My husband left me 2 1/2 years into our marriage, and four months into my pregnancy. From that devastating point forward, I was forced to reconfigure the vision I’d held for my life.
During the custody litigation, I was dragged through some of the deepest, darkest parts of hell in my fight to keep my daughter safe from her father. For her privacy, I will not disclose the details, but our experience was traumatic. And as much as I knew I was impacted by the stress and grief of this trauma, I denied to myself that she would also be affected, because she was so little when it all happened.
By the time my daughter was 2 years old, she’d started experiencing anxiety that I believed was related to the back-and-forth of the court-ordered weekly custody schedule. Almost every time she had to leave me, she’d kick and scream, cry and beg not to go. When she came home, she’d often be weepy, overtired, and always angry. That wasn’t sustainable, and after five years it was decided that she’d only see her father every other weekend, to help her feel more stabilized.
By the time kindergarten came around, not only was she starting to refuse her visits with her dad, but she also started refusing to go to school. This refusal soon escalated into physical resistance. She refused to get dressed or get in the car, and sometimes it intensified to her trying to jump out of the car while it was in motion. I sought help from professionals, and was given the same message over and over: “…Once ‘school refusal’ starts, no matter what, you must get them into the building, or they will never go back.”
I did what I was told and often sat outside the school listening to her screaming with such intensity that my own mental health began to suffer. For four years, every day was a do-or-die battle to get her into school, or during the time of COVID, to get her on a computer, which she’d inevitably slam shut. I told myself she’s just trying to “get her way,” she’s “misbehaving” and this would pass, just like the professionals told me it would.
The older she grew, the angrier she became, and the outbursts became more common. Any tiny transition, like switching from playtime to bedtime, getting in the car to go anywhere, or visiting with friends, could lead to a massive outburst. There was no way to predict what event would trigger the cycle.
The outbursts ranged from kicking, biting, screaming, hitting and breaking anything she could reach, to running into the snowy woods barefoot, throwing things across the room, refusing to sleep, to running away from home. She started pulling her own hair, punching herself and slamming her head into walls. It was endless and heartbreaking.
Every time she turned into the Hulk, my immediate response was to get ready for war. Often, I’d have to call in backup troops ― my new husband or my mother ― who would drive over to help me. Every day was scary. Every day was hard. And every day, I did what I thought I was supposed to do ― fight her back, win and get her doing whatever it was she was refusing to do.
I was mad at this behavior. I never took time to consider what might be behind it; I just kept trying to make it stop.
In January of 2022, my husband and I pulled into the school parking lot, my daughter in the backseat fighting us like her life depended on it, her little arms wrapped around a bar under the front seat so we couldn’t physically move her without hurting her.
That’s when it happened. As she slammed her head repeatedly into the seat in front of her, I heard my sweet 8-year-old say, “I JUST WANT TO DIE!” At that moment, my world stopped. I felt utterly helpless and hopeless.
I couldn’t breathe. Did my daughter just tell me that she would rather die than go into school? I’ve lost family and friends to suicide, but they were adults. It was horrific and unfathomable, but even more so to imagine an 8-year-old feeling the same way. I knew I needed to do something drastic to help her.
I was out of ideas, and I knew we needed help. I considered taking her to the emergency room, but I was terrified they would take her away from me or force me to commit her. From the parking lot, my husband called the ER and explained what was happening. They suggested we call a new emergency mobile crisis center in our area.
The woman on the other end of that call was an angel. She spoke gently to my daughter while she dispatched two crisis clinicians from the mobile crisis team. These two incredible humans stood in the freezing cold outside our car for more than two hours, talking to my child with love and care. Slowly, she started answering their questions.
As I sat in the back, holding her and observing their interaction, it suddenly clicked. All this time, she wasn’t just “behaving badly,” she was screaming at us through her behavior… to listen.
The clinicians suggested that her behavior could be caused by serious anxiety, and they used that initial diagnosis to determine what approach to take. It worked. After sitting in the car for hours in front of the school, my daughter was finally, completely regulated. The most significant thing they did was meet her in the place she was, until she was ready. They did, however, strongly suggest that if she went back to this behavior, we should take her to the ER for help.
Less than 24 hours later, the cycle started again, and we went to the ER. They evaluated her and did not think she was a danger to herself, but suggested I commit her to a mental health facility. This is one of the heaviest decisions I have had to make as a parent. Considering what I had learned the day before, and my new thought process on why she was behaving this way, I was convinced that the root of her anxiety was separation and transitions, and decided that committing her wasn’t in her best interest.
Afterward, I explained to her that she had a boo-boo inside her body. I told her it’s no different from a broken arm. It’s painful, and while we cannot see it, we know it’s there, and we need help to make it better.
With my newfound perspective, I set out to stop fighting with my daughter, and start fighting for her. I made an emergency appointment with her psychiatrist the following week, and we made the difficult decision to put her on a mood stabilizer. In the weeks and months that followed, with the help of the right mental health professionals and caring school staff, she started getting better. We began to see the wonderful, sweet, brilliant girl my daughter is, rather than what her anxiety changed her into.
What I learned is that when she’s in crisis, when any child is, you cannot rationalize with them in the moment. You cannot threaten them with punishment any more than you can bribe them with Disney. My daughter simply cannot hear us when she’s experiencing anxiety. What she needs is compassion and calming reassurance.
I found that meeting my daughter in this place resolves any outburst much faster than meeting her with frustration. Once she is regulated, we can talk about her behavior and manage her anxiety together. I am happy to share that she now manages transitions in a much more positive way.
I urge all parents to evaluate their children’s behavior through this prism. You know your child best, and if you are questioning what could possibly be causing their behavior, trust your intuition and seek advice for answers. And please know, if you are experiencing anything like what our family experienced, you are not alone.
Amanda Bacon-Davis is a two-time national award-winning author of “This Thing Has A Name,” a children’s book designed to help children and their loved ones identify, normalize and tame anxiety. She is also a successful entrepreneur and proud advocate for the mental health community. More information at ThisThingHasAName.com.