kids

'I rewarded my son to prevent his outbursts. Now, he threatens me to get his way.'

This post deals with family abuse, and might be triggering for some readers. 

My son tells me he loves me all the time.

He tells me when he is happy and dancing around the room listening to music through his headphones, his body twitching and jerking to show off his unique dance moves.

I can hear Justin Bieber, or Justin Timberlake singing back at me because the music is just that loud. In these moments he gives me the thumbs-up sign and dips low like Ludicrous in Bieber’s ‘Baby’ video. Our bond is firmly secure.

He also tells me he loves me while he is hitting me. His face blotchy and tear-filled with rage, as I try to hug him tight.

He kisses me and tells me he loves me as he is punching me with one hand and trying to pull my hair with the other. If he gets in a kick to my gut he will say sorry before I even feel it.

As I put on his headphones and find the Beatles song ‘Let it be’ on his Spotify he starts to calm down, turning and kissing me with his snot-filled mouth and nose.

“I love you, mummy.”

I know he means it. In these moments he is begging for me to help him navigate his intense emotions.

I am asked by the situation to remain calm, and to be his guide through jealousy, disappointment, and helplessness, and to put aside my own feelings of helplessness.

My sweet and stubborn 13-year-old son, Dominic. Dom was born missing part of his 15th chromosome in two places.

At five weeks old he was the victim of physical abuse and shaken four times, suffering a catastrophic brain injury. When I met Dominic as a sweet 15-month-old, we were already his third foster home. His adoption would be finalised the next year.

I would spend years with Dominic in and out of hospitals, my husband and I constantly researching his medical conditions.

We would spend days driving in the car to remote places for intense therapy sessions and new evaluations.

Always seeking the right diagnosis in the hopes of finding the best ways to raise him. When Dominic was unable to respond to typical parenting techniques, I invested in books about trauma and mindfulness and attachment. Always hoping, because I promised him I would never give up.

People often hear Dominic’s story and feel this need to assume I am some kind of angel, or that I am some kind of incredible human for giving so much.

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So much thought, so much time, so much sacrifice, so many books, so much…of my life.

I am not any more special than the next parent who would do exactly what I did, probably even doing it better than me. I am experienced, but I am also flawed. I still carry all my own trauma. I am still human.

I am a permissive parent, and it has ruined my relationship with my disabled son.

I didn’t start out with the intention of being permissive. I didn’t ponder how I could overindulge my children. It was not the goal.

It just happens, slowly, in little pieces of time that become like dominoes crashing down around you all at once.

When Dom was a toddler, he did not watch TV, play with toys, or engage in most activities. He loved to run away, and climb everything.

He climbed out windows and came bouncing in through the front door completely naked. He ran away all the time.

In order to put groceries away, I had an extra car seat in my kitchen for the sole purpose of securing him in place safety for 10 minutes.

My husband made a rock climbing wall in our living room, and a ball pit in our family room out of a giant inflatable pool. He once swung from the chandelier in our dining room. He never stopped.

I believe it all started because I wanted five minutes of solitude. I searched for any temporary distraction that entertained Dominic long enough for me to drink a cup of coffee.

Any impulsive purchase to make it through the checkout line at Target because it was just money and my sanity was at stake.

Over time, though, these impulsive buys became expectations. As Dominic got older he started making demands for items while I drove to the store, threatening to hit me if I didn’t say yes.

He learned to become a skillful negotiator saying, ‘I want a deal!’ Dominic didn’t just seek a monetary indulgence, he started to request things when he was upset or if the routine changed.

Things at home that were set up as rewards for good behaviour, or items of Dominic’s latest obsession were all part of the negotiations, even when he didn’t deserve them, and even when I firmly told him “NO!”

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It would have been easier if Dominic could be told “NO” and then ignored, as all parenting books suggested.

I knew the right things to do, even if I was overindulgent in the moment. As Dominic got older “NO” became a trigger for violent outbursts that began to threaten the safety of everyone in our home.

He raged and destroyed valuable items, often aiming successfully for my glasses, or the TV.

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He sprayed urine at me, and if possible, poo. I learned how to restrain Dominic, hoping this would end before he got too big.

Last February, he got impatient waiting for me to find my shoes before a trip to the grocery store. He impulsively found a hatchet my husband thought was safely put away and blew out the back window of our minivan.

I just needed five minutes.

I discovered that it was easier to indulge and negotiate for the short term goal of quiet in exchange for the long term goal of discipline and self-regulation.

I justified it because Dominic’s needs and demands were extreme and constant, happening minute by minute, and interrupting my ability to regulate my own emotions.

After I was diagnosed with PTSD, Dominic’s tantrums triggered a deeper trauma within and I found I could no longer engage with my son when he was upset.

I could not process his demands and requests.

I would shut down and become unresponsive during Dominic’s times of crisis, when he needed me to be calm and protective.

In response, Dominic would become even more upset at my emotional shutdown, triggering the need to negotiate an even larger reward for himself.

I could not find the energy to say “NO.” This cycle of trauma and emotional dysregulation between both of us threatened to completely destroy our relationship and had me questioning my ability to parent him at all.

I started to plan my escape from parenting by daydreaming about elaborate vacations I would never take, and pricing nights in a local hotel.

I dreamed of massages and beach getaways, and planned a cruise. I became tired all the time and in chronic pain. It was easy for me to blame Dominic’s disability, and the mental health system that failed to provide adequate support to our family- or to many families.

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I went looking for respite in my dreams, but never found it. Placing blame was useless for finding a way out of the problem entirely.

Last year, I began an extensive desire to heal my relationship with my son.

I realised he could not control his emotions, and this emotional lability affected my ability to regulate my own. This was not going to change regardless of how many massages and vacations I imagined.

I needed to break our unhealthy cycle: Dom needing my attention exclusively and constantly, and my total avoidance of engaging with him in any meaningful way.

It was not healthy and destined for tragedy. I needed to save myself, and then save my son.

No one was going to save our relationship. Dominic deserved a mother, but he also needed a mother. Walking away was only going to make our lives worse, not better.

Healing is a work in progress. There are days I see him escalating, and I take a long, deep breath and dive into engaging with him in the hopes of calming him down.

I asked his teachers for strategies, and I tried them. Sometimes they work, sometimes I get frustrated. Still, Dominic and I are actively working on breaking up our disastrous dance of anxiety and trauma.

I am aware when I disengage, and I work hard to change it.

I am working on saying “NO” and being prepared for the consequences. I could never have imagined that promising my son that I was never going to give up on him meant working through so much of my own mental health issues and trauma.

I am sure every parent would do the same to help their child.

If you or someone you care about is living with family violence please call safe steps 24/7 Family Violence Response Line on 1800 015 188 or visit www.safesteps.org.au for further information.

Feature Image: Supplied/Joy Ellen Sauter.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been republished here with full permission.

Joy Ellen Sauter is a freelance writer who writes human interest stories for interested humans. You can reach her at [email protected]

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