I should know not to tempt fate. Maybe a year ago I started feeling cocky, like we’d gotten this parenting thing down. Nobody knows what they’re doing, of course, but I felt we’re going to survive it—the adults, the kids, our marriage. I felt that everyone will emerge, more or less, unscathed.

And of course we will, still.

But maybe 6 months ago, the little guy, five-and-a-half, usually our ray of sunshine, entered a whirling whorling dervish period of… I guess you could call it stubbornness, and rage. At school he went from a jaunty boy enjoying himself to inattention and disruption. At home he tantrumed like there’s no tomorrow: He’s not going to eat, he’s not going to bed, he won’t stop kicking. We can’t make him. These squalls didn’t last forever, but they came back again and again.

We realized up to now we’d focused most of the therapy on his older sister. He needed our attention. Though he didn’t seem to want it. We had a therapist observe him in class, and meet with us all. She helped us get a physical therapist, who’s working with him on sensory integration.

The most frightening part of his tantrums are that they combine a new, assertive need to do things on his own, and a simultaneous regression that makes it harder for him to actually do anything. He didn’t want help, but also sometimes couldn’t, say, drink from a glass.

Some or all of this is probably normal development. Maybe some of it’s delayed tantrums from younger years, when he was on good behavior, too insecure to act out much. But for me it brought flashbacks of our earliest time together when Jaden, not yet 2, newly placed with us, was perfectly sunny, but also paid no attention to where we were or if we were watching. He wasn’t yet bonded to us; at the zoo, he’d follow his interests, and any interesting people, as far and long as they lasted, without a glance back. It was terrifying.

So how to negotiate this new need for separation? Clearly, he needs to express his autonomy, and we need to enforce the basic safety rules. But it never feels so clear cut. I like to have my way (I’m told). So when am I being reasonable and when am I fighting battles that don’t matter? The ground feels slippery and unclear. I doubt myself, and hate how much time I’m spending worrying about the rules and what in the world to do with my sometimes-sweet, sometimes-monster son.

I found myself, at family camp, wandering around endlessly to check on him, make sure he’s safe, sunscreened, has his water bottle. At nearly every sighting he wants me to go away. Each time, he was always alive, and fine. Yet you can’t really leave a 6-year-old to roam free, can you?

Feeling both overprotective and also out of control, I take a walk to clear my head. I find a lovely rock by the river, but realize I have no sunscreen on, and no water to drink. I’m not wearing a hat, in this crazy hot sun. Maybe it’s my own care and safety rules I should be paying more attention to.

Our daughter, meanwhile, is stepping up, being more mature and kind. Her fiery, knee-jerk opposition, startlingly, is softening. Could she sense her papa and I have as much on our plate as we can take? Or maybe seeing Jaden act out gives her an opportunity to step into a different role. In any case, I’ve been thankful, and astonished. She’ll get that steely look in her eyes that’s always meant a fight was brewing, but then she’ll back off.

So I guess life’s always a surprise. We still don’t know what we’re doing. We get glimpses of a way forward. We’ll still all, very likely, survive. I pray we’re doing some of the right things to help the kids with every unexpected thing coming.