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Just a Phase

The first time my son was kicked out of preschool, I thought, "Holy shit. I have that kid." You know. THAT kid: the biter, the bully, the tantrum artist and the one with no friends.
08/24/2015 02:39pm ET | Updated August 22, 2016
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The first time my son was kicked out of preschool, I thought, "Holy shit. I have that kid."

You know. THAT kid: the biter, the bully, the tantrum artist and the one with no friends.

At that time, the preschool administrator told me, "We can't help him here."

And of course, I also thought; "I must be a terrible mother."

The second time my son was kicked out of (a different) preschool, I thought, "Holy shit. I have that crazy kid," because this time, the preschool administrator said my son "showed no remorse".

So, now I had the kid from We Have to Talk About Kevin. One of those rare child psychopaths who will murder all the neighborhood cats before moving on to life of violent crime. My son was three at the time.

No question. I was definitely a terrible mother.

Over the next two years, my son was also kicked out of gymnastics, martial arts and an art camp. And a regular camp. And not invited to parties.

Not listening... Aggression... Lack of focus... General asshole behavior... Still with the biting (always as a defensive tack and never breaking skin, but biting always scares the shit out of people. See "Mike Tyson" or "Jaws")

There is no way to properly explain what it is like to constantly apologize for your child. We got so used to emailing other parents to apologize that we had an email template we could use:

Dear (insert parent's name),
We understand that our son was less that gentlemanly in his interaction with your (name of son or daughter) today at (name of location).
Please accept our unconditional apology and know that we are doing everything we possibly can to insure that this will not happen again...


And we were. We did everything. But before we get into that, I just want to note that my first child isn't that kid. She is easy and always has been. She's never sunken her teeth into anything or anyone that isn't edible. And until her little brother reached the age of three, I was pretty sure I wasn't a terrible mother. In fact, I was an amazing mother. A competent mother. Even a judgmental mother. Those were good times. If another kid was being an asshole, I relished looking askance at his or her mother thinking, "Well, she's clearly not doing everything right like me. That mother must not be singing The Little Mermaid song to her kids every night like me. Or putting pureed squash in their French toast like me. I am so GOOD at this!"

But now I was a terrible mother with that kid. And I started to search for solutions real quick, because nowadays when you have that kid, you are shamed right back into junior high school levels of embarrassment and self-consciousness. Moms whispering, teachers way younger than you giving you pitiful smiles, nannies ushering their kids away from yours, Dads shielding their eyes from the big Scarlet "M" branded onto your sweaty forehead.

I went crazy. Was it gluten? Was it lactose? Was it sensory processing disorder? The Internet and seemingly everyone else in our orbit had an opinion that seemed worth exploring.

Here are some of the things we spent actual money on for our son:

- Full psychiatric and psychological evaluations
- Occupational therapy
- Physical therapy
- Two separate examinations by two different pediatric gastroenterologists.
- Behavior consultant observations and sessions
- Social skills class
- ANOTHER social skills class
- Books (SOOOOOO many books...)
- About 10 months (all told) of a "therapeutic shadow"
AND then additional therapy for ME. And my husband. And us together.

And then there was the price we paid in mental stress. The stigma. The humiliation. The feelings of failure. The fear. The worry. The extra wrinkles. The hair that fell out of my scalp and clogged my bathroom drain. Over the course of a year and a half, my husband went from brunette to full gray. And I added Ativan to my automatically refillable mail-order subscriptions.

So much joy was sucked from our lives during our son's preschool years as he kept intermittently acting out, and we kept being shamed. It always seemed to be two steps forward, one step back. I saw this as progress. But most other people were waaaaay more impatient. It got very noisy. And all the noise that was made trying to "fix" our son and fast, successfully drowned out a teeny tiny voice, deep inside my head that desperately kept trying to squeak out, "It's just a phase." Because with all of the mountains of information that come along with parenting these days, the phrase "It's just a phase" seems to have been tossed out to make space for updated car seat regulations and sleep training videos and better baby proofing. Could it be that some errant and ugly childhood behavior is in fact actually (as they used to say in the last millennium) "just a phase"? And there isn't a whole lot to be done about it? Are parents like me being bullied and humiliated into going from "biter" to "child psychopath" a little too quickly these days?

After all, there is barely a successful adult who doesn't wax poetic on their assholish behavior in childhood with pride. And we all tend to think it's adorable. We embrace and shower admiration of all of those brilliant scientists or Olympians or actors or artists or creators who relish being quoted saying, "I was always getting into trouble. I was a biter, a bully, a tantrum artist, a kid with no friends and LOOK AT ME NOW!" And when those successful adults were growing up no one even considered blaming their parents. No one gave a shit. It was the 60's or 70's or 80's and their mothers were not pureeing squash. They were smoking. They were sunbathing with Crisco. They were leaving their kids in front of Three's Company reruns for four hours every afternoon and drinking.

Problematic? Sure! But at least they weren't judging themselves or each other.

Back to this millennium.

How did all of the "therapies" and "evaluations" and "consultations" help our son? I honestly don't know. None of it hurt, I guess. The main help came from the second pediatric gastroenterologist who diagnosed him with an impacted colon (OUCH) and treated him accordingly. The child psychiatrist "diagnosed" him with "a big personality" and reminded that a tremendous amount of natural maturing happens between the ages of 3 and 5. Oh, and that all kids are sociopaths and generally don't understand true empathy until around the age of 7. She also acknowledged a significant spike in her practice over the past few years as schools refer more and more children to her for any behaviors that seem "out of the box".

It seems that somewhere in this new age of parenting, we have lost our patience. We have lost the right to call things "just a phase". And as a parent, I have suffered greatly for this. I was bullied and terrified by pseudo experts with "Preschool Administrator" emblazoned on their office doors, content to give our son their unqualified analyses all the while peeking over our heads to make sure there weren't wealthier parents standing by waiting to sue the school because they certainly weren't going to have their kid anywhere near that kid.

Our son's behavior was annoying. It was challenging. But it was not EXTREME. When I say he was a biter, I mean he bit three or four times over course of a semester. As I said before, he never broke the skin. He never went into into a Walking Dead-style rage and drained the lifeblood out of the closest food source. Not to be glib, but he bit kids that were being dicks to him. And I stand by the fact that he was pursuing the only kind of renegade justice he understood at that age. (Look, it feels absolutely horrible to own that your kid bit another kid. But if there's no broken skin and everyone apologizes then maybe, just MAYBE the bitee also learns not to be as much of a dick? Life lesson? Adversity? Upside, anyone? Just something to consider...)

But the schools all made us feel like he was a true danger to himself and society and that it was all our fault. They never once reminded me that biters are common. That kids grow at different rates. That I was not actually a terrible mother.
I STILL panic when a phone number comes up that I don't recognize. My heart ALWAYS initially drops. Because I assume that it is a parent/teacher/administrator whose number I don't have calling to tell me that my son has committed some unacceptable act of one kind of another. I have a mild form of PTSD.

He is five now. And he doesn't bite anymore. At all.

He hardly ever shows aggression.

His colon has healed.

He can still be a total asshole. But show me a 5 year-old who can't be?

He is also one of the most expressive, creative, interesting, loving, funny children I have ever encountered. These days I can't count the number of parents who call or write not to tell me that my son has misbehaved, but that he "made the birthday party" or "He was so nice to my kid, who is a little shy..." or "He had everyone in stitches, kids and adults alike!" His drama teacher recently told me, "Hyper imaginative children like him are why I teach. Thank you for making such a cool kid."

Am I bragging? YOU BET. After the YEARS of shaming and apologizing, I'VE EARNED IT.

So, for all of you terrible mothers out there with those kids:
Before you let everyone drive you to the point of losing your hair, please consider that most of the time, it actually is JUST A PHASE. Sometimes it's not. We live in age where we need to be diligent. By all means, explore what the REAL experts out there have to say. But don't get it let so expensive or stress inducing or noisy that you can't hear that tiny voice trying to tell you what you already know is true about your own kid. And just maybe we terrible mothers are to thank for all of those future creative successful people who say stuff like, "I was always getting into trouble. I was a biter, a bully, a tantrum artist, a kid with no friends - and LOOK AT ME NOW."