Mental Health Matters - Angry Outbursts, Sadness, and Fear
Updated: Mar 18
A mental health nightmare...
My husband works away so when I started experiencing this I was trying to explain how bad it was, but I think it was difficult for anyone to believe I wasn't exaggerating. And while the 'angry' and 'sad' were relatively regular, they were often chalked up to being 'typical 9-year-old boy behaviors". The defiant outbursts were not typical. But for months, they only seemed to happen while my husband was away, and I tried everything. If you can imagine it - we did it. The worst was when someone would tell me, "Well just tell him to go to his room until he gets over it." Sure, and when he looks at me and says "no", then what? "Make him." How? Pick him up and drag him there? Can't do that anymore - not without hurting one of us. Now what? You see my point? I tried every parenting style out there from traditional to new-age. Nothing worked.
Eventually his external outburst would turn internal and he would retreat covering his ears and face, and he would pull into fetal position still yelling, "I don't care... Leave me alone" if I tried to talk to him. Most of these events ended in me sitting in front of my daughters door until my son retreated, then while she played in her room, and he hid in his, I would sit on my bed and sob because I genuinely had no control and didn't know what to do. Usually, within an hour my son would come in, snuggle in on me, start sobbing himself, and say he was sorry and he didn't know why he acted that way, and that he was a terrible kid. Let me tell you what, if you thought everything before this sounded unbearable - that was nothing compared to watching your child cry in shame and fear that they aren't a good person.
Over the months, we made it through many episodes this way while I reached out to the school, doctor, community counselors - anyone who would listen and offer me some guidance or knowledge. We didn't get far. But I also researched. And researched. And researched. At the time, I was doing my Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology, and found I had gained some leads from my human behavior course, so I made the decision to switch my focus to Developmental Psychology, because for the sake of my mental health, my husbands, and that of our kids, I needed to know more.
And that's when things started changing.
Throughout the next 12 months, I learned about the brain, and about childhood development, and then researched some more. I now had some base knowledge that could be applied and brought to specialists. And we were finally set up with a pediatrician specializing in behavioral disorders. Just before COVID hit, we found out my son had asthma after a severe attack, and I had mentioned to the specialist that he was doing this thing where he would pull his nose down by opening his mouth. The doctor assumed it was because he had acute rhinitis and his sinuses were plugged, which made sense. Over time, though, I started noticing it was kind of changing to include blinking, and eye rolling. I also noticed he was doing this kind of humming under his breath. And based on all of my newfound knowledge, I believed with everything in me that he had Tourette's - because the tics in addition to the ADHD, OCD, and ODD symptoms were evident, but weren't impacted with normal treatment.
I discussed this with the doctor, and he said that it was possible, but we had to wait a year from the time we noticed the vocal and motor tics for a diagnosis as many kids get tics that they grow out of. A YEAR?!? It was a year of mental health depletion. And with the best of intentions, I often heard comments from family that it wasn't that bad, and no one else really noticed it. But I was with him most of every day - I was watching, I was documenting, I took some videos of his tics. And finally, about 13 months into this daily hell of trying to simply get us all through the day without anyone being permanently psychologically damaged - I was able to show the doctor all of the evidence I'd gathered, and my son was diagnosed with Tourette's Disorder, and medicated. And while it didn't stop all the outbursts, it reduced them by half. This may not seem like a lot, but it allowed us all to keep afloat in a time when we were drowning. You see, what we learned was that with Tourette's, the brain becomes very rigid in managing change. So, when plans would change, our son's brain couldn't shift and he was immediately sent into 'fight or flight.' The outbursts, that was 'fight,' and the retreating into himself, that was 'flight.' When someone is working from their instinctual and emotional brain, it's not possible to connect with them, or reason with them. They simply need time to return to their upper 'thinking' brain, at which point, communication can resume. This takes a whole different type of parenting.
In the following 6-months, I'd noticed a lot of fear in the way our son was constantly asking us if he'd be okay when he touched something in the garage, or if the dog licked his eye. He couldn't be without me for more than a half hour without going into what seemed like a tantrum, but I now recognize was an anxiety attack. We started him on Prozac about three months ago, and I shit you not, the day he started, the change was palpable. By the evening, my husband was in disbelief that our son was sitting with him, telling stories, and working on his remote control car. He was laughing, joking around, able to talk about things when he got overwhelmed, and he was helping around the house and playing with his sister again. I can promise you, that if I hadn't personally experienced how ADHD and depression medication changed my own life, I would never have considered putting my son, a 10-year old child, on medication. But are we ever happy that we did (our son, included).
Since then, we've been able to reduce his asthma medication by more than half (there's a big correlation between anxiety and asthma, which I'd discovered through my research), he's been going to play therapy to learn anxiety and Tourette's coping skills (which he wouldn't even consider before), and his younger sister (who is also doing play therapy, simply because she wanted to!!) is no longer afraid of the outbursts. He still has Tourette's and the rigid thinking that comes along with it, so he still gets 'stuck' from time to time. But now that we recognize that he needs to be parented differently, and he understands what's happening, it typically lasts a few minutes, at which point he will come over and say he's sorry for the way he was acting. I quickly and genuinely accept his apology, and we move on with it.
While we sometimes can't parent him in the traditional 'disciplinary' way when he gets stuck, and it may look like he's 'getting away' with being a brat, that's not actually the case. We have to wait for his 'fight or flight' brain to move back into 'thinking' brain, and then we can talk. And that talk typically starts, and ends, with:
When you get 'stuck' and act meanly, it's not your fault, honey. It's the fault of the anxiety and Tourette's. But it is still your RESPONSIBILITY to learn to manage it, and to apologize when you do or say something to hurt someone else.
This is the reality with anyone who is suffering with mental health disorders. The brain has developed, and functions in it's particular way, in each person's case. That's no one's fault. That's biology. So if your brain makes you irritable, impatient, impulsive, moody, sad, angry, etc... that's not your fault. But it is your responsibility to determine how you can help yourself, or get help, and it's your responsibility to build the skills and abilities you require to manage, and it's your responsibility to be accountable for your actions. Let's help people get here. Rather than blaming them for being however they're being... let's offer them the patience, empathy, resources, and support they require, to help them grow - despite their mental health disorders.
Accountability and Blame are two different things. We can hold a person accountable for their actions without blaming and shaming them. One offers opportunity for learning, the other is psychologically harmful.
If there is one major lesson that I've taken from this ongoing experience, it's this - the next time someone in your personal or professional life makes a mistake - before reacting, ask yourself,
"Is it likely that they intended to screw up and create tension between themselves and others, or is it more likely they did the best they could with the skills and abilities they had, and it just didn't work out as they'd hoped?"
Chances are that they made the decision they thought was best. And I'd be willing to bet that if they had someone knowing and willing to put the same time into them that I've put into my son, they'd be in an entirely different place right now. So why don't we all just put a little more time into one another to help identify and build those missing skills, so we all have the ability to do better the next time.
Let's be better, and do better!
For more information on Tourette's Disorder, and Anxiety, and how you can seek more help within Canada, see the links below.
Tourette's Disorder - https://tourette.ca/