Sitting on the entryway bench, my almost-seven-year-old son’s shoes in my hand, I brace for impact. I call his name to let him know it is time for school. Transitions are brutal for him and always have been. He immediately starts screaming, loudly protesting our inevitable exit from the house as he does most mornings. Then he notices the shoes I am holding. He doesn’t want his sneakers today, he would rather wear crocs. Before I have a chance to accommodate, he propels himself onto the floor, punching the hardwood.
He calms eventually, after a lot of encouragement, a little bribery, and some help. But I am left frustrated and exhausted. Because when you have a short-fused kid, everything feels hard.
Coming and going — something we do daily with four young kids, and a normal life activity generally — is so often met with intense frustration and resistance. A simple request to transition from one activity to another usually unleashes a brief but intense explosion of emotions. Even suggesting a family walk around the block can spark an instant outburst — feet leaving the ground, furious lap-running around the house, and max-volume screaming. And because of this, we sometimes miss out. We can’t skip school or doctor’s appointments, but I sometimes find myself passing on fun, voluntary family activities because the process just seems too fucking hard.
Sibling arguments and annoyances escalate quickly. Things that might mean mild discomfort or irritation for some, like an accidental nudge or someone blinking too much in the wrong direction, wreak havoc on the mental and nervous system of my middle maniac. Even quiet, under-the-breath comments from other siblings can prompt a spiral that engulfs all of my kids.
His quick surge starts a domino effect and within minutes the whole house is upside down, each kid fully turnt-up and ready to rumble. It’s hard to diffuse these situations once they start, and often impossible to see them coming. Because with a fuse so small, ignition is fast and easy.
New or unfamiliar activities are almost always a problem. Thankfully, he usually settles in and ends up thrilled, but getting ready for, going to, and starting something new is always a challenge. Sometimes I think the anger stems from anxiety; other times I suspect it’s caused by a diversion or change in the detailed plan he had in his mind. In both circumstances, the escalation is so immediate that there is no room for reasoning or logic — we are immediately in operation-defusal mode. So we tread lightly when signing him up for new things, or calling quick audibles in plans.
Getting dressed can be like navigating a minefield. Seasonal clothing try-ons, pilly socks, and tight sweatpants really rev the engine. Snow days turn into tornadoes with the sight of snow pants and gloves. We spent forty-five minutes getting him dressed for his first lacrosse practice, de-escalating him multiple times between pads, helmet, cleats, and gloves. Even start-of-summer transitions into bathing suits cause frantic fiascos until, with a little time, he gets used to them. What makes it extra hard is that he basically always enjoys the end game. But the road to the activity is so incredibly difficult, that sometimes we avoid it entirely.
I take a very deep breath before turning down any of his ideas, suggestions, or requests. Because although hearing the word “no'' understandably disappoints any young kid, for us it typically triggers a one-way rocket ship trip to Jupiter. As parents we need to set limits, but knowing that his disappointment can so physically and audibly transform the entire household dynamic makes trivial conversations and situations extra stressful.
As a family, we often walk on eggshells for our sensitive, quickly agitated little guy. It can feel really, really hard. But with his quickly triggered vexation and intensity also come some incredible qualities. He is fiercely loyal, defending his siblings to the death with others. He is always willing to come to someone's aid or defense, and he’s the first person you would want in your foxhole. And the innate wildness that he exhibits when frustrated also shows in his humor. He is instinctually and uniquely the most hysterical person I have ever met. He is a deep thinker, an asker of questions, and a very thoughtful friend. So while life with him is often erratic, loud, and chaotic, it is also fucking awesome. But man, it’s hard.
Samm Burnham Davidson is an ex-lawyer mom of four who swears a lot. She lives in Beverly, Massachusetts.