I never know how to respond to my kids’ difficult behaviors. Or, rather, how to correctly respond. Despite the myriad parenting books, websites and blogs I’ve turned to, plus our pediatrician, a child psychologist, and  friends, I don’t ever know what’s the right thing to do.

Examples?

Babyboy’s been trying out some new protest behaviors. For a very annoying several-week stretch, it was spitting. We’d tell him it was time for school, or bathtime, or bed; or not to whack his little sister over the head with a firetruck, and he’d spit at us- sometimes in our general direction, but a few times, right in the face.

Spanking doesn’t faze him. Yelling, variable: sometimes he doesn’t seem to notice, and other times he gets traumatized. Time outs: Usually, he doesn’t mind. Not effective enough. Taking favorite toys away: that definitely gets his attention, and this is our current preferred discipline method.

Problem is, there have been days where we’ve almost run out of favorite toys to take away, and he was still spitting, or doing whatever bad behavior thing it was. We’ve gotten down to every last Lego, truck, and stuffed animal, praying that he didn’t do anything else before bedtime, or we’d have to get creative.

The spitting thing has gotten better, but we don’t know why. Now, he calls us names. But, we sometimes can’t help laughing at what he thinks up. “You’re a raspberry!” is the latest. The last time he said that, Hubby turned around and said, “Well, you’re a blueberry!” Babyboy didn’t like that.

Babygirl has taken to chucking things at us. This week, she scratched her brother as they fought over a toy. Hard. Her nails left welts on the back of his neck. I took the toy away and put her in time out. She howled, flailed, and yelled: “You’re a BAD mommy!” and threw one of her tiny plastic animal toys at me, as hard as she could. It hit my chest and fell to the ground; not painful, but wow, was I shocked.

I took away more toys: her animal “friends” of the day. She threw herself on the ground, crying and screaming and protesting. When I walked away, she chased me and grabbed my pants, demanding “GIVE ME MY ANIMAL FRIENDS BACK!” which I ignored.

What was remarkable was that Babyboy quietly gathered up some of her other animal toys and brought them to her. “Here you go, here are your animal friends.” It didn’t calm her, but I was struck by his gentle attempt.

Later, at bathtime, I showed Babygirl the raised red scratches she’d left on his skin. “Look what you did, this was very outchy for your brother!”

She inspected the marks with serious wonder, and said to him, with real regret, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

The worst behavior we’re seeing may not even be defiance. It’s Babyboy’s perseverations. We don’t know what these are: an OCD thing? An autism thing? A random kid thing? Whatever they represent, they’re getting worse: longer episodes, and more frequent.

Babyboy will become upset about something that was done in the wrong order. Most often, it’s something like, he wanted to be the first one down the stairs and into the car. But, he didn’t say he wanted to be first, he just starts flipping out as we’re all getting in the car. He cries, violently throws himself to the ground, refuses to move unless we can somehow re-do whatever it was.

It’s not always about him being first. Early this morning, it was that I got him his slippers before I got him his milk. He collapsed to the ground, crying, begging, “Go back! Put the milk back, put the slippers back! Get the milk first!” Over and over. Five minutes. Ten minutes.

I’ve been experimenting with ignoring these episodes, in the hope that he would learn we can’t “re-do” everything on demand. But, he seems to be in actual pain. He begs, sobs, pleads, “Please, please, you have to go back! Mommy, please!

This morning, he went on and on, banging his fists on the ground, begging, crying…

And I did, I hugged him and said, “Okay honey, if I put everything back and do it again, will that really make you happy?”

He popped up, rubbing his eyes, and said, exhausted: “Yes, Mommy, please.” He watched me very carefully as I put everything back and did it in the “right” order.

Hubby took him to the grocery store this afternoon, and had a similar experience over checking out. Something about the order of things on the conveyer belt. He had one yesterday too, at the hardware store, also over checking out, that Hubby had put the items on the counter before Babyboy was “ready”.

And two days ago, Thursday, my day off with the kids, I took them to a friend’s house to play, and he had a doozy of a similar fit, in their yard. Babygirl had reached their jungle gym first, and he did his usual throwing himself on the ground crying, demanding that we all go back to the car and start over. He hit the ground and demanded, over and over, “Go back! Go back! She needs to let me go first!”

The other kids slowly came closer and closer to Babyboy, mesmerized by this unusual behavior, not sure, at first, what to do. Then, I think one of them decided it was a game, and going up very close, started mimicking Babyboy. The younger child did too. They weren’t trying to be mean, I’m sure; they were trying to make sense of the drama.

I calmly tried to distract them: “Hey guys, he’s just really upset right now, let’s let him be by himself, okay?”

But they didn’t seem to understand me, and the mimicking made Babyboy even more upset. “Go away!  Go away!” he screamed. He just seemed to be in so much pain about it all. Finally he jumped up, pushed past the other kids, ran up to the jungle gym, and violently yanked Babygirl off the jungle gym swing. She started crying; meantime, the other kids had followed and were still making mimicking sounds.

There I was, in this nice backyard, watching over this melee, Babyboy at the heart of it, still yelling “Go back! Go back! She needs to let me go first!”, and I was standing there useless, with tears running down my face. I just had no idea what to do.

Luckily, the other adult helped out. I think as she was a new person, it somehow snapped Babyboy out of it. I was shaken up, and it took an embarrassing long time for the tears to stop.

Hubby and I have talked about getting help from the pediatric psychologist for this, and I’m trying to set up neuropsychiatric testing as well. How much of this is normal preschooler behavior: “testing”, learning to share, needing control? How much is pathologic: obsessive compulsive, autistic?