My husband left me two and a half years into our marriage and four months into my pregnancy. From that devastating time onward, I was forced to rethink my life’s vision.
In my efforts to keep my daughter safe from her father throughout the custody dispute, I was dragged through some of the lowest, darkest regions of hell. I won’t go into details to protect her privacy, but our experience was awful. And, as much as I knew the stress and sorrow of this experience were affecting me, I denied to myself that she would be affected as well, because she was so little at the time.
By the age of two, my daughter was experiencing anxiety, which I believed was related to the back-and-forth of the court-ordered weekly custody schedule. She’d kick and scream, weep and plead not to leave me almost every time. She was frequently weepy, overtired, and usually furious when she returned home. That couldn’t last, so after five years, it was determined that she’d only see her father every other weekend to make her feel more stable.
By the time she reached kindergarten, she was not only refusing to see her father, but she was also refusing to attend to school. This refusal quickly turned into physical resistance. She refused to dress or get in the car, and it at times escalated to her trying to jump out of the car while it was moving.
I sought help from professionals, and was given the same message over and over: “…Once ‘school refusal’ starts, no matter what, you must get them into the building, or they will never go back.”
I did as I was told and sat outside the school frequently, listening to her screams with such intensity that my own mental health began to deteriorate. Every day for four years was a fight to get her into school or, during COVID, to get her on a computer, which she’d inevitably slam shut. I told myself she was simply trying to “get her way,” that she was “misbehaving,” and that this will pass, just as the professionals had said.
She became angrier as she grew older, and her outbursts became more frequent. Any minor change, like as transitioning from playtime to sleep, getting in the car to drive somewhere, or visiting with friends, might cause a big outburst. There was no way of knowing what incident would set off the cycle.
The outbursts varied from kicking, biting, shouting, beating, and breaking whatever she could get her hands on, to running barefoot into the icy woods, tossing items across the room, refusing to sleep, and fleeing home. She began to rip her own hair, hit herself, and bang her skull against walls. It was exhausting and painful.
Every time she transformed into the Hulk, my first thought was to prepare for a war. Frequently, I’d have to call in additional troops, such as my new husband or my mother, who would drive over to help me. Every day was terrifying. Every day was difficult. And every day, I did what I believed I was meant to do: fight her back, win, and convince her to do whatever she refused to do.
I was enraged by this behavior. I never stopped to think about what was causing it; I simply kept trying to make it stop.
My husband and I pulled into the school parking lot in January 2022, my daughter in the rear fighting us as if her life depended on it, her small arms wrapped around a rail beneath the front seat so we couldn’t physically move her without hurting her.
That’s when it started. “I JUST WANT TO DIE!” my little 8-year-old screamed as she slammed her head repeatedly against the seat in front of her. My world came to a halt at that point. I was completely helpless and hopeless.
I couldn’t take a breath. Didn’t my kid just say she’d rather die than go to school? My family members and friends committed suicide, but they were adults. It was terrifying and unfathomable, but picture an 8-year-old feeling the same way. I realized I had to do something extreme to help her.
I was at a loss for ideas, and I realized we needed help. I considered taking her to the hospital, but I was afraid they would take her away or force me to commit her. My husband contacted the ER from the parking lot and explained what was going on. They advised us to contact a new emergency mobile crisis center in the area.
The experts stated that her conduct may be the result of severe anxiety, and they used that first diagnosis to choose how to proceed. It was successful. My kid was finally calm after sitting in the van for hours in front of the school.
The most important thing they did was to meet her where she was until she was ready. They did, however, strongly advise us to take her to the ER if she continued to exhibit this behavior.
The cycle began again less than 24 hours later, and we headed to the ER. They evaluated her and determined she was not a risk to herself, but they suggested I send her to a mental health hospital.
This is one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make as a parent. Given what I’d learned the day before and my new thinking process on why she was acting this way, I was persuaded that the source of her anxiety was separation and transitions, and I determined that committing her wasn’t in her best interests.
I found that seeing my daughter at this location resolves any outburst far faster than meeting her in a frustrated state. We can discuss her behavior and handle her anxiety together after she has stabilized. I am happy to report that she now handles transitions much more positively.
I encourage all parents to see their children’s conduct through this lens. You are the expert on your child, so if you are unsure what is driving their behavior, follow your instincts and seek guidance. And please know that you are not alone if you are experiencing anything similar to what our family did.