Nico is seven

It’s been a hard year for my kid, and a hard year for his parents. He took the big stuff in stride – starting primary, moving city, changing schools. The small stuff – eating meals, cleaning teeth, understanding “no” – remains very much a work in progress.

The other day we went to a Pokemon pom pom making workshop. Three different instructors, after being subjected to Nico’s creative process, approached me separately to say “that kid’s going to be an artist when he grows up”. That morning I got to see all the best qualities of my child when he’s in his flow, and it was magic. He’s magic.

The brief was to make a yellow pom pom, and then stick felt circles on it for eyes, and red circles for cheeks, and then two triangles for ears. Nico knew immediately what he wanted to do, and it wasn’t that

In his own inimitable fashion, he went about constructing his own version of Pikachu. He didn’t ask for permission, or check with a grown-up, or look for ideas to copy. He just went for it – drawing prototype ears and tails until he got what he wanted. He put a body on his Pikachu, and then added arms and legs. He played around with cheeks and added highlights to the eyes. Other kids in the room, watching him, started modifying their own Pokemon too. He was 100% confident from start to finish – both that he knew his vision, and that he had the skills to make it happen.

Then he went and inhaled a truly phenomenal amount of lunch, including things that weren’t even beige carbs! He was competent and satisfied, and hungry because he’d worked hard.

That’s the kid I know he is. Smart, fast as lightning, super creative, endlessly personable and entertaining, with such intense focus and control over his body. We see that kid when he’s doing any kind of art, when he’s in the middle of a group of friends talking them into some mad scheme, or anytime he’s using his body at his own limits – riding his bike with one hand, climbing trees, trying to skateboard.

But this year we haven’t seen much of him the rest of the time. He’s always been who he is – determined, volatile, full of feelings. He’s always had amazing control of his body. He’s always been so verbal and so cogent and so quick with his ideas that he seems far older than his years. But he’s also always struggled to name and understanding his feelings, and to contain them when they get too big for him. Which, this year, has been a lot of the time. He’s also always only had two modes: happy and angry. He gets angry when he’s sad. He gets angry when he’s embarrassed. He gets angry when he’s overwhelmed, or ashamed, or too hungry. He gets angry when he feels like he doesn’t have control, or when something doesn’t seem fair – and things seem out of control or unfair a lot of the time when you’re six.

We’ve struggled at home, and he’s struggled at school. The deputy principal has me on speed dial. His teacher is working with a Montessori mentor to gain some new skills, because he’s refused to do writing for much of this term, and “sit there until you do it” will literally result in him sitting there all day. (It’s not a good strategy, especially in a Montessori class – and we didn’t know about it until the last week of term, which be assured resulted in several angry meetings on our part.) You cannot outwit him, and you cannot outlast him. You can’t bully or intimidate him, and you also can’t cajole or bribe him. If he doesn’t want to, he just won’t.

Unfortunately, some of the things he just won’t do are things you need to do to stay alive and live in a society, like eat dinner and have a shower. Diogo and I have read book after book after book and tried strategy after strategy, but all the books and the strategies seem to rely on a kid being motivated enough by praise or adult approval, or capable of seeing consequences, or even just able to express their feelings or share them with someone else.

The most helpful resource we’ve found is the Explosive Child – we haven’t had much success with implementing the solutions because the things he won’t do change from day to day and week to week, and if we can negotiate one he’ll move on to the next (this week we’ve clocked having a shower, but he refuses to leave the house) – but the idea of “lagging skills” has really helped us understand what’s happening in his brain. He’s paying for being able to do maths in his head and draw anything you can name and come up with ideas for scientific concepts that are frequently eerily close to the real thing by being unable to handle transitions, deal with uncertainty or shift his mindset when a plan changes.

(Here’s the list of skills if you want to check it out – Nico has pretty much all of them except for the ones to do with sociability or motor skills.)

It’s hard to be him, and it’s hard to live with him. Diogo and I have both done a lot of crying in private, and far more yelling than we ever wanted or intended. As any parent with a “difficult” or neurodiverse kid will know, the relentlessness is rough. You can parent from the heart and try to always approach your kid with love and understanding, but sometimes your heart will still tell you “fuck him, this time he’ll learn if I take his Pokemon cards away”. Parents aren’t perfect, and as much as we love our children, maintaining your cool when you’re being triggered all day long and it seems like he’s wilfully ruining everything for everyone is hard. It’s hard. It sucks and it’s hard. There’s no great solution or pithy insight here: it sucks, it’s hard, and we’re still in the middle of it. Parents dealing with anything similar, I feel you and I know you’re doing your best.

It feels so precarious and so important – the books often say that parenting doesn’t actually matter that much in the scheme of things, but with him it feels like it does. It feels like he’s balanced on a tightrope with his devils on one shoulder and his angels on the other, and if we accidentally feed the devils we could tip him over. I think school and home have been a reinforcing loop this term of constantly being in trouble and pushing back against it in ways that get him in more trouble. We’re working on that.

Things we know make his behaviour worse: low blood sugar, high blood sugar, too much screentime (particularly games), getting too tired, trying to control him, not giving him any choice about things. We’re working on all of those.

Things we know work: getting outside and moving his body, making sure he’s eaten. Sometimes you can joke or distract him out of a meltdown if you catch it at the right time. But all of the solutions require intercepting him before he goes over the edge, after which nothing helps until he’s worn himself out. He won’t talk to you about it. He can’t bear hugs or being touched when he’s in shutdown. Even being in the same room is often too much. Sometimes he’ll let us sit in the hall, as long as we don’t talk or look at him, and eventually we might be able to come into the room with him.

More than anything, I feel for him so deeply. He’s the most outgoing, hilarious, enthusiastic kid in the world, and I truly believe he could do literally anything he put his mind to. He’s full of mad schemes and wild ideas, and the confines of reality drive him insane (as for example when he decides he needs to make a robot suit at 9:30 at night, and is driven absolutely wild by the fact that we can’t (and won’t) go and buy him art supplies immediately). 

(There’s a demonstration of the rub between the things that work and the things that don’t, too: he needs enough sleep, but he’s at his most creative at night when he’s stopped moving and the house is quiet, so we’re constantly balancing letting him do what he needs to do because a meltdown will last hours and he definitely won’t go to sleep, versus the fact that he doesn’t really sleep in so he absolutely will not be sane tomorrow if he’s drawing until 11pm.)

As a creative, extremely sensitive, non-sleeping child myself, I understand him on a gut level. But I was lucky enough to also be painfully shy and terrified of adult disapproval, so I was sneaky where he’s brazen, and cried where he rages. Both of which are more socially acceptable and easier for adults to handle, unfortunately. I was also a writer and reader, which is easier to hide at school and at home, and I preferred my own company where he would always like an audience.

I worry that he’s carving himself a difficult path, but also I know in my soul that all the things that make being a kid so hard for him are the things that are going to make him great as an adult. He doesn’t care what people think. He’s a natural leader and teacher and great at inspiring others. He throws himself into interests and ideas with his whole heart and won’t give up until his vision is reality. For all that he’s quick to anger, he’s also endlessly forgiving, extremely generous and deeply loving. He’s kind. He loves people and animals and they love him back. He’s the most fun to be around.

He’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but also the most rewarding. He’s taught me so much, not just about being a mother but about being a person, and I’m so grateful and honoured that I get to be the one fighting beside him while he figures all of this out. I hope I can live up to the challenge, and I hope he always knows how much I love him and I much I just plain like him.

And now I’d better actually go buy the stuff to make pizza tonight, which is what I’m supposed to be doing right now, and then go home and help him build some Lego.

By Katie Freire

Writer of things. Annoyer of cats. Mother of very small dragons.

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