Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Excessive Force

This is a guest post by my husband Chris.

Christa has written previously that "time out" sometimes meant holding Ben's arms, and even holding him down on the bed until he was calm.

As Ben grew older and stronger, the challenge of keeping him from hitting, scratching, or kicking required the application of greater force. In practice this meant lying him face down on the bed, my one hand clasping his wrists together behind his back, my other hand holding his ankles.

Thankfully I rarely felt I had to resort to this maneuver, because I hated to use it every time. I hated the rage inside Ben that made him try to hurt us. And I hated my own choice to pin Ben down as if he were a wild animal.

But then he would provoke me to give him time outs. And soon he started asking for them. With help from his teacher we came to understand that the physical pressure of being held immobile was calming to him when he was feeling out of control.

Until the day it wasn't enough. I don't even remember the trigger any more. Ben had already broken my glasses and scratched my face. Holding him on the bed wasn't working--he was thrashing his head, trying to bite me, and wriggling his feet out of my grasp so that he could kick himself free. I was frightened I was losing control of him. Scared that he would hurt himself or both of us. And I was angry. Angry this was happening to our family. To me.

I scooped him up in a bear hug and carried him into the hall.

"No, Daddy, no!!!" he screamed.

I laid him down on the cold hard wood floor. I knelt on his legs, pinned his arms behind his back, and turned his face so that all he could see was a blank wall. And I held it there.

"No, Daddy, no!!!"

From his bedroom, Christa cried and pleaded with me to let him go.

I cried and said I did not know what to do.

Beneath me, Ben screamed and cried.

And calmed himself down.

When it was done all three of us cried and hugged each other. I promised to myself I wouldn't treat Ben that way again.

But then he started asking.

"I need a time out," he'd say.

"Then go stand in the corner," I'd say. "Time out means you stand in the corner for two minutes."

Sometimes this would be enough. Sometimes he would stand in the corner, like a "typical" kid.

But then he would ask again.

"I want a time out when you hold me to the wall."

"That's not a time out," I'd say. "Do you need a big tight squeeze?"

"No. What is it when you hold me to the wall?"

"I did that one time. You were so mad you couldn't calm down."

"Can you show me what happened when you held me to the wall?"

He persisted. I gently laid him down on the floor, and mimed holding him there. Satisfied, he got up, and switched activities.

But later, when he was feeling anxious, he would hit me, flail his arms in the air, and shout "I'm so mad I can't calm down! I'm so mad I can't calm down."

I would try to soothe him with hugs and gentle words. And sometimes that would be enough. But sometimes he would insist, and I wanted to give him what he was seeking without him thinking he had to hurt me to get it.

So I'd hold him to the floor, against the wall, and feel him calm his body down.

I mostly did this by request. Sometimes at moments of conflict or stress, when words began to fail, I would ask him "Are you so mad you can't calm down?" I did not know whether he perceived it as a threatened consequence, or as an escape hatch for his anxiety. I did not know if it mattered.

It has been months since I have held Ben to the wall. Months until a week ago.

He had already pulled off my glasses, and thrown the Wii console to the floor. He was unwilling or unable to respond with words, and he was trying to bite any part of me he could reach.

I lifted him up and brought him into the hall. I laid him down, and held him there, all the while speaking calmly about all the fun things he could do if he wanted: listen to a story, play with trains, watch a show, have a snack.

"Shut up, you idiot!"* he hissed, and tried to bite me again.

Christa sat on a nearby stool and began to cry. She asked if I could move him to a bed, at least.

"Not without him hurting me," I said sadly.

Ben stopped struggling.

"What did you say?" he asked.

"I said I thought you might hurt me if I try to carry you to the bed."

"I'm sorry, Daddy." Ben said. All the tension was gone from his voice. And, I quickly realized, his arms and legs.

I let go of him, and he stood up.

"You're my best friend, Daddy." He gave me a gentle hug. "I love you guys."

He walked over to Christa, who was still crying. "I'm sorry, you guys. I love you."

And with that, the incident was over. Something--perhaps the sound of Christa crying, or perhaps a realization that he could really hurt me--had flipped a switch inside him.

He walked out to the living room to read his books.

*Language thanks to a variety of G-rated Disney entertainment.


Post script:

We're fortunate that these kinds of incidents are fairly infrequent and relatively brief. But any time we have to physically restrain our son it leaves us, as Chris describes with utmost honesty, emotionally wrung out and shaken.

I'm hoping to hear from other parents and caregivers about how you keep everyone safe in the midst of meltdowns and rages, how you handle your own emotional response and how you have helped your children learn non-agressive responses to overwhelming emotions.


ghkcole said...

Your bravery and honesty in posting are generous acts for which I'm very grateful. I understand. I wish you all good things.

Anonymous said...

When my son's rages were at their worst (he was four years old, but big and strong) we put a lock on the outside of his bedroom door. There was nothing in there but a bed and a small chest of drawers. When things were desperate, we would lock him in there until he calmed down -- usually about 15 minutes, but sometimes longer. I thing the longest was one hour, once.

He destroyed the dresser over the months, and when we overlooked a pen or pencil he scribbled on the walls. But we all got through it. It let him rage away, and gave us parents a chance to keep ourselves calm and safe.

He's matured a lot since then, and now we can do a "normal" time out in the corner, or I can take a break in my room if I need one.

(I'm a regular reader but doing this anonymously, since locking your young child in a room isn't something you want to admit publicly.)

Anonymous said...

This brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing it. It's amazing to me, what the three of you go through sometimes. I know I wouldn't have the strength.

I admire you so much.

Noel said...

My high-functioning autistic son turned 8 today and hasn't had a really violent episode in three or four years. When he was younger we would hold him tight and/or let him punch a pillow to get his anger out. Then we shifted to sending him to his room, which he hated. But it was because he hated it that we did it; it was the only effective punishment we could come up with. Often the threat alone was enough to get him to shape up. But a threat's no good unless you back it up, so when he just wouldn't behave, I'd literally drag him to his room kicking and screaming, and then hold his door shut while he pounded and yelled that he wanted out. A minute later I'd open up and ask him to take a deep breath and apologize (and if he wouldn't, he'd stay in for another minute).

Like I said, it's been a few years since I had to do that. Now I usually just threaten to cut his Wii time or deny him dessert after dinner and that straightens him up. I worry about what'll happen if we reach an impasse again, now that he's bigger and stronger, but for now deprivation (and the threat thereof) is working better than physical restraint.

A little boy just 3 years old said...

Tears.... rolling down my cheeks.... My son isn't as old... he's 3... but I can actually FEEL myself DOING as you describe as you describe it. I can feel it and I can hear it and I can smell the sweat dripping off it.

I pray he goes back to NOT having these and you figure out if there's a trigger.... but also just know you aren't alone and you are just doing the best you can.

It shattered my heart to pieces to read the realization he came to. It just DUMBFOUNDS me sometimes to even TRY to figure out what's going on in their precious little miracle brains.

FWIW.... have you tried doing a sandwich? LOTS OF PRESSURE!!! [but totally not going to work in a FIT of rage... this is more like when he's still at the asking stage] We have a couple couch pillows that come off. We lay one in the floor. Lay him on top. Lay one on top of everything but his head, and make sure it's not below his knees or no pressure below the knees. and LAY on him. We have our son talk or sing ABCs or tell a story or something to make sure he's not TOO winded.. but he can stick his arms/hands/etc.. in and get allover pressure.

goodfountain said...

We've been dealing with this lately. Charlotte doesn't often get very angry, but when she does (like today) there is screaming, stomping and biting (used to be hitting). Today she caught herself with the attempt at biting and then started crying and asking me for a hug.

It's very apparent to me that when she's angry she feels out of control, KNOWS she feels out of control, and KNOWS deep pressure works to calm her down or, as she says, make her feel better.

The question is how to get her to process that anger without going to the stomping and screaming and physicalness. Today she was angry because she didn't want to take her Belle dress off and put regular clothes on to go out.

It was the most angry I've seen her. But it was also one of the few times she was able to to tell me, later, exactly why she was angry.

The main thing I do when Charlotte gets so very upset and starts to get physical is make her go to her room. She will lay on her bed and cry. Going to her room by herself de-escalates the anger. But I don't feel that she is really processing it. I don't want her to stuff it down.

This is so very complicated. All kids have to learn how to process and express anger. It's just not as easy for some.

Anonymous said...

This brought me to tears. And back to a time when we were dealing with anger, frustration and rage almost every day. My nearly 8yr old son hasn't had an episode like you describe for nearly 3 years, but when he was 3,4, and 5 years old...it was very much like what you describe.

We learned to meet our son's anger with calm, to face his hitting with a firm "that's not okay." We kept our words simple, our emotions in check. To this day, he cannot calm down if he thinks someone is angry with him or yelling at him. (It's even written into his IEP: stay calm, do not react.)

As he's matured, he's done a much better job of expressing himself, using words to convey that deep anxiety and frustration, but I worry still about what's to come. Sometimes it feels like we are in the eye of the storm waiting for puberty and round two to hit. It's such a big unknown. As one commenter said, older, stronger... yes, that's something to worry about.

In the meantime, we continue to take EVERY opportunity to discuss what's okay and what's not. What's expected of him, etc. And right now, we're in a good place.

Thank you for opening up about such a difficult subject. I hope you'll keep talking about it here and let the discussion continue. In our darkest hours, we felt so alone. We didn't have the blog or the support of all of you. Things are very different now.

The most important thing is that you know you are not alone, and that you will come out on the other side.

tb said...

Ben's a lucky kid to have you two watching over him.

Deirdre said...

I think you both are brave and are doing exactly what's right. I recall how horrible I felt when I had to put L in his room and hold the door closed while he ranted & kicked & screamed. Even though I was doing it on the advice of the latest parenting book I read, it was still awful. Like keeping a prisoner. But.... he was the only person that could calm himself down. We do not actually have the power to calm our kids down, they must do it themselves. And we have to rein them in while they go through this process. You are not doing anything wrong.

Anonymous said...

Have you heard of Dr. Stanely Greenspan? He is the world's foremost authority on clincal work with with infants and young children with developmental disorders, amongst other wonderful things. And most importantly has a big heart for children with ASD. If you go to WWW.ICDL.com (Interdisciplinary Council on Developmental and Learning Disorders) and scroll down to bottom of page "Free podcasts". He has a section under "parenting" that is called "meltdowns", click on it. You can read the transcript version or hear the audio version. Its is so insightful. He does mention the need to physically hold children, so your on the right track. He has a great track record and is a very respected man, I highly recommend you take advantage of his advice. Thanks for sharing, I too, have gone through a similar journey. I wish you all the best.