It’s 3 a.m. and my youngest (3) has been screaming for two hours now. He’s inconsolable; pushing away any touch and slamming his hands over his ears when I try to speak to him. He kicks the bed as hard as he can and throws his blanket on the floor only to demand it be returned five seconds later. I’ve given up for now and curled in my bed to write in an effort to get my frustration out in a healthy way. I’m physically paying the price, my stomach churning with IBS pain that is a result of the stress from lack of sleep and my inability to soothe my child. I don’t know what to do.
He’s been a difficult sleeper since his first night on earth. I remember pacing the hospital room, rocking and nursing him constantly as I cried along with him. The staff thought I was having a mental break, when all I wanted was for him to stop crying for just a few minutes. As he grew he was obviously a happy child outside of his ‘bad days’ so we just kept working in shifts, trying to appease him and his moods – telling ourselves, “It’s a phase. He’ll grow out of it soon.”
– He’s screaming still. I tried to go in but he told me to go away. It’s an endless cycle of going from my bedroom to his and back again. –
It’s three years later and things have only gotten worse. Some nights he sleeps through, but those nights are few and far between. I dealt with night terrors with my first child. So, no matter how often well-meaning individuals suggest it, this is not the same. To make matters worse, there is no pattern – nothing we can repeat to ensure a full sleep. What works one night creates a nightmare the next and, as a result, the following day is a parade of whining and surliness which leads into another horrible night. Almost every night is a drawn out fight with imaginary wrinkles in his blanket, clothes that are ‘too tight – too tight!’ and screaming for everything from a drink of water to going downstairs to play to “Just leave, I am going to cry forever!”. If I go in he wants his father. If his father goes in, he wants me.
– I’m pausing here because he’s quiet and I need to type soft and slow. When he stops yelling I fear making any noise. Even the barely audible clicks of my keyboard are worrisome at this point. Our evenings are spent in fretful silence. –
– Four minutes and he’s screaming again like he never stopped. How is he still awake? –
We’ve tried everything – every suggestion from family, friends and experts. Less activity to keep him calm, more activity to wear him out, early bedtime, late bedtime and even melatonin. We’ve always had a schedule and routine with bath and story and quiet rocking – what everyone says is the recipe for night time success. But 9 times out of 10 it is a complete failure. We’ve tried sitting with him for hours and we’ve tried letting him cry. We’ve done it all.
We feared something was wrong – Autism? ADHD? Sensory Issues? But both his physician and a specialist say no. He is bright, developing not only well but exceedingly well, and adapts to social interaction and learning. The verdict: He’s “A Difficult Child”. I was shocked to learn that it’s an actual diagnosis and completely different from a child who simply misbehaves. He isn’t acting out to get attention – this is ‘just how he is’. The behaviorist gave me a book about it. It’s like they wrote the book specifically about my child. I keep reading all these traits and situations and they match what we are dealing with completely. I’m only half way through the book, but so far there are no suggested solutions except ‘adapt and help him adapt’. How? How do I do that? While I thank God every day that my child does not have a more serious disorder, I can’t help but feel completely powerless because, for the difficult child, there is no set solution. No medication, no therapy, no definitive list of do and do not. I’m not sure I would medicate him were it a choice, but not even having the option makes it somehow more difficult. I thought identifying the issue would turn on a bright light at the end of the tunnel – give us an ‘ah ha!’ moment, but learning that this is just his disposition and may never actually grow out of it makes me feel even more lost. I wanted more than a definition in a text book – I wanted help.
He’s quiet now. I’m holding my breath and you’d probably laugh if you saw how excruciatingly slow I’m pressing these keys. This is my life – be quiet, don’t upset him, don’t set him off. People see a child like this and think, “His parents are either ignoring him or spoiling him. It’s their parenting that is at fault.” But they don’t see the hours – day and night – that are spent trying to understand and repair this discord.
I think he’s asleep – for now. Only an hour and a half of chaos this time – much better than the 5 hours we went through last night. But I will be awake for a while. My body is exhausted, for sure – but my mind is thinking about all the parents who are dealing with this, right now, in their own homes. Parents who don’t know how to change it, but they don’t stop trying. Parents who are judged and told they must be doing something wrong. Parents, like me, who are seeking answers that go beyond “He’ll grow out of it. Just be stern”. Because when you have a Difficult Child – days feel like months. And those months seem to have no end.
I’m tired, I’m worn and some days I dream of locking myself in the bathroom until he turns 18. I’m only human. But I’m also a mother who loves her child – and I will never give up.