Fear can hide behind the mask of anger. In children with past trauma, their fear can show itself as rage. It can look violent and loud and destructive. It can leave a trail of physical damage from tantrums and meltdowns. In our house, fear looks like holes punched in the walls, broken closet doors, smashed toys and cracked windows. But I won’t be fooled. I can see my child’s anger for what it really is. It is fear.
Carl is afraid. I recently suffered a herniated disc in my spine from a work injury. I am out of work. I am taking prescription pain killers. I cannot drive, I cannot take walks with my children, I cannot let them sit on my lap. I cannot bend down to tuck my children in at bedtime. I spend time at doctor’s appointments, or on the couch on a heating pad. I groan when I move and I need help to stand. I am always in pain.
Carl remembers another mom who took pills. He had a mom before me who slept through the day and wouldn’t get out of bed. There was another mom who didn’t tuck him in or take walks with him or drive him places. She would leave sometimes to go to “work” while a 4-year-old Carl was left with a 9-year-old sibling to watch him and baby Mary. Sometimes when he woke up she was gone. Sometimes she cried in her room for weeks at a time and wouldn’t talk to the family.
Although my situation is nothing like hers, there are enough similarities to trigger Carl’s fear. And he must be very, very afraid. He’s been having meltdowns. My parents watched the children Wednesday night while Luke took me to get a spinal injection. We were not there when he got home. Even though we told him about the plan, he still felt the fear. He flew into a rage when we got home and prompted him to take a shower (bathing is often a struggle and a trigger for our children anyway.) He broke things in his room and punched the walls. He screamed that he wanted a different mom. A better mom.
His rage continued the next morning before school. He exhibited his anger at his intensive outpatient treatment center after school. His therapist wasn’t sure she would be able to get him on the van to go home. He yelled and punched things and kicked things at the center. He was able to tell the therapist that he was scared. Logically he knew he could trust Luke and I but he still just felt scared.
Disarming his fear response was the only way I could think of to stop his raging cycle. At this point, if he were to be dangerously out-of-control or violent, we would have to hospitalize him. I’m not physically able to restrain him from hurting himself. I could suffer permanent damage to my spine of he were to punch or kick me in the wrong spot. So I tried to approach his anger in a way that would quell his fear.
When he came home it was just the two of us. Luke and Mary were at Lacrosse practice. I had a note taped to the front door. It said, “Roses are red, Violets are blue. Follow the clues, look where you go poo!” Who can stay scared when joking about poo? Carl ran to the toilet where he found another note. It said, “Carl is good, Carl is great. Look in the office, hurry don’t wait!” He followed the clues all over the house until he got to the last clue. He was giggling away and smiling. He kept saying, “Mommy what is this? I never got to do anything like this before!”
His last clue read,”This has been silly. This has been fun. Look under the bed and see what you’ve won!”Under the bed I had a brand new bottle of Mr. Bubbles. Take that, scary bath time! Bubbles are fun!
I gave Carl some choices, which usually helps to calm him because it gives him some control. He chose to take a bubble bath in our master bathroom. He also chose to eat his dinner in the bubble bath. Weird choices, I know, but it was just what he needed. After all, who can be scared eating pizza bites in a bath full of bubbles? Especially while their mom warbles off-key silly songs from the hallway? Silly, crazy, fun activities will help to disarm a child’s fear. It helped Carl.
I asked him later what he was afraid of. Carl told me that he is afraid I will die. He’s already lost one mother. He does not want to lose another. His fear is real. So is his love. That is why, no matter what, I will continue to fight fear with silly songs and bubbles.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.