I first wrote this post 3 years ago. My son had been newly diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) and I knew enough about him and enough about FASD to know that his behaviors weren’t completely under his control, and that the best thing I could do was not to respond. Since I wrote this I’ve learned a great deal more about FASD, and am an FASD educator. I’m happy to say that by using the 2 strategies I explain in this post, as well as providing accommodations and environmental change for my son, much of these behaviors have diminished. He’s also 3 years older, and as John Holt said (a rough paraphrase) in one of his wonderful books about homeschooling: ‘Never let anyone else take credit for a child’s development that occurs simply because the child is getting older in the world.’
I have something to admit: sometimes the very best tool I have a parent is my ability to detach. Or at least pretend to detach, which is just as good when it comes to managing my easy-to-love-but-hard-to-raise child, but which isn’t particularly healthy for me: stuffing and stifling one’s feelings is not generally thought of the most emotionally healthy activity, you know.
What I mean by detaching is this: if my child screams, swears, or throws stuff at me, tantrums on the floor, demands x,y, or z,, perseverates, says “what do you mean?” over and over and over again in response to simple statements, runs from me when I’m speaking, interrupts while I’m having a conversation with someone else, talks nonsense when my husband and older son and I are conversing at dinner, destroys his toys, destroys other people’s toys, takes things that don’t belong to him…I do my utmost to remain calm. All of these behaviors are related to the brain damage he experienced as the result of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. None of them are on purpose. All of them are a response to his needs not being met…and all of them are profoundly difficult to deal with.
I have two basic strategies for managing these types of outbursts:
1. Remember that his brain is different from mine. His behaviors are manifestations of his disability. It is not personal. It is not on purpose. There is no motivation behind them.
2. Detach. Detach. Detach. Depersonalize and detach.
Sometimes I pretend that he is someone else’s child. Sometimes I pretend that I am a robot. Sometimes I pretend that I am the best pre-k teacher in the world. Sometimes I pretend that I am not his mother, but someone paid to care for him. I respond slowly, quietly, logically. I do not get upset. I go elsewhere in my mind. I float above the fray. I detach.
I do not manage this all the time. On good days I do this a lot, on bad days I’m a screaming mess. But when I can channel a little detachment the day goes much, much better.
When I talk about detaching, I’m not talking about the opposite of attachment-style parenting, although I know the words detaching and attaching are opposites.
…When we’re talking about a child who has behavioral, emotional, and learning issues like mine it’s a whole different ballgame. Heck, it’s not even the same sport.
Choices are given, but only a few. Boundaries have to be set in stone. Maybes invite anxiety, more perseveration. The more detachment with which I can explain decisions, the better.
Here’s an example:
I homeschool my son, so he was with me this morning when I dropped my car off to get its oil changed. Before we left the house we decide that while we were waiting for the car we would walk to the library and get some books, which is exactly what we did. The library is about a mile away from the car place and it was a beautiful day, and despite me wearing the wrong shoes for walking we had a very pleasant stroll. We waved to friends, he picked up cicadas, we talked about what “for rent” meant and why it wasn’t okay to play on other people’s swingsets and who Little J thinks considers is his best friend.
Everything was great.
In the library he picked out some books, I picked out some books, I paid a hefty fine for books returned late, and then we were off.
“Can we go to the playground on the way back?” asked Little J.
I thought for a moment. “It’ll be a longer walk,” I said, thinking about my feet and the poorly chosen shoes, but also thinking that the park was a good idea.
“That’s okay,” he said, and so it was agreed. For a while.
“I don’t want to eat lunch at home,” he said, after a few minutes. This is one of the themes of Little J’s life: his desire to eat at restaurants. Barring restaurants, other people’s houses. Anyone’s house but ours. Anyone’s cooking but mine. Sadly for him, we cannot afford to eat our every meal and this has been explained to him time and time again, but still he asks.
“Like I said before we left the house, we’re going to eat at home.”
“I DON’T WANT TO EAT AT HOME.”
“Well, we’re going to eat at home.” At this point I know what’s coming and I start to summon enough energy to get through the conversation calmly.
“I’M NOT EATING AT HOME. YOUR FOOD IS DISGUSTING.”
“We are going to eat at home.”
“WHAT WILL YOU MAKE? I WANT GRITS AND EGGS AND GRILLED CHEESE.”
“I’ll make a ham sandwich or turkey sandwich. We have tortilla chips and cookies. I’m not going to make anything hot.”
“I HATE FREAKING HAM SANDWICHES. THAT’S DISGUSTING!” He starts kicking at the ground.
“I’ll make a ham sandwich or a turkey sandwich.”
“I’M NOT GOING TO EAT IT YOU SON-OF-A-BITCH!”
I wait a beat. He’s just crossed the line between perseverative questions (which is how he communicates most of the time) and being offensive. I say, very calmly, “We are not going to the park anymore. If you say bad words to me I don’t want to go.”
“I HATE YOU YOU FREAKING BITCH!”
I turn the corner towards the car, away from the park. I walk slowly up the street.
“I’M NOT GOING TO FOLLOW YOU!”
I walk. I am detached. I am not his parent. I am a robot, hired to take care of this human child.
Eventually, he follows. When he catches up he says, “Sorry, sorry mommy. Sorry.”
“I accept your apology,” I say.
He takes my hand. I melt a little. Detachment success.
(image from Wikimedia Commons)
The best books I know about parenting differently: