The family way

More thoughts on Guidepost Four …

One of my worst runs as a parent came when Sam was about 12. Something about puberty turned his world upside down. In some ways, it was as if he was 3 years old again.

As in tantrums.

Over the course of several weeks, he slipped ever deeper into the habit of taking things out on his younger brother. I got between them many times to de-escalate an argument, but Sam wasn’t getting the message that his brother was not a punching bag. I took stock of his rages. They were getting worse, not better. Something about it was self-reinforcing — possibly because Michael would only throw up defensive blocks, he wouldn’t fight back. Sam would “win,” in other words.

I didn’t want to encourage Michael to fight back. Something about that felt wrong, more for Michael than for Sam.

Even though Sam was taller than me, I knew I could get the best of him once or twice, if I needed to keep Michael safe. I would have the element of surprise, but only once or twice, then our relationship would be ruined.

As usual, I was spending too much time thinking about it, but I didn’t feel like I was coming up with any decent strategies to fix the situation.

Of course, one afternoon it all came to a head, Sam was throwing a huge tantrum, with Michael as his target, and I knew, if I didn’t tackle him right then, Michael would have been hurt. I dove onto my son and pinned him to the floor and yelled at him, “Stop, stop, stop it right now, or you can’t live in our house anymore!”

Sam was terrified. He already had tears in his eyes from the tantrum, but now his eyes looked truly wild. It seemed to take forever for him to calm down and for me to feel like I could let him go, but he didn’t really resist much either. We tried to talk a little about what I said, but it wasn’t a good conversation.

Over time, I saw that he’d gotten the message that he was responsible for his behavior and he was not allowed across that line of physicality. When he got mad, he took his troubles to the porch and paced and talked to himself. The physical tantrums ended. But it cost me a fair amount of his trust for a while.

For several years, he’d occasionally ask about circumstances when someone couldn’t live with the family anymore. He was looking for the rules. Were they still the same? Does he still understand them?

I tried to give him the same message each time, essentially, ‘you probably don’t remember how badly you were hurting Michael, so I was pretty scared when I told you that. But you’re older now and you know we just don’t do that in the Wolfe family.’

That little mantra “how we do it in the Wolfe family” helped ground all our children and make them feel safe through the tween and teen years. They even put items on the agenda for family meetings that way. They’d articulate a problem, and then Mark and I asked them how they were going to solve it. They often had terrific ideas and the problem stayed solved.

That’s how we do it in the Wolfe family.

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