This sounds like the start of a slapstick comedy scene – to me, to you etc. But, to be honest, the constant need LB has to try to dominate others is not that funny. I’ve been pondering this behaviour and I can’t decide whether it is another form of the control I wrote about here: Control or something slightly different.
We have always had to be firm and consistent on boundaries. I have always assumed this was to do with making LB feel safe and that his thorough testing of them was to ensure they would remain immovable. I explored the theory behind that in the post mentioned above. But, recently, I’ve found myself wondering if there is more to it – a desire to actually be in charge perhaps?
This week we have been decorating LB’s bedroom. We have never done that before, not even prior to him first arriving because, due to various pressures from social services, his adoption happened much faster than expected and there wasn’t time. BB’s nursery was still nicely decorated and so we added some pictures and things we knew LB would like and he has been sleeping in there ever since. Anyway, he’s seven now and definitely outgrown the elephant and giraffe wallpaper. I have really wanted to make his room his own for him for a while now, but have to admit that things like him damaging his bed have made me drag my feet, as well as knowing that he would want to ‘help’ me.
Anyway, we’ve had a relatively more settled period of behaviour and Grizzly has been off this week so it seemed like the best time. Which is how I ended up shut in a small room with LB, a large tin of blue paint, a roller and some paint brushes for three hours (not to mention considerable PMS). Having anticipated the potential issues, I had got organised in advance and was clear on the boundaries from the outset: painting apprentices must listen and follow painting instructions; should painting apprentices not do so, painting must cease. I was clear that I was the painting boss and this was necessary so as not to paint anything we shouldn’t and also, because, well, grown-ups are kind of meant to be in charge.
Initially, things went well. LB stopped wielding the large screwdriver for opening the tin when asked to do so and proceeded painting in a sensible manner. Things went pretty well. However, as time went on, LB made more attempts to bend the rules, or explore the boundaries, I’m not sure which. He had full use of a paint tray, roller and brush that were just for him. I had one triangle shaped brush for painting edges. A couple of times he asked for my brush and I explained it was just for me – he had everything he needed already. He found this hard to accept and soon, the lure of my brush became more tempting than the painting itself. I decided to use that lure to my advantage – the online shop was arriving during said painting episode and I thought if I let him care-take my brush while I sorted the shopping, there’d be less chance of him doing anything opportunistic or plain ridiculous while I wasn’t supervising. This worked well but because I’d slightly changed the rule and allowed him to borrow the brush, instead of being pleased and getting back to work, he escalated his attempts to get my brush. Perhaps I should have kept an immovable brush-boundary in place so he knew where he was but that seemed a bit ridiculous and petty. I’m not so precious about my nice triangular brush that I can’t let a child borrow it. However, evidently in doing so, I had either made him feel vulnerable that I might not have been quite as in charge as he first thought or given him a glimpse of becoming top-painter. Who knows. Soon the requests to borrow the brush again were coming thick and fast. I allowed it because I had to roller too and we were both working to the same end. Then he became unwilling to return the brush to me when I needed it, which was swiftly followed by him claiming the brush was his, had always been his, had been purchased with money he’d earned himself and I could not have it back because he was now, in fact, in charge. That’s how quickly and easily a task like painting can spiral out of control.
Used as I am to these situations, I calmly reminded him I was chief painter, painting apprentices have to do what they’re told or painting ends. He rather glumly admitted defeat and returned the brush.
This did not end the battle though, oh no. It just made him wilier in his attempts to gain control. It led to this:
LB: Mum, can we play a game while we’re painting?
Me: Of course. What would you like to play?
LB: Ok, pretend I’m the Captain…
Ha! Clearly he thinks I was born yesterday. I knew full-well where this was going.
Me: Well, we can pretend you’re the Captain if you like, but I’m still in charge of the painting because in real life, I’m the grown up and it’s my job to be in charge of big jobs like painting.
LB: *Groans, momentarily thwarted*
LB: Ok, I’ll be the Captain but you can be the Boss.
We pretend play for a bit.
Me: Could you pass me the roller for a minute please?
LB: Call me Captain
LB: I’m only doing it if you call me Captain.
Me, internally rolling my eyes: Could you pass me the roller please, Captain?
LB: No, I’m in charge of the roller, its mine. I’m the Captain.
If I could roll my eyes on screen I would. The whole thing went fine because I didn’t allow any of these scenarios to escalate but it was a case of constantly managing the situation and constantly having to re-iterate my authority. I’m pretty sure this isn’t ‘normal’ parenting. It feels a bit mad and unnecessary to be locked in battle over painting some walls but I feel I can’t renege all control because what would happen then? It’d be Lord of The Flies all over again but with a triangular paint brush instead of a conch. As it was, he’d already asked me if paint was edible so goodness knows what he’d get up to if left in charge.
It’s possible to argue this was a new bedroom specific scenario – that as LB hadn’t had a new room before it was raising all sorts of memories for him about previous different rooms and moving homes and wobbling his sense of permanency. It’s possible to argue it was an unusual/different scenario which was throwing him out of his comfort zone.
I’m not sure. We have these mini-power battles all the time. Yesterday, LB moved back into his bedroom and, I’m assuming because he likes it so much, decided people couldn’t enter unless they paid him a fee. When I say people, I mean me, the person who facilitated the whole thing. And I don’t mean pretend-play pay, I mean actually pay with actual money. Obviously that isn’t something one can get into but rather than accept this, LB starts to escalate the situation by threatening people with what he’ll do if they don’t pay or taking money from their purse/wallet. “It’s my bedroom. I’m in charge. I decide who comes in. I decide how much they pay.”
Gary came to babysit and he let her in, with only a minor fee skirmish but tried to control where she sat, commanding her to “sit” on the floor, rather like you would a badly behaved dog and banished her from the bed.
Perhaps some of it is a social skills/empathy thing – he can’t quite connect the fact of him being rude to people making them want to stay out, not in.
I guess it’s fair enough that he wants to be in charge of his bedroom, as he’s proud of it and it is his. But these type of scenarios tend to escalate – he’d be ‘in charge’ of the bathroom next as its next door and, given a week, he’d be running the whole upstairs and charging people to sleep in their own rooms.
I guess we are still struggling a bit with the balance between appropriate autonomy and him accepting that as parents, we are in charge. I hope our calm but firm reminders are the right way of managing this. I certainly don’t feel that allowing him to command adults onto the floor is appropriate, nor allowing bedroom entrance fees, nor over-throwing of painting bosses. Conversely, it doesn’t feel right to ban him from new rooms or helping with painting either. I like to think we’re guiding him through these scenarios within appropriately slightly rubberised boundaries – he can deviate a little but if he deviates too far, the boundaries ping him back into place again. There has to be some deviation, surely? A blanket rule for not using other people’s brushes seems a bit extreme, yet I’m quite convinced that without boundaries, there’d be a rapid spiralling into chaos.
I don’t really know whether this is a trauma thing or an LB thing – I’d love to know if you experience similar. I do know that it keeps us on our toes and adds an extra layer to the most seemingly-benign of scenarios.
As for the thought of the teenage years when authority is naturally challenged…