Repost: Detachment Parenting, or Confessions of a ROBOT mama.

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.’

lady_robotI 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.

  I’m not talking about avoiding empathy or not acknowledging his feelings. I did a quick Internet  search on “detachment and parenting” and found lots and lots of blog entries and websites by attachment parents or by people opposed to attachment parenting saying nay or yea  to the practices of babywearing, co-sleeping, cloth diapering or homeschooling. That’s not what I mean.  Personally, I’m very pro as much of the attachment-style as a parent can manage and remain sane…but 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)

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5 thoughts on “Repost: Detachment Parenting, or Confessions of a ROBOT mama.

  1. This is fabulous. I need to print this and keep it handy. However, what would have done if he’d gone alone to park? How old is he?

    • He’s 11 now, was 8 then. I’m not sure what I would have done if he’d gone alone! This kind of thing has happened before and he always ends up doing what I’ve asked, so I guess I was relying on that.
      I imagine if he’d gone to the park I would have done a quick count to 100 or 1000 and then gone after him. At that point I may not have been able to maintain my detachment, but I think it’s when I’m able to be calm that he is most likely to comply. If my hackles raise he goes into fight or flight and then forget about any kind of compliance at all.

  2. Adrienne, I could not believe it when I saw the title of your post! It felt like a God-sent gift! I am at my wits end with my son. He defies me at every turn, he makes messes, destroys things, screams, pinches, bites, kicks, and slaps me–among other things. I have worked so hard to do the neurobehavioral parenting model, but he is so out of control. His attachment/play therapist says she sees him attaching, detaching, attaching, etc. he desperately needs me, but he treats me like trash! I plan to home school him after this year, as he seems to have a hard time with spending much time with peers, though he seems to be a glutton in that regard. He seems to want so desperately to fit in, and I think I am seeing behaviors that come, at least in part, from a bad fit with the classroom environment. It is just so hard, because I feel as if I have read, studied, tried all that I could to understand this disability, but he seems to be getting worse, rather than better!

  3. Does the detachment approach help? Is your son even slightly less hostile and uncooperative? Is he still pitching fits and calling you names, three years later? Please, please, please tell me the answers are yes, yes and no, respectively.

    On a slightly unrelated note, is it the FASD that makes him behave in this manner? And FASD is a combination of TBI+(sometimes) intellectual disability, right?

    I’m asking as the municipal government office I work in has a great program that hires folks with disabilities, including a young man with a TBI and a woman with Down Syndrome (with an intellectual disability who functions as a 10 or 11 year old). They’ve been my colleagues for years, are delightful, hardworking and very good at their jobs… yet attempts to hire/train individuals with FASD via this employment program have pretty much instantly ended in disaster and none of us can figure out *why*.

    Many many staff members with brain damage (TBI) do great, many staff members mild bordering on moderate intellectual disability do great — it takes a little longer for them to get the hang of their jobs, but when they get it they get and have no trouble politely asking for assistance when they need it. The FASDers? Oh my gosh, no (which is basically why our last four consecutive attempts at training an individual with FASD ended almost instantly in disaster). And at least one of the four didn’t have didn’t have an intellectual disability, according to the job coach who accompanied her to training.

    Is this an FASD thing? Are we doing something wrong in training? (Because, we tell our trainees to ask for help, even if they think their question is dumb. We are *happy* to assist them, everybody, particularly trainees who’ve never, say, delivered the intraoffice mail, who of course will have lots of questions. It’s the refusal to ask for assistance and out-and-out hostility at correction that dooms the FASDers chances).

    • Hi Karyn,
      Yes, if you look at the very first part of the post you’ll see that in the 3 years since I have been educating myself about FASD and what works, situations like these have diminished immensely. It has taken a lot of time and a lot of patience and a whole lot of understanding my son’s brain and how it works.
      Yes, it’s the alcohol damage to my son’s brain in utero that creates situations like this: rigidity, perseveration, difficulty with processing, etc. FASD is not a TBI, as TBI is damage to the already typical brain. FASD is damage to the developing brain, down to the cellular level. And yes, some individuals with an FASD have lower intellect, but all individuals with FASD have cognitive difficulties. It’s possible for a person to have a 100 IQ, but if they have slow processing, executive functioning difficulties, inability to understand abstract thought they can be pretty functionally impaired. It’s not very accurate to look at a person with FASD’s IQ and make decisions about that person.
      FASD is a physical disability, and so requires modification of the environment and accommodations, just as if you were working with someone who was blind or in a wheelchair. I can’t guess what went wrong in the training, but if you are expecting someone with brain damage to be able to tell you that they don’t know what they don’t know that might be one place to start. If your training was primarily verbal, that might be another. It may also be that the tasks you were asking them to do don’t fit their skill set. Would you ask someone in a wheelchair to be a bike messenger? I’m not trying to give you a hard time, but since I wasn’t there I can only guess. If you’re seeing not asking for help as “refusal” to ask for help, that’s a judgement call.
      If you are really serious about working with individuals with FASD, you need to know more about it. I do webinars and teach workshops (see fafasd.org), and there’s always the wonderful book by Diane Malbin: FASD: Trying Differently Rather Than Harder.

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