We like to think love has power, that it forges a connection stronger than space, time and the many obstacles life can throw between two people. Countless stories and songs attest to humanity's unwavering belief that love is more than an emotion.
So you can imagine my feelings of utter failure as a mother and a human being on one of the many days when my son Theo, then age six, used every ounce of his considerable strength to try to beat the daylights out of me.
I pinned him to the floor to protect myself, softly told him how much I loved him and begged him to calm down. When he seemed to relax, I leaned in to kiss him, and he tried to head-butt me.
It was early 2008, and my husband Greg and I had officially pulled Theo out of school, where he was in a classroom for children with autism. I decided to home school him after one of his tantrums ended with his teacher's arm in a sling.
When Theo and I began spending our days together, his meltdowns were hard to predict, and once they started neither tenderness nor toughness could stop them. Often, his rage subsided only when we were both exhausted and in tears.
Not that he was always such a hellion. He could be playful and sweet. But unexpectedly, something would set him off. Greg and I were afraid to take him anywhere, and our lives revolved around trying to avoid the next eruption. His older brother, Kenny, a gentle and passive kid, was terrified of him.
For months, I struggled to improve my relationship with Theo. Things got a little better, but mostly my earnest expressions of motherly love were rebuffed by raging hands and feet.
I grieved over my failure. Could he not feel my love? Could he not understand it? Why was my love for him, which I felt so deeply, so hopelessly inadequate?
Never did I think I would give a six-year-old antidepressants, but in desperation Greg and I gave it a try. The medication slowed his aggression, so instead of going from 0 to 60 in 0.5 seconds he went from 0 to 20, giving me a chance to understand what was going on.
Theo wasn't angry, he was anxious. The poor boy had a million routines in his head, and whenever things didn't go exactly how he expected he was overcome with anxiety. Perhaps the predictability of a tantrum was easier for him to handle than the unpredictability of day-to-day life.
With the help of Amy Cameron, a Relationship Development Intervention consultant in Apex, I learned how to build Theo's trust in me. He discovered I was there to help him and guide him, not to suppress his natural energy or force him to behave. He learned that I respected his feelings and that I would work with him so we both got what we needed. I read Ross Greene's "The Explosive Child" and came to understand his inflexibility as a learning disability, not a behavior issue, that could be addressed with kindness, not punishment.
Today, Theo is a different person. He is happy and helpful, and he loves his family. He still has his moments, which is understandable since, at age eight, he's developmentally two or three years old, and his communication skills are severely limited. But his occasional meltdowns are now minor incidents instead of tear-the-house-down events.
Love, no matter how strong, is just an emotion. But knowledge, understanding and respect have the power to change a child and save a family.