Published on June 20th, 2019 | by Cheryl Klein0
The Red Zone
One Friday afternoon our four-year-old son, Dash, decided to play “trash pile,” a game which involved dumping the contents of his dress-up box, sock box, and laundry hamper on the floor of his bedroom. He added slices of wooden play-pizza and a few dozen puzzle pieces for flavor.
Sometimes I’m an asshole when I come home to a big mess, but it was a gorgeous spring day, all orange blossoms and gentle breezes, and we had a babysitter scheduled for the evening, and my partner hadn’t been feeling well, so I got to work assembling wooden pizza and smell-testing laundry.
After an hour, the house looked okay again. I’m not sure what happened next, but something set Dash off. Maybe it was the long stretch of minimal engagement. Maybe it was his lack of a nap. Maybe it was because when he queued me up to recite dialogue from an Elephant and Piggie book, I got my lines wrong.
But suddenly he was coming at me, all teeth and fists and feet. He was doing a hooting kind of laugh, something I suspected he’d picked up at school, like a parrot mimicking other jungle birds.
I did the things you’re supposed to: I didn’t yell, I didn’t use my own hands, I told him I needed to keep my body safe. I tried putting him in his room and closing the door–for less than a minute, reader! I tried putting myself in his room and closing the door. I tried holding him close to me with his arms at his sides, but he kept biting my forearms.
I’m crafting my defense: I need you to know that I’m not a terrible parent whose child is a budding serial killer. I need you to know that I tried and I try, even though none of that matters much. He had a need that wasn’t being met, and no jury was going to weigh in on whether his need was legitimate or not. By definition, it is.
I’m crafting my defense because, despite being a reasonably confident parent (I’m as surprised as anyone by that turn of events), there’s nothing like having a set of small square teeth sink into your skin to make you question everything.
It’s not just the obvious question: Am I handling this okay? It’s something deeper and slipperier: What if I deserve this?
Kids are moths to the flame of parental weak spots. Some parents might feel the flare of anger and have to clench their fists. Others might be tempted to swear or deliver the silent treatment. None of those impulses is completely foreign to me, but my first stop is curl into a ball and cry, a turtle who dared to put her long scaly neck out, and saw that the world was not for her after all.
I come from a long, un-proud family tradition of overreacting to the point of manipulation. I don’t think it’s bad for Dash to know I have emotions, and to know that “it hurts me when you do that,” but I am wary of what I’m tempted to do, which is to become a kid myself, to make it all about me, to perform parental fragility.
So I just sort of quietly wrestled with him, maintaining a brittle and unconvincing calm, until C.C. returned with a cheese pizza for Dash and the babysitter.
“I’m okay now!” Dash shouted happily, and ran toward his other mom.
We went on our date, a lecture by Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, psychologist and co-author of The Whole Brain Child—a busman’s holiday if ever there was one. She engaged the parents and psych students in the audience the same way she recommends parenting: with warmth and empathy and humor, sneaking in advice like cauliflower puree in blueberry muffins. (I have that cookbook. I’ve never made a single recipe from it.)
She showed a slide that divided emotional states into three sections: The Green Zone is your “resilience” area, in which you’re capable of rational thought and problem-solving. At times, you might feel stressed in this zone, but things are the size of themselves. This is “Fuck, I really need to do my taxes,” not “Time to run for the hills.”
The Red Zone is the hill-running zone of disregulation. The biting and hitting zone. The fight/flight/freeze zone. When I’m in this zone, I Google medical statistics and calculate my life expectancy and conclude I won’t see Dash graduate elementary school. My reptile brain conscripts my academic brain and forces it to execute bizarre, cruel acts.
There is also a Blue Zone, where the brain more or less goes into hibernation. Dr. Bryson was referring to fainting and other somatic responses, but I couldn’t help thinking of a kid in the creative writing workshop I’d led years ago at a group home for juvenile offenders. He’d stared at me with the deadest eyes I’d ever seen. At the time, I’d thought, Maybe there’s nothing going on in there. Now I believe I was looking into the face of hopelessness. The Blue Zone is lying on the bottom of the ocean with a cinder block tied to your ankle.
After the talk, C.C. and I drove home and sat in the driveway, low-key arguing. It was weird, because most of what Dr. Bryson described was familiar and part of our deeply ingrained parenting/life philosophy. It’s not like either of us went in there thinking, What kids today need is a good smack on the rear!
“I think Dash is fine,” C.C. said. “What he’s going through is normal and we’re handling it okay. But you get so upset, and I hate seeing that. Maybe we should talk to a child psychologist or a couples therapist or something.”
Some old dynamics roused themselves. Me, the dramatic one in the relationship; her, the calm one. Me, monologuing; her, silent in the wings. Neither of us wins when we lock into these roles—when we focus on my Red Zone as she sinks slowly into the Blue Zone.
“I feel so helpless when Dash acts out and you get upset,” she said.
“Thanks for adding that,” I said, “because that’s a piece of it too. I feel you feeling helpless, and then I feel like you’re mad at me for being sad.”
“I mean, when you put it like that, you’re the victim, and that framing always gets to me.”
If we were in the ocean, if I was diving down from the tumultuous top and she was swimming up from the still, cold bottom, we were meeting in the middle, a Green Zone of fish and plant life, but the currents were strong and threatening.
Dash gets upset because his Star Wars guy doesn’t fit into the cab of his trash truck. Or because the cat won’t eat the food he just shoved under his nose. Because I sang Little Rabbit Foo Foo wrong. Because I put his trains away.
Dr. Bryson broke parenting styles into four quadrants along axes of nurturing and setting limits. Even a parent fully committed to inhabiting the “Permissive” quadrant of Dr. Bryson’s diagram—high nurture, low limits—isn’t going to win in the eyes of a child who, of course, actually needs limits.
To look in your child’s wild brown eyes and tell him, in effect, “The thing you think you want isn’t what you actually want, and I know best,” you have to have confidence. You can’t both agree that you’re a bad mom and climb into that hole together.
Like any superpower, self-doubt has always been my blessing and my curse. It’s shaped me into a good critical thinker, and it’s made me hyper-critical of myself and sometimes others. It keeps me humble and open-minded, but where does “child-led” learning become permissive, insecure parenting? How long until Dash realizes no one is driving this bus?
Answers: He already knows our weaknesses, and he squeezes through those cracks like an octopus. Also, he will never know. That’s the terrifying power of being a parent: No matter how much you suck, your kids will still love you and want your approval. Maybe even more challenging than our lifelong quest for unconditional love is being on the receiving end. We’re all helpless as ducks imprinting on each other or, if internet lore can be believed, on a passing corgi or a Roomba.
Dash repeated his hitting and biting thing Sunday night, when I tried to carve a path in the pile of toys he and his best friend made in our bathroom while playing “moving truck.” It looked like a mess to me, but it was his.
“We need to be able to get to the toilet and the sink,” I said.
“Put it back! Clean up my mess!” he screamed, meaning Remake my mess.
For a week, I wore my insufficient parenting on my sleeve in the form of two dark bruises, each surrounded by a halo of faint teeth marks.
Toddlers look five seconds into the future: What would happen if I pushed that cup over? What does that book taste like? A year ago, trying to describe C.C.’s work as a therapist, I asked Dash what might make a person sad. “Fall down,” he said. And what might make someone happy? “Not fall down.”
Now his expectations are getting more complex. He worries about whether the new boy at school will play rough. He wants to know why we can’t live on Jupiter. He considers, with a mix of delight and horror, scenarios in which the police or fire department might need to be called. He dreams up possible future birthday party themes all day long: “When I turn five, I want to have a Metro train party. When I’m twenty and a half, I will have a Starbucks party.” (Adulthood is one big Starbucks party, kid.)
He’s placing himself in a narrative, and he is pissed when the story doesn’t go his way.
Frequently, after a meltdown, he’ll theatrically demonstrate how he is following the rules, though we don’t call them rules per se, because that’s out of vogue; his school calls them “promises,” and we just talk about what’s okay and what’s unsafe.
“I’m holding the glass very gentle,” he announces.
“I’m not gonna play rough with Wendell.”
“We don’t touch the stove.”
“Look, I’m not hitting Ferd!” He gives our old black cat the softest kiss.
He wants to show us he’s a good kid, even though we usually don’t use those words either. Once he broke into tears because a kid at school told him he was “bad.” I stopped the car in the middle of the school parking lot and twisted around to look him in the eye. “Adam’s wrong. You’re not bad. You’re good.”
It heartens me to know he’s listening, after all, and that he is as capable of guilt and regret and course correction as he is violent outbursts. And it breaks me, a little bit, to see him internalizing the ways of the world. If only we could live on Jupiter.
Right now, parenting with the kind of confidence I need is a bluff. It’s a Grand Opening sign over a storefront that hardly has any inventory. But I’m reminding myself the foundation is strong. As I struggle to parse the difference between attachment parenting and what my therapist describes with his own mixed feelings as Supernanny parenting, I remember why I never signed on to any particular method: My only goal was to be attuned. Kids are their own instruction manuals. And like any instruction manual, they take some deciphering.
I’m listening to him. I’m capable of guilt and regret and course correction. I’ve internalized the ways of the world. I’m not bad, I’m good. I can’t breathe the air on Jupiter, but I can hold Dash’s hand as we look up at the night sky.