“Ellie has a very … spunky personality,” says Angela, choosing her words carefully. Her 3-year old daughter, Ellie, is prone to screaming fits. “She’ll kick the wall, throw herself on the ground, kick the door.”
“Ellie is a difficult child. If we’re not doing it right now, the volume goes up and let a tantrum begin,” adds Angela’s husband, Jason.
The couple has tried disciplining their daughter using spanking and time-outs. Because her screaming comes from the mouth, they’ve tried swatting her mouth.
“I do blame myself for the way Ellie is now. I did not like being a mom early on,” says Angela. “The way we were supposed to bond didn’t really feel like it happened.”
Jason recounts that Angela started feeling disconnected from Ellie soon after she was born. She had difficulty breastfeeding, which made her feel like a bad mother.
The young mother says she felt anger and resentment because Ellie’s arrival disrupted her life. “I remember feeling rage with Ellie. I felt moments of hate where I just wanted it to stop, and that would mean her leaving,” she says.
Angela worries that she has already failed her daughter and tells Dr. Phil, “I’d like to know if I really am responsible for some of the things that she struggles with and if I can help her get better.”
Dr. Phil asks Angela, “What’s your emotional experience in this?”
She responds that life with Ellie is a roller coaster ride. “From the beginning, it’s always been love-hate with her. I have moments when it’s wonderful, and I cherish those moments because they’ve been few and far between,” she says. Ellie’s father, Jason, agrees.
Dr. Phil introduces Dr. William Sears, who says he sees this every day in his practice as a pediatrician. “Doc, what causes some mothers and babies to instantly bond, and others to have that distance in between?” asks Dr. Phil.
“It’s the baby and not the mother,” says Dr. Sears. “You were blessed with a high-need baby, and these kids need more patience, more holding. They press buttons. Then came your second baby, Isaac, your angel baby. He pushed joy buttons. He came wired differently, so you responded differently.”
Dr. Phil turns to Jason. “What did you see at the time?” he asks.
“I knew right away that Angie was having the difficulty, and it was bothersome. I had no idea what to do,” Jason explains.
Dr. Phil asks Angela about her feelings of guilt and shame, feelings she says she still has.
“Moms aren’t supposed to think the things I thought about my daughter. They’re not supposed to have moments when they want their babies to go away,” she says. “I felt like she knew how to push my buttons from the beginning, and so she would.”
“We’re talking about when she was like 2 days old,” Dr. Phil clarifies.
“Right, right,” Angela confirms. “I know that seems really silly, but at the time, logically, I felt like she was being stubborn right now, because she could, and that’s what she wanted, and so she was doing it on purpose.” She gives a self-conscious smile.
Dr. Phil repeats more of Angela’s own words back to her. “‘I felt an intense almost hate toward her that was so intense I knew that I could have hurt her.'”
She holds back tears as she explains, “I had moments when I looked at her and I felt so much anger that the thoughts of hurting my baby didn’t scare me ” at the time ” but when the moment was gone and I was away from her and I realized I’m thinking these things, that’s when it scared me and that’s what kind of fueled the shame too.”
“And so at this point you’re saying, ‘I’m a horrible, mean mother. It’s reflected in my baby. It’s being mirrored in my child who yells and screams.’ And you’re now thinking have I scarred her and damaged her for life, and where do we go from here?” says Dr. Phil.
“That’s exactly what I’m thinking.”
Angela details some of her daughter’s uncomely behavior. “If Ellie doesn’t want to do something, and you tell her to do it, it starts with the whining, and it just gets irritating. She’ll throw herself on the ground. She’ll kick. I recall a time putting her in time-out in her bedroom. I thought she was going to kick a hole through the door. She was pretty upset. Smashing her feet, throwing things, screaming at the top of her lungs. I can’t figure out how to tame this screaming. I think it’s out of control.”
Dr. Phil says, “Dr. Sears, how often do you see postpartum depression? How often do you see a hormonal, biochemical-based disruption of mood and emotion in mothers and do you think that played a part here?”
“Absolutely, Dr. Phil. It played a big part,” he says. “Angie, you were probably burned out at times. But the thing I noticed, you mentioned the magic word: Mirroring. I want you to mirror to Ellie joy. So the next time she has a tantrum, and screams, the first thing I want you to imagine is, get behind the eyes of Ellie and say, ‘If I were Ellie, how would I want my mother to act?’ She needs you to mirror to her, ‘Ellie, you’re OK here. You can handle this. I’m the mom. You’re the baby. I’m OK. You’re OK.’ That will bring out in you, that connection.”
Dr. Phil asks Angela to put Dr. Sears’ advice in her own words.
“Ellie’s tantrums,” she begins, “she can’t control those, but I can give her kind of a positive image to reflect while she’s getting through the tantrums.”
“First off, it’s not a good or a bad thing,” says Dr. Phil. “You have to think about tantrums: yelling, screaming ” ” He stops and asks Angela if she speaks German.
“No,” she says with a laugh.
“Do you speak French?” he asks.
“No,” she replies, playing along.
“Do you speak tantrum?” Dr. Phil asks.
“Absolutely not,” she says with finality.
“No, see, that’s the point,” says Dr. Phil. “This is a language, and it’s the only vocabulary this child has at this age. If a kid’s throwing a tantrum, and they’re saying, ‘I want it! I want it! I want it!’ The best thing you can do is say, ‘You want that, don’t you? You really want that. You want me to do that. You’re not going to get it, but that’s what you want,’ so they get the sense that you understand what’s going on. You connect with them at that point. What I’m saying is you need to look at this as a communication exchange. Not just as a tantrum. She’s trying to communicate something to you, and it would be really hard if you didn’t have a vocabulary, right?”
“What is my child trying to tell me at this time?” Dr. Sears reiterates. “Another thing: spanking is not going to work. Drop it. Drop it from your vocabulary. For high-need children, all that’s going to do is cause more of a distance between you right now, and the last thing you guys need is more of a distance between you two.”
Dr. Phil offers Angela some final words of advice. “You’re really wondering because of this early disconnect, â€˜Have I damaged her in some way? Is our relationship ever going to be what it should be? Has she been hurt in some way?’ Children are very resilient. They’re resilient medically, they’re resilient psychologically, and I can promise you that that is not the case.
“But what you do want to do now is make some specific efforts to bond with her. And you’ve got to really help here, Jason. You’ve got to really take some of the logistics load off during the day.” He turns to Angela, “And allow you to snuggle with her at night, allow you to spend some one-on-one time with her when you’re reading her a book or you’re calm with her. Find something that she’s really interested in, and you get excited about it too. You share that enthusiasm for this doll, or this toy, or this TV show, where this is something that the two of you share together. I think at the time, I personally believe you experienced some postpartum depression that caused you to immediately begin to see her as a disruption and a negative because things weren’t going well, but her whole life is ahead of you at this point, and you can really share some things with her and make this positive.”