My son has ADHD and a few other behavior disorders. The combination of the two generally plays out in public as different, and if there’s one thing the world doesn’t like, it’s the word no.
Even though he has older and younger sisters who don’t exhibit these behaviors, he still gets angry quickly, and when he does, everyone has to know. When my son was in Kindergarten, he got so mad he threw chairs across the room and refused to let anyone leave. He once barricaded the classroom door shut, too. Another day, he ran over the shelves and cleared them of every book, toy, and marker until the entire class was covered. So, believe me when I say it’s been a rough life.
Now 12 and in sixth grade, my son has entered the world of bullies and girls. He has also begun elective classes like band, where he is reasonably good at the French horn. However, the rage that boils inside him has caused more social problems. Unsurprisingly, girls don’t want to hang out with the kid who storms off out of the classroom or has to go see the counselor every week.
While I can’t sympathize with him and his condition, I do empathize.
I have physical disabilities and was readily ostracized during middle school and high school. I was friendly with several people, but by the end of high school, I was one of those kids who just sat at home — waiting for college to hit the social reset button.
I was angry a lot in high school. I couldn’t find dates, wasn’t able to drive, no one invited me to parties, and my brothers had moved away to their own colleges while my parents slowly moved toward divorce. Unlike my son, though, I internalized my anger rather than allowing it to spill over into everyone’s day. Neither option seems to work well — one destructive internally and the other externally.
However, with my empathy also comes 41 years of knowledge and wisdom. I’ve tried to impart what I’ve learned over the years in hopes of calming the storm that lives deep within him. Yesterday, I received an email from his band teacher describing his disruptive outburst. So, I sat my son down on my bed and had another discussion.
“It’s difficult to walk away when someone is yelling at you or when you’re angry. You’ll feel like you’re letting them win. But life isn’t a game where someone keeps score whenever you win an argument. There is only how you and they feel afterward and the consequences of your words.
He looked down at the floor. I could tell he was thinking hard about what I said.
Look, bullies don’t lose arguments. They start with their words, and as soon as you one-up them with your words, they’ll move to fists. If you beat them with fists, they’ll move to groups of friends with more fists. And even if you win, then they’ll never let it go. In my experience, the hardest but best thing to do is nothing at all.
“Why?” He asked.
You see, wise people know how to de-escalate situations. That rage that you feel inside of you is a part of you, and it’s never going to go away. But you can learn to focus it where you want it to go. We can’t control when a volcano erupts, but we can ensure that people aren’t in danger. We can steer the lava flow away from those we care about.
And steering your anger into a teacher or a punk at school will incur severe negative consequences for you. When you do nothing in the moment, you can think through what is happening, step back from their words, and think critically about what your next course of action should be.
Defend yourself now and escalate the situation, or steady your nerves and tell an adult what happened. When they ask what you did, you can honestly say nothing.
The most challenging thing to do is nothing. The most difficult action is often inaction.
He seemed puzzled by my conclusion of contradicting statements. Yet, I could see him take a deep breath and internalize. Usually, that’s a lift of the shoulders and an audible exhale. I told him he could return to watching TV, and he left the room.
Today, I sit at my computer and wonder if he can internalize and change course. I received a phone call from the vice principal about the consequence of yesterday’s outburst — after-school detention tomorrow. Funnily enough, that makes my afternoons a little easier since I can pick up one kid at one school and then immediately pick up the other at another school without a gap in between. Does that make me an awful parent?
Wisdom is only skin deep unless you can perform it instinctively. Can you feel your heart rate beat faster until you suddenly remember to breathe? Do you listen for the rise in volume when you speak? If not, don’t worry; you’re human.
Our subconscious and conscious brains don’t always align, but through meditation, we can touch our subconscious. Think of it as sending a brief text message between friends. One friend alerts the other with a quick note, “Anger…rising…” The other friend texts in return, “Deep breaths engaged.”
It’s more complicated than it sounds. Sometimes, my subconscious uses an iPhone while I use an Android, so I don’t get the blue bubbles or the three dots to let me know someone is typing a message. Or maybe the transmission is in Greek, and I don’t understand.
Regardless, focusing your thoughts internally and trying to wash away the distractions of the day can help direct your firey volcano.
The lava doesn’t need to go everywhere. It simply needs to be led to the sea. How? Breathing, relaxing, and, more importantly, not acting in the moment.
Lately, over the last year, I’ve found myself breathing when frustrated and not yelling as much as I used to. I disengage in arguments with my kids and wife instead of trying to “win.”
An old college professor of mine once said, “In life, you can either win or you can be happy, not both.” The phrase struck me the first time I heard it, and I’ve never forgotten it. In sports, you could say, “Sometimes you take the L.” As I practiced my breathing exercises, I focused on the phrase until it sat within my mind permanently.
You don’t have to win. There is nothing to win. There are only your emotions, their feelings, and the consequences of your actions.
One day, I hope my son learns this lesson and remembers it as he grows into a man. Not a stereotypical man, of course, but a wise and soft-spoken man. There is always another lesson, and I have a million to teach him.
As I learn my own path, I’ll open doors for his journey, too, and see if he wants to follow. Perhaps, one day, we’ll meet on the other side of life together, sit under a tree, and enjoy the sun on a quiet, peaceful, sunny day.
Patrick Stewart is a father, husband, and Taoist student under George Thompson. He lives in Fort Worth, Texas, and currently contributes to and runs both The Taoist Online publication and The Taoist Corner newsletter.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.