Coloring Inside the Lines

We have a preteen in the house. Almost overnight, my loving son – the one who curled on my lap at three, skipped through the parking lot at five – is now a moody, frustrated and misunderstood little man. Last weekend, an emotional hurricane crashed into our serene living room in the form of a 5’ 3” hormonal male. But we didn’t get it right away. Why was our normally compassionate and creative son flying off the deep end because we told him to do his science project?

In the middle of the thundering screams and pouring tears, I wanted to yell back – to shout at the top of my lungs, “Stop it! You’re acting like a three-year-old!” I had an overwhelming urge to send my almost-eleven-year-old to his room without supper and to confiscate his Lego supply as a consequence for his poor behavior. I almost did.

The first melt-down came after church on Saturday. Our traditionally introverted little man had been reprimanded in church class for his rambunctious behavior, and we had to address it on the ride home. Only three sentences into our lecture, he broke down. Face crumpled in hurt and anger, tears welled in his eyes. His voice grew high-pitched and accusing, “Nobody understands me! Everyone thinks I’m a failure!”

“What?!” my thoughts screamed. How could this boy that I’ve loved for 11 years think that we view him as a failure?

Stop. Deep breath. Think. My sweetheart is still in there, somewhere.

We ended the lecture. We gave our boy space to calm down and recenter himself. At bedtime, I held him close and we talked. He was embarrassed to be lectured in front of his brother. He wanted to act cool around his friends at church. Cool? Embarrassed?

Those two little words became a floodlight for the situation. I hugged him and I prayed for help in explaining my son’s “new normal”, but the words didn’t come right away.

Only 24 hours later, meltdown number two hit. The inciting incident was so petty that I don’t even remember it now, but it was enough to send my little guy into sobs and shouts. I think he even began stomping his foot like he did when he was three and was told he couldn’t watch Cars for the third time in a row.

This time, we didn’t yell. We didn’t lecture. Instead, I wrapped my loving mommy arms around my little boy – the one I knew was hiding inside the ranting preteen – and I whispered into his ear, “Take a deep breath. Calm down. Take another deep breath. I love you. We love you.”

The shaking in his chest began to subside. He lifted his arms to encircle me in a breath-taking bear hug. My sweet son was back again.

The following day, when emotions were running at a normal pace and temporary peace settled over the household, I began to talk with my little man. 

“Do you remember those coloring books you used to love? The ones with very simple drawings that only required three or four colors to finish?” I sat next to him and looked him in the eyes.

“Yeah. Those were so easy.” He nodded a little, rolling his eyes.

“Those simple lines and coloring pages are like your body. You are still in the body of a little boy, right? Your body takes a long time to grow up.”

He was probably thinking I was a bit nuts to be engaging him in conversation about coloring, but I continued anyway.

“Those colors, red and blue and green, were little kid colors, just like you had little kid emotions: hungry, tired, angry. Now, those hormones flowing through your mind and body are creating grown-up emotions, just like those grown-up sets of colored pencils that have five shades of blue and red and green. You need all of those shades to color in grown-up coloring books. That’s the problem: your brain is producing grown-up emotions and trying to use them in a little-boy body. Imagine how frustrated you would get if you wanted to use the grown-up colored pencils but only had a little kid coloring page. You wouldn’t have a place to put all those beautiful colors. Right now, your brain doesn’t have a place to put all those grown-up emotions.”

I saw the relief and confusion in his eyes, as though he was saying, “That’s great, Mom, but how does that help me?”

I answered the unspoken question. “You need to teach your brain how to color the right way. You can’t let it run all over your body or scribble outside the lines. And I will do my best to help you.”

We have a pact now. When those adult emotions are flooding his body with not-so-pretty colors, he will take three deep breaths. He will close his mouth and count to ten before making accusations and screaming at the top of his lungs.

In turn, I will close my mouth. I will swallow the lectures in the car or the store. We will talk at night, alone in his room, where he feels safe enough to let go. And when those emotions become more than he can control, I will wrap my arms around the little boy tucked inside the 5’ 3” man-child and hold him like I’ve never held him before.

Just last night, we continued reading in our current book Growing up God’s Way for Boys. We came across the paragraphs that explain hormones and their effect on emotions in the brain . He whispers in my ear “That’s me, Mom. That’s me.”

I pulled my little man close one more time and thanked God for the blessing of being his mom and for the wisdom God provided when I just wanted to fight back.

2 thoughts on “Coloring Inside the Lines

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