"You know those ABC after-school specials where the parents get divorced, and they tell the kids, 'It's not your fault'?" asks Catherine, a mum of three in Florida. "They lied. If we get divorced, it is totally their fault."
Photo: David Salafia
Catherine's nine-year-old son was diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder a year ago. "He resists and defies every single transition in life," she says. "If you say, 'Time to brush your teeth,' you get screamed at. If you say, 'We're going to this place in the car,' he'll throw himself on the floor and not get up. Even places that are 'fun'."
His behaviour, as well as the behaviour of his brother, who is on the autism spectrum, causes a huge amount of stress and leads to conflict between her and her husband. "Neither one of us knows how to deal with it," Catherine admits. "Parenting typical kids is hard enough, but throw in any kind of a special need and it's like, what do we do with this? We don't know!"
This has taken a toll on her marriage. "It's exhausting. You have to be on your parenting A-game every minute of the day, and you don't have anything left for the other person. You certainly don't find them sexy. It's hard not to be totally exhausted all the time, and mad, and resentful. You resent the fact that nothing is easy." She sighs. "We are too worn out to even care enough to get divorced." Another mum with a behaviourally challenging child, Hannah, told me that she fantasies about divorce just so she could get a regular break from the kids.
How can parents protect their relationships with each other while also caring for a kid with challenging behaviour? Jeffrey Bernstein, child psychologist and author of 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, weighed in.
Acknowledge What Your Spouse is Doing Right
"It's important that each spouse openly acknowledges concrete parenting behaviours that each partner has to offer," Bernstein says. After a particularly vicious meltdown, you can say, "When Johnny gets into bad language, I appreciate that you have this amazing ability to not take it personally." He suggests making "deposits" in the marriage bank account — demonstrations of appreciative behaviour.
"Parenting is hard," Bernstein says. "Try to support each other on the things you can control. One centring dynamic is to be each other's 'coaches', and to offer each other feedback and support in managing the kid with the behaviour problem." Dealing with your distress, your kid's distress, and your partner's distress might be a little easier if you visualise yourself as a coach and approach it as team effort. Say things like, "I'm on your team," or, "I see your frustration," to help stay bonded. He also emphasises affection and "micro-interactions" such as smiles, gestures of affection, and even taking a walk together. If you can swing it, time alone without the kids can help you remember why you liked this person in the first place. "It's a cliche," Hannah says, "but date night really is restorative."
Accept That Sometimes You Feel Crazy, and That's OK
Bernstein say he has families come in and say, "'This child is sucking our family dry. Sometimes I wish he weren't my kid.' It's important not to feel ashamed." Catherine and Hannah remarked that they felt tremendous envy for people who have "easy" kids, but Bernstein cautions that not everything is as it seems in other families — other parents don't necessarily have it better. "Don't compare your family to others. It's the expressway to misery. I can't tell you how many people have come to my office and said, 'People think we're the perfect family,' but who are struggling with other problems or behaviour disorders themselves."
Play to Each Other's Strengths
One parent might be better at navigating the shopping centre with kids, and one parent might be better at cooking a meal while supervising homework. "Parenting is cooperative, not a competition," says Bernstein. "One parent might be better at the toddler years and the other at the teen years. Whatever you do, don't roll your eyes or do passive aggressive things in front of the kids. Support the other parent in taking a problem-solving approach — underlying a child's outburst can be valid frustration."
Child psychologist Mike Fraser told me that it's important to understand your temperament, as well of that of your spouse and child: Do you get angry really quickly or are you more laid back? Do you walk into a messy room and immediately freak out? Looking at parenting styles and temperaments, he says, can help parents work out a game plan that plays to their strengths.
Catherine advises, "If you have a kid with behaviour issues, if you [and your partner] have even slightly different parenting styles, that can sabotage everything, every day."
My husband and I issued a moratorium on restaurant eating that lasted nearly two years. It was just too stressful. Bernstein recommends strategising in three- to six-month chunks — that is, "We can't go to the shopping centre or loud movies right now as a family, but we'll reconsider it in six months." This can make the limitations of having a difficult child seem more like a short-term management problem, and short-circuit any tendency on your part to flip out and say things like, "So we can never go out in public again!?"
Says Bernstein, "It's OK to pull it in for a while, or divide and conquer. Don't look at it as a loss. An unruly nine-year-old probably won't be unruly when she's 14 or 15."
And we also "call it" on family time, too, when things start to go awry: In the heat of battle, my husband and I will sometimes say to each other, "You can check out if you need to." Checking out means that one person is excused from child care/chores for five minutes, or 20 minutes, or sometimes the whole evening (depending on how bad it is). We may not have dealt with the kids' behaviour, but we've at least reduced the number of angry bodies in the room. We'll try family time another day.
When you're faced with a situation that feels out of control, professional help can be a godsend. Fraser says a neutral third party can assess and offer perspective, and even help you develop a game plan for when one kid is, for example, throwing a tantrum on the platform and the whole family is going to miss the train.
Both Catherine and Hannah say that things have gotten better as their kids have gotten older, though it's one step forward and two steps back. A day after our conversation, Catherine messaged me: In the paediatrician's office for a strep test, her son had to be held down by herself, the doctor and the receptionist as he thrashed and hit. Then he spat at the doctor. I tell her about Hannah's comment that she fantasises about divorce just for the break from the kids, and she agrees, except for one thing: She's not sure her husband can handle the kids.
*Names and identifying details have been changed.