June 30th, 2008

Nail-biting time. It’s my son’s first day at his new school. For the past year, he had been attending a nice little pre-school with a wonderful, talented teacher, but the age range only went up to 3 1/2. He turned 3 1/2 a couple of weeks ago, so that necessitated a change. Obviously, he’s not new to going to school, but he’s shy and rather sensitive, so changes, new people, new places can be very difficult for him. Unfortunately, when he gets nervous or uncomfortable, he acts out by being obstinate or, worse, by hitting.

Yep, I had a ‘hitter’. It started about a year ago and peaked when he began attending his last school. Everyone who observed him agreed that he wasn’t being purposely aggressive or malicious –-a lot of it was based on social anxiety and just needing a certain amount of personal space. Sometimes it appeared to be a maladjusted attempt to interact with other kids. We all worked hard with him, even enlisting the help of his teacher’s college-aged daughter as an extra assistant at school for a short period of time. Any hitting at home earned an immediate timeout. If we were somewhere else, like the park, we would leave immediately.

Everything I read and everyone I consulted advised that consequences had to be immediate. Stopping the infraction before it happened was even better. So I basically shadowed my son in any situation that merited it. Believe me, this was exhausting. No kicking back at the park, chatting with the other moms. No playdates or parties where he wasn’t directly supervised at all times.

How I envied all those parents who barely had to watch their kids! Not to mention that it was mortifying when my son walloped another child. Most parents were, thankfully, understanding, but not all of them. Usually it was the parents who had more than one child or had a ‘hitter’ themselves who took it in stride. But the parents who had one sweet angel, they were the ones that shot daggers at me with their eyes and assumed I was The Worst Mom In The World. We stopped going to Gymboree. I stopped leaving him at the gym daycare. Parties were a trial. Playdates were a dicey prospect. I felt like The Worst Mom In The World.

As frustrated as I would get with my son, I still felt very protective of him. Yes, he can be difficult, but he’s also a sweet, loving, exuberant child. And I can see how much he wants to fit in and how much he wants the other kids to play with him. The hitting is like an impulse that simply overtakes him when he gets overwhelmed. As a mom, it’s my job to help him gain control over that impulse and let all his wonderful qualities shine through. For all you parents out there that think my son wouldn’t have been behaving this way if I were a better parent, please don’t make assumptions until you’ve walked a mile in my shoes. When a mom could obviously use a little support, judgments are isolating and hurtful.

Slowly, my son’s behavior improved, but it was hard for me to gain trust in him. Unfortunately, it seems to take a long time to break bad habits in spirited kids. And the process was cyclical –he would improve and then regress again. A year later, the hitting is nothing like it was, although my son will still lash out when he’s frustrated or anxious. Big changes can cause regression, so as I sit here and write, I can only hope that he has learned how to cope better, that somehow my guidance has helped, and that he is doing ok on his first day at his new school. Mommy’s thinking of you, swee’pea.

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