August 8, 2015

The Storm

The violent storm crashed through our home, causing it to be barely recognizable.  Overturned chairs, black dirt from an upended plant, a shattered lamp, and ugly dents in the wall were left in its aftermath.  I simply stood in the middle of the room staring at the chaos, powerless to move, unable to process what had just happened. 

This was not the first time such a wild tempest had destroyed our otherwise peaceful home, but oh, dear God, please let it be the last!  I love this little girl with all of my heart, but I truly don’t know how much more I can take! 

With increasing frequency over the past year or so, her usual sweet, sunny disposition would unexpectedly turn dark and sinister with very little warning.  I rarely saw it coming.  We would be in the parking lot after a pleasant shopping trip, and suddenly she would be shrieking and flailing, refusing to get into the car.  Or we would be the front yard of a friend’s house, when her enthusiasm for a play date would abruptly morph into wailing and thrashing, refusing to get out of the car.

Even our family vacation to a magical kingdom, which should have been a dream come true, ended in disaster. About 10 minutes after entering the gate, the storm hit.  A fierce, raging storm that unleashed its fury indiscriminately onto everyone and everything in its path.  As I dragged a screaming, kicking, biting, flailing, hyperventilating child through the crowds of “perfect” families, I could feel their scornful accusing stares and could imagine their question:  What kind of mother would let her child act like that?  I could almost hear their exhales of relief as they must have been thinking, I’m glad that’s not MY child!  Never in my life had I felt such shame.

And never in my life had I felt so helpless.  How is it possible for a smart, competent, college-educated adult to be completely incapable of controlling a child’s tantrums?  How could her erratic, hysterical behavior continue to be such a mystery to me?

When my husband and I first started noticing these outbursts, we were, understandably, quite worried.  I took her to see her pediatrician, who casually, almost flippantly, dismissed our concerns.  “There’s nothing wrong,” she determined, “that a little firm discipline and consistent consequences won’t cure.  Trust me.  Tantrums are quite normal in children her age.”  No, no, no, I thought in frustration!  I know, I am absolutely certain that there is nothing normal about her maniacal behavior! 

I’ve been around enough children to know what normal tantrums look like.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that I myself had normal tantrums when I was a child.  But this?  The eyes that gloss over?  The difficulty breathing?  The near super-human strength?  No way is that normal!1

And what kind of consequences are we talking about here, anyway?  Don’t you think I’ve already tried every tool in my parenting arsenal?  I could try to restrain her, but it’s one thing to physically contain a 2-year old; how am I supposed to control an 8-year old?   And there’s no way I could send her to her room.  How could I even think of leaving her alone when she was grabbing the kitchen knives and threatening to kill herself? 

Finally my husband and I contacted one of the pastors at our church, hoping that he would, perhaps miraculously, be able to help us get through this unbearably frightening season.  It just so happened that a world-renowned speaker and author and leader in the Biblical Counseling community was visiting our church at the time, and so we were able to make an appointment to meet with him.  Honestly, I am a big supporter of Biblical Counseling, and I firmly believe with all of my heart that God is able to provide complete healing, and that His Word is fully sufficient to meet all of our needs.2

However, our meeting with the counselor proved to be hugely disappointing, and our hopes were ultimately quenched.  After pouring out our story of confusion and fear and complete bewilderment in the face of our daughter’s storms, his conclusion was something along the lines of, “You’re doing a great job.  Just keep teaching her and training her in God’s Word.  Have frequent discussions with her about what it means to “put off” her sinful actions and “put on”, or replace it with, a more Biblical response.”  OK, then.  That’s not really helpful!3

Discussions?  Trying to talk to her?  Seriously?  There is no reasoning with someone who has retreated so far into herself that she can no longer hear or see or comprehend.  When the stress response – the fight, flight or freeze response - is triggered, that whole prefrontal cortex thing is completely deactivated, and trying to communicate with her would have been futile and utterly pointless.4

So if my very best parenting skills were not enough, and the doctor’s advice was not enough, and the expert’s words of wisdom were not enough, what now?   Where could we turn?  I had one option left, a last resort, something I knew I could no longer postpone.  I finally admitted that this little girl needed the help of a mental health professional.5 

As part of the process to diagnose the source of her problems, the psychologist asked her to answer True or False to a number of statements on a questionnaire.   Her answers went something like this:

         I like the way I look.  False.
         I am good at sports.  False.
         I am smart.  False.
         I have a lot of friends.  False.
         I look forward to the future.  False.
         I am happy.  False.
With each successive answer, her voice grew softer, her head hung lower, and the cracks in my heart grew deeper, overcome with compassion for this broken and disheartened child.  I was beginning to think that maybe she didn’t understand the sentences.  Maybe she just fell into a rhythm and had forgotten that she could give a different answer.  And then the final statement:

         I know that my parents love me.

I held my breath.  Did she know that I loved her?  Had I told her often enough?  Had I been so focused on worrying about her and fixing her problems that I had failed to remind her how precious she was to me?  She barely hesitated. 


She answered with a hint of a smile, the first smile I had seen in weeks.  She knew!  She knew!  In spite of her challenges and her discouragement and her pain, she knew that I loved her!  Thank you, Lord for small miracles.  There is, after all, a glimmer of hope!

It wasn’t however, the end of our struggles.  A few weeks later, as I stared in dismay at our home that had once again been destroyed by one of her violent storms, I just wanted to quit.  All I had said, innocently enough was, “It’s time to get ready for bed,” which is what I say at the end of every day, usually without incident.  But this time she screamed NO right into my face, to which I responded, “Don’t talk back to me, young lady!” and then YOU CAN’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO, and YES I CAN!  I’M YOUR MOTHER AND YOU WILL OBEY ME!  to which she screamed, I HATE YOU!  Within seconds it escalated to seismic proportions.

How did we get here?  I cried out to the Lord, begging Him for wisdom, pleading with Him to please, please let this stop.  I can’t do this any more!

And in that moment, I remembered the words on the questionnaire:  I know that my parents love me.  What?!  It was like being shaken awake after a terrible nightmare.  How had I forgotten this most basic role as her mother?  Yes, I needed to train her and help her learn right behaviors to be able to function in the world.  But what about love?   Perhaps I had possessed the right tool in my parenting arsenal after all, but had forgotten how to use it.  For the first time, the questions to myself were not How should I discipline her or How can I control her behavior, but What is causing her to act this way? and How can I reach her?

After a brief search through the house, I found her curled up beneath her bed.  The screaming had subsided.  She was spent – emotionally and physically exhausted from the recent ordeal.  I sat down on the floor beside her, took a deep breath, and touched her.  Just touched her gently and looked into her eyes and whispered, “I still love you.”

I held her close to me while she sobbed convulsively – guttural sobs from some primal place deep inside that neither of us knew existed.  She clinged to me as if her life depended on it (perhaps it did!), and she cried, “I’m sorry.  I’m so, so sorry!  I don’t know why I do this!  I don’t want to act like this, but I don’t know how to stop it!”   Wow!  This is absolutely terrifying! If she can’t control it, and I can’t control it, who can?!

I sat with her for a long, long time.  No blaming, no accusing comments about what she should have done or how she might have handled it better.  Not even a teaching opportunity about children obeying their parents or what she will do differently next time.  Just questions:  “Are you okay?” and “What happened?” and “Can you tell me what you’re thinking about?”

I learned the most amazing thing about her that day.  When she had heard me say earlier, “It’s time to get ready for bed,” it wasn’t the getting ready for bed part that was the problem, it was what came after bed that was the problem:  tomorrow.  She had a dentist’s appointment the next day, and just the thought of going to the dentist sent her into a panic.  I was stunned!  All this?  For a dentist appointment?!

I couldn’t believe it!   All this time, for all these months, I had been focusing on the wrong thing!  It wasn’t necessarily rage that was the issue.  It wasn’t defiance or disrespect or disregard for authority.  All along it had been fear!  A profound, deep-seated fear for which she didn’t have words.  Fear that provoked an instinctive “fight” response – a response that I had mistaken for anger.  That time she didn’t want to get out of the car at her friend’s house?  Maybe it was because that was the first time she would be staying by herself without me there.  The meltdown at the theme park?  It could have been because all that brave talk about roller coasters was really a disguise for how frightened she was at the thought of them.  All of a sudden, everything made sense.

That night was a turning point – for her and for me.  Over the next few months she learned to speak more openly about the things that scared her and caused her such great anxiety.  She learned how to put words to the strange and terrifying emotions inside, and to face them with courage and strength. 

And me?  I learned to listen.  I mean, stop multi-tasking, make eye-contact, and give her my full attention really listen.6  Maybe that Biblical counselor was on to something after all.  Not that my daughter needed to “put off” the sinful behavior and “put on” the right response, but that needed to do that!  In retrospect I can see how my own sinful behavior provoked my daughter and caused the tantrums to escalate.7 

Once I started listening and stopped lecturing, once I made it my goal to understand instead of simply insisting on compliance, the transformation was amazing.  Her confidence grew. Her smiles and laughter increased and her outbursts – those terrible storms that threatened to destroy our home – they decreased and eventually stopped altogether.  Once again our home knew peace.

I love that girl.  I love her with all of my heart!  But what is more important, I believe, is that she knows that I love her.  I hope she knows that I am not her enemy; that we are on the same team.  That I will do whatever I can to understand her and reach her.  To reassure her and encourage her and help her face those persistent fears that threaten to undo her.  I hope she knows that whatever happens, whatever it takes, I am not going to quit.  We are in this thing together.  And together we will weather the storm.

1.             I didn’t know it at the time, but she was exhibiting signs of adrenaline release, which God designed our bodies to do in emergencies.  This extra boost of energy, usually kept in reserve, gives us the strength and ability to survive danger.
2.             “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.  The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes . . . By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.” -  Psalm 19:7-11
3.             In all fairness, did we really expect him to fix everything in an hour?  Perhaps if he had been able to spend more time with us, he would have discovered the underlying problem much more quickly than we eventually did.
4.             It’s only been fairly recently that neuroscientists have understood the effects of trauma, fear, and anxiety on our brains.  When we are in “fight, flight or freeze” mode, the prefrontal cortex, which controls higher-level thinking like reasoning and decision making, shuts down.  The focus is solely on survival.  For more about this subject, I recommend The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog by Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz and The Connected Child by Karyn Purvis.
5.             In my conservative Christian circles, there is often a sense of shame about seeking the help of a mental health professional.  It’s like admitting that God is not capable or sufficient, and so we are giving up on God and turning to secular “wisdom” for answers to our problems.  It seems like we are looking for someone to excuse our bad behavior. 

However, not all of our problems are purely spiritual.  For example, in the book of 1 Kings, almost immediately after Elijah had experienced a miraculous victory, he was afraid and depressed, and he hoped to die. 
When we are faced with prolonged or multiple stresses, our neurotransmitters can stop working properly and our cortisol levels can be depleted, leaving us debilitated and vulnerable to spiritual attack.

Did God tell Elijah to have more faith?  To buck up and meditate on Scripture?  No, God provided food and sleep for Elijah.  He first cared for his physical needs.  In the same way, mental health professionals not only help people heal mentally and spiritually, but with the right medication they may be able to help the brain and the body’s chemistry heal physically.
6.             I am still learning to listen well.  It is a journey.
7.             I had even memorized Proverbs 15:1 as a child, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”  How had I forgotten such a simple truth?

Related story:  Mama Duck


  1. Thank you for both you and your daughter sharing this with us. Love wins!

  2. Great story and very helpful. Thank you for sharing what you've learned. I've found nothing refines us more than learning in Christ to be better parents and spouses. A footnote quibble though - I'm not sure your quotation for Prov. 15:1 in footnote 7 is correct. Your quote says that a gentle answer "stirs up wrath" ... I think most translations and what you meant to write was, a gentle answer "turns away wrath"!

    1. Oh, you are absolutely right about the verse. Of course that's what I meant to say . . . "A gentle answer TURNS AWAY wrath."

  3. Just what I needed to read 5 weeks ago when I read it! I bawled! My friend passed it along to me. Thank you for sharing! God is good all of the time. I resigned from my job 5 weeks ago to be able to stay at home with mine to help her process life right now & to make sure she knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that God loves her and that I love her.
    Thank you for being used by God for confirmation!

    1. I just re-read it, and it made me cry too. It brings back such awful memories of those dark, terrifying days! I am so, so thankful that the Lord was there to carry us through it. You are absolutely right . . . even though it is difficult to see when you are in the middle of the worst of it, God IS good all the time!