Hold Your Breath but Don’t Forget to Breathe-How to Harness the Strong-Willed Child

He wasn’t quite two years old when it first happened. I was making dinner and he was playing in the living room with his two older siblings. At first, I heard him start to cry, then as I walked into the room to see what was happening; there wasn’t’ anymore sound.

I asked, “What happened,” as I rushed over to him.

His brother said, “We just took a toy away that we thought was too small for him to have.”

Now frantic, I called his name and cradled him in my arms watching his eyes roll back in his head and his lips turn blue, as he passed clean out.

“He didn’t put anything in his mouth did he?” “No,” the kids replied.

I yelled, “Run and grab the phone! Hurry!” My hands shaking, my mind racing, I dialed 911. I was hysterical, repeating my baby’s name.

The 911 operator came on, “911 what is the address of your emergency?”

My head was spinning and I could hardly get my address out.  “My baby has stopped breathing! He’s not breathing!”

The 911 operator kept asking questions. “Mam, mam, what was the child doing? Does he have anything in his mouth?” As I tried to answer, he started breathing and gave me a whimper type cry.

“Oh thank God! Thank God! He’s breathing!” I exclaimed. As the firetrucks and EMT arrived, I felt such relief. Help was here and he was now crying and not blue. The hysteria slowly gave way to tears. But, I was still so terribly scared and shaken. My entire body felt weak. I just wanted to hold him.

Then I remembered when his older brother was about his age, something similar had happened. We were about to leave to go to the pediatrician for his check-up, but I had forgotten my wallet upstairs. So I set my son, in his playpen for a brief second to run upstairs and get my wallet. He started crying. I literally was up and back down in less than 60 seconds. But by the time I reached his playpen, he had stopped crying and was turning blue. As I reached into the playpen to scoop him up, he passed out. I thought he had died. Hysteria isn’t even close to the word I would use. I had called 911 then too. After the firefighters and EMT got there they assured me that my child was fine.

“How could he be fine? He passed out! He turned blue! This isn’t normal.” What I learned is that children can hold their breath till the pass out. Did you know that? Because, I sure didn’t know they could. My oldest did it that one time and never did it again – probably because from that point on I was so terrified, I never put him down or let him cry.

But with the third child, I had forgotten about the oldest, (actually, it was so terrifying I think I blocked it out). Both times, both boys went to the doctor to make sure everything was okay. They were perfectly fine. We had the same pediatrician for all three of our children. She assured me that while most parents don’t get multiple children who do this, it does occur. Apparently, I had hit the jackpot. “Lucky, lucky, lucky, me!”

With the youngest, that first incident wasn’t the last time he would hold his breath and pass out. If he got upset, he would pass out. If he didn’t get what he wanted, he would pass out. (The frequency of this did not make it easier on me as a mom). It was a terrifying experience. To see your child’s lips turn blue and see them pass out is awful. I can joke about it now because it has been 18 years since he has done that. But, back then, I am sure it took years off my life.

I went back to our pediatrician multiple times looking for solutions. She told me to try blowing in his face a little to try and make him catch his breath. So I did. That just irritated him and he passed out faster. We tried a cool wash cloth and that infuriated him and he really held his breath and passed out. Absolutely nothing worked. He would be playing with siblings, right in front of me and he would get upset and they would yell, “Mom, he’s doing it again. He is holding his breath!”

Bewildered and worried that this would do some sort of permanent brain damage to him or me, or both of us; I called the pediatrician once more. That is when she told me to turn my back and walk away. I told her, “I can’t do that. It feels wrong. He is so little.” And she calmly told me, “Sherry, he is strong-willed. Turn your back and walk away and let’s see what happens.”

So the next time he started to hold his breath, me and his brother and sister all turned our backs and walked away. (We had planned for this and we were prepared. We threw a pillow behind him, so he wouldn’t hurt his head and we walked away.) His little sister had as much trouble leaving him as I did.

Of course, we all immediately peeked around the corner to make sure he was okay. The doctor told me, “Don’t let him see you when he comes too.” Let me tell you, this went against every mothering instinct in my being! But, I did what she said and guess what? He never held his breath and passed out again.

My youngest has always been strong-willed. Some children see a boundary and they have no desire to cross it. He saw a boundary as an opportunity to test the limits. What worked for my other two children had absolutely no effect on him – whatsoever.

I felt helpless at times. All the times I had looked at other parents of screaming children and thought, “I am such a good parent,” flashed in my face like a neon sign reminding me of my arrogance and naivety. It wasn’t that my son was a bad child. He was a sweet and hysterically- witty and sensitive child. But God designed him to be strong. His name even means, a savior, a deliverer.

Today, he is a military police officer going to school to serve and protect others. He had to be strong and he had to be pushing the boundaries to do what God designed him to do. It was my job to harness it and direct it to the appropriate avenue.

As he grew, I tried a lot of different ways to discipline him. What I found worked was putting him in time out, in his room … alone. He hated it. He would threaten all sorts of things. But after resetting the timer for two more minutes each time he got up; he learned I meant business and he stayed there. He would holler and threaten to use the restroom in his pants. He would say, “You’re a mean mom.” “If you don’t let me up I will pee my pants.”  But, I did not give in.  Time-out became a very effective way to discipline this boundary pusher.

I wish I could say that I never had to call 911 again. But I can’t. There was the time he was outside with his dad and he decided to play superhero and he jumped and landed with his head into the concrete driveway. Unbelievably, after hours in the ER, we were told the two inch goose-egg would go down and he would be just fine. Another time, dressed as a firefighter, he decided to use my stair-master as a fire pole. I thought he had gotten too quiet, so I turned around from making my bed, as he slid down, landed on the pedal with his chin, and almost bit through his tongue and lip.

I am convinced God gave me this child last, because if he had given me him first, he would have been an only child. Not because he bad, but because a mother’s heart can only handle so much worry and stress. He was just always into something and honestly, he still is. From Army/soldier training, to police officer training, he is wired to be a deliverer, a protector. While we don’t always know what God has planned for our children, if we pay attention and watch them; we can see their bend or nature and nurture it.

We can also pray. I have prayed so many prayers for each of my children – prayers of protection, guidance, peace, love, joy and healing. Like most mothers, the list of prayers prayed is endless.

So how then should we discipline and pray? We should always treat our children with the love of Christ and pray that they would come to a saving knowledge of Him.

1.     Always in and with love -Ephesians 5:2New International Version (NIV) says,

and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

2.      Directing them to Him – 2 Peter 3:9 (NIV) says,

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

3.     Encouraging growth in Him -2 Peter 3:18(NIV) says,

18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.

4.     Teaching them to be servants- Ephesians 6:7(NIV) says,

Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people,

5.     Leading with kindness and goodness- Galatians 5:22-23(NIV) says,

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Sherry Shepherd is an experienced, adaptable professional specialized in writing for faith-based organizations. She has worked as an editor and writer for newspaper, movie guides, publishing houses, churches and several non-profits. Her scope of work includes corporate and fundraising materials, advertising, web, brochures, booklets, books, blogs and biblical training materials. However, her heart is drawn to any type of creative writing, where she can motivate while conveying a biblical message and telling a story. Sherry is the mother of three grown children, who have been the source of some of her greatest joy, laughter and material!