, she just needs more direction and self control. Those comments weren't as painful as the comments I'd get from other parents. One in particular that I remember: it was a third grade all girls slumber party. The next morning, when I was in the bathroom, I overheard the mother who hosted the party say to another Mom that was picking their kid up: "Oh it went fine, but that little M--(my name), boy I'd love to just stuff her in the trash can."

When I was done peeing and came out of the bathroom and they saw me, I'll never forget the look on their faces. I had it together just enough to not let them see that I heard that. Later, at home, I bawled of course.

I knew that I was different and needed more self control, but I didn't know HOW to go about it. I wasn't taught the skills to do that (my Mom was a hippie who had taken a laissez-faire approach to child rearing). It did make it worse when my overactive personality was pointed out and criticized.

It's only later in life that I did learn those skills, thankfully. I will say that because I'm female, I was "shamed" about who I was probably more than a similar boy would have been. So in a way, you are lucky that HB is male--society tends to accept more willfulness from boys.

I'm no child psych doc, but he sounds well within the range of normal to me, but hey, I'm a HellGirl and a bit biased and I've never witnessed his tantrums. I will say that looking for coping mechanisms that you can teach him (slowly, over time) is great. I wish I'd had that earlier rather than later.

So far my son, who is six months old, exhibits more of my personality than my husband's, who is the laid-back softie. So by this time next year, I could be in the same boat as you. I'll be looking for techniques and approaches and tips and cheap wines, if that's the case.

Last: Agonize Less, Enjoy More.

Anonymous said...

I missed the boat on commenting on previous post - no good excuse since it was 2 weeks ago...

But I wanted to suggest to blame it on your obstetrician...I don't see another other valid explanation

Your obstetrician

Val said...

I comforted myself through my son's "moods", manipulations, & [fortunately very few] tantrums by reassuring myself that he was only trying to exert control on the very very tiny slice he COULD at the time...
It does get better when they get older & [gasp!]develop some reasoning skills...
Another Indulgent Mom

Anonymous said...

When I read Raising your spirited child I got to the "slow to adapt" part and had a shock of recognition. It was EXACTLY me. And, oh yes, C. My own TH just rolled his eyes (like "what, you didn't realize that she's exactly like you?").

Of course a year later the adaptability issues have faded somewhat, and now the intensity is the big thing--and HAH! I can say now that she's exactly like him.

Lisa said...

Some children are just more difficult than others, unfortunately. I have a son that went through a horrible stage with tantrums. It did make it easier to deal with when it was so obvious that he did not enjoy it, he would just melt down and lose control. I would tell him that I was sorry that he felt that way but that it was not fair to make anyone else listen to the screaming. I would then tell him he had to go to his room but could come out for a hug as soon as he was done. He would come back with a tear streaked face still hiccuping from crying, but get his hug and sit on my lap. He eventually outgrew both the tantrums and my lap.

Anonymous said...

Mmm--so if dealing with him is like dealing with you, what works best in dealing with you?
And--just curious--how about a post on the "magic words" that you use all the time? Like what? I'd love to lengthen my magic words and phrases list....

eviec said...

That pictures is SO sweet. We have a few of those from our house. My son not only looks like me, I know he gets the majority of his willfulness from me, too. I remember as a child being told, "you just want to do what you want to do" which really made no sense to me. Who doesn't want to do what they want to do? But now I know it meant that I was not yielding to what they wanted me to do (especially since I had a very controlling father). So I try my to best to remember that when my son is going wild that if it does not hurt, his having a choice or a little control really helps. And I do think it is probably going to be easier for them because they are boys, sadly for us girls who were that way. Good luck!

Orange said...

1. Hellboy is an awesome movie.

2. I was the furthest thing from a hellion child. Shy, quiet, hiding behind a book, not much for speaking up for myself. Believe me, growing up with that temperament also does not equip a person to be an effective parent of a "wild child." My wild boy is much easier now. Is it because he's 7? Is it because I'm doing a better job of making sure he gets enough sleep? Is it because it's summertime, and hell will return with the school year. Man oh man, do I hope that the sleep thing will make the school year smoother than the last one. The three-hour homework struggle for a first grader took a lot out of me; making it four hours for a second grader would be incredibly discouraging and make me want to run away from home.

3. Terrific picture! I remember when Ben would actually wear pajamas. Now, he might start a non-summer night in pajamas, but before falling asleep, he flings them off. But a sleeping kid in a knit pajama set is the sweetest thing ever.

Sam said...

Oh, how adorable! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings and struggles, as well as the great picture.

Unknown said...

Another docmom here with another willful son - only mine is now 20 and I've been down the therapy road. Let's just summarize with a quote from one of the 3 therapists that we've seen with him: "Wow, he scores off the chart on the oppositional-defiant scale." The good news: he's bright and like a bull-dog when there's something he wants. I've decided that these are skills that are very handy as an adult, but incredibly annoying in a child. I"m still trying to learn the "magic words" to deal with him, but he's stayed out of trouble, is now a sophomore at a very good university, knows exactly what he wants to do (and is making reasonable headway with acceptable grades). WRT therapy - not sure it was all that helpful for him - perhaps more for docdad (to back off a bit). So hang in there, it gets better (or at least the tantrums stop!)

Anonymous said...

I love your writing and your sense of humor -- especially your nicknames. HB and TH tickle my funny bone every time I think about what they stand for, so please know you have one (admittedly agnostic) admirer who "gets" you.

Not being a parent, I don't have parenting advice to share. But I just wanted to de-lurk to say how much I love your blog, your writing, your family, and you. Thanks for sharing a little of your very busy life with us anonymous Internets.

Anonymous said...

I just had one of those terrible visual fantasies: what happens if you start having a tantrum when he has a tantrum? heeheee, scare the bejesus out of the kid.....wouldn't that be something? It might even shock him into silence. Definitely not mature, not rational, not whatever, who cares. Sometimes trying to be a grown up can be very difficult.

Sandra said...

I think that's the key to it all - time to reflect.

I don't have any children (yet - hopefully) but we do watch shows like Supernanny here in the UK. I know a lot of people are a bit sceptical about her methods and whether that would work for their child but I think the naughty step is just a version of time out - which clearly does not work initially because the child does not want to have time out at the time the adult wants them to have it. But it does seem that they eventually 'get it' and it is the time to think that actually improves behaviour.

Another thing those shows hot on is that parents unwittingly engage in the process themselves. Now that you've acknowledged you have the same personality traits, maybe you'll notice that you find yourself locking horns with HB and that this isn't helpful?

I don't know - as I say I am not a parent - just an interested observer trying to learn as much as I can before I go through it.

You might be right about the people who don't like the name HB - I don't have any of those beliefs and I think it's quite a funny affectionate name. I am presuming you don't call him that to his face though!


Sara said...

Hey, off topic, but how 'bout a post on some of your magic words for various patient situations?

Ozma said...

Yes, I too would like some magic words. Maybe I could use them in other contexts.

As for the 'just like me' thing--My child is so like me it is terrifying. Particularly, her difficult personality traits. These little quirks I didn't even distinguish as little quirks of mine until I saw her do them and went "Oh. Shit."

I wanted her to get his personality. Oh, how I wished for this: Laid back, calm, adaptable.

A friend of mine said about her child: "They are mirrors." I do learn so much. And of course, puzzle about the nature/nurture thing all the more. These are complex traits. I find it hard to believe they all came from observing me.

DoctorMama said...

Anonymous 1—What a great description! I’m trying to think of a similarly apt one for your kid, but (not surprisingly) can’t. My word for him, though, is unflappable. HB? Highly flappable.

onward and upward! — “Agonize Less, Enjoy More” is a great mantra. I can so imagine what it was like in that bathroom. I’d want to do bodily harm to that mother, even now. Yes, I think it might be simpler for HB, being a boy.

E—your excuse is that you were frolicking with tiger cubs in Seattle. I don’t blame you for him, though you probably had the first experience with HB’s stubbornness, seeing as it was you who had to drag him unwilling into the world with a plunger. And remember all his decels, and you thought he’d have a nuchal cord, but didn’t? He was just messing with you, even then.

Val — yeah, always looking for the tiny slice of possible control.

nate — HB is actually pretty quick to adapt, strangely.

L.B.—when I’ve tried to send him to his room, he cries louder and louder and louder ...

Anonymous 2—what works with dealing with me? Just bend to my will, of course. No, actually, it’s this: if I tell you what I want, that’s what I want. Don’t then spend ages trying to sort out a compromise, or feel me out. I have no problem delegating choices, but once I delegate, YOU make the decision and quit jawing about it (unless there’s another option that I didn’t know about). Let’s do it my way or your way. I can’t stand indecision and compromise. With HB, if he says he wants to watch TV, there’s no point in arguing. The only options are a) let him watch, b) don’t let him watch and prepare for the tantrum, or c) notify him of something he hadn’t realized, e.g. that Daddy is willing to take him to the playground.

Eve — thanks.

Orange — do you think Ron Perlman has developed any kind of complex from always having to be unrecognizable in movies? I haven’t met Ben yet, but I suspect you’re a very effective parent. (You’ve frightened me, reminding me of the homework issue … maybe I can find a homework-free school? So what if he learns nothing … ) HB insists on pajamas, and insists that the shirt be tucked in. Don’t know what that signifies.

Sam —thanks.

Linda—encouraging words. Knowing what you want is a plus overall, isn’t it?

Anonymous 3—also thanks.

Anonymous 4—I’m pretty sure some people do it that way!

Sandra—no, we don’t call him that to his face … yet.

The MSILF—ok, I’ll work on the magic words. Maybe bit by bit.

Ozma—I sometimes doubt nature AND nurture—a lot of it seems like a crap shoot, doesn’t it?

Anonymous said...

Dr. Mama, thanks for not banning me. :-) (If I ever do step over the line, just tell me to stop commenting and I'll respect your wishes.) I like your description of yourself as principled & firm and it makes me think that what made you a HellGirl as a toddler probably has helped make you the high achiever you are now. Fierce self-confidence and certainty help you to to approach tasks with self confidence, focus, and determination (your posts on "how to stop a nose bleed," "how to study" come to mind). I don't have any ideas about how to handle HB, though. -Victoria

Anonymous said...

From a parent of a special little boy, such as yourself. I like to thank you for this post. I struggle DAILY with my son and his crazy behavior, I see a light at the end of the tunnel~ Good luck!

Snickollet said...

I love that picture.

Please share any child-management tricks. Mine are just getting to the Age of Discipline, and already I can see that my repertoire is small and pitiful.

Not on Fire said...

I do not have a kid who challenges me the way that yours challenges you. But I think that you are right that "you are who you are" and you cannot change the basic core of your kid you just have to find good strategies. I loved the book "The Baby Whisperer for Toddlers" by Tracey Hogg. It helped me to see my son better and figure out how to short circuit some of the undesirable behaviour. Sometimes you can change your kids behaviour by doing different things yourself. Not always, but that is part of what makes life interesting.

Anonymous said...

I work with families and I love it when parents can talk about their children's inner being and reasons for why they are they way that they are or why they're doing what they're doing. I think it's hardest for parents to parent a child like themselves for just the reason you stated here, you've been there like not many other people have been. You've felt it, breathed it, and a lot of times have to experience parts of it over again when it happens to your child. I wish your family the best, and I definitely would love to know what some of the magic words are.

Angela said...

Hi, I just came over from Snickollet's site. I wanted to let you know that you are not alone. My son is also willful and intense and like your son can be very sweet and loving. I find it hard not to feel embarrassed and judged when others see my son acting out or having a tantrum. I know that their words or reactions shouldn't affect me but they do. I also wish there were magic words to help my husband and I when our son is getting upset. I have noticed though that it is getting a little better, my son is 6 and the rages and tantrums are becoming less frequent and he is beginning to show some self awareness and some times he is able to say "I'm getting angry" and we try and talk him through his feelings and try and avoid meltdowns. I'm so sorry it is so hard. But HB is so lucky to have such loving parents and a mother who has empathy for him and knows what he is going through, I'm sending good thoughts your way. Beautiful photo.

Anonymous said...

The school counselors here offer workshops for parents of challenging kids. They use an approach called The Nurtured Heart Approach to Parenting. The website is

Don't know if it will help, but thought I would pass it on.

Anonymous said...

Look at that sweet picture. Here's a sentence that gets said at least once a day at my house:

At least he's cute.

(or: It's a good thing he's cute.)

winecat said...

Hi DoctorMama, I'm one of those no kid people but I had to stop by and say What a Beautiful Picture! It is just priceless. Bet you and TH were enjoying the peace.