Detachment parenting, or Confessions of a Robot Mama

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.

  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.”


“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.


“We are going to eat at home.”


“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 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 turn the corner towards the car, away from the park. I walk slowly up the street.


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.


Adrienne Ehlert Bashista lives in central North Carolina with her husband and 2 boys, ages 11 and 15. She is a contributor and co-editor to Easy to Love but Hard to Raise: Real Parents, Challenging Kids, True Stories. To read all of Adrienne’s posts on this blog, please click here.

(image from Salem News)


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7 thoughts on “Detachment parenting, or Confessions of a Robot Mama

  1. I think the right thing to do for these ETL kids in these situatuons is to detach. It is the only way I can stay calm. In my head it goes something like this:
    “I cannot take his words or actions personally. He doesn’t know how to handle this frustration. I have to help him work through this but not give up. ”
    I have proudly become pretty good at remaining calm in this situations.
    Now, how to fix morning before school fiascos…


  2. I am so glad and yet sad to see another parent has to use this method to work out situations with our ETL children. I feel horrible and want to react, yet as she said on good days I am the robot, and when he calms down and hugs me, I know it was ok. Thank you for Sharing a piece of your lives.

  3. I can totally related to your “detached” style of parenting. I’ve been attending local CHADD meetings to help me understand my 7-year-old son’s diagnosis. A few months ago a posed a question that asked, “When do you let something go and when should you correct it?” It got a chuckled out of the group and one of the facilitators said with a smile, “Tiffany, you ask that as if there is an answer. Each situation is different.” I’m sure from the outside my “detachment” appears to others as bad parenting, but for me I know that I cannot reason with my son once his emotions have been triggered. Good cop? Bad cop? I don’t know. I much better like the robot idea. I can completely relate!

  4. I also use detachment as a way to make it through the tough times with my ETL child. However, I now (after several years of detaching) find that I can’t always break that wall down immediately after my child apologizes. I feel it comes a time when I have detached so many times that it’s hard to re-attach so quickly. Anyone else feel that way?

    • I feel like this a lot. It’s a protective mechanism.
      With my son, it’s always something. He is always pushing, always testing boundaries, and he is missing social cues and doesn’t understand cause/effect. So basically I have 2 settings when it comes to him: angry or detached. It’s not something I’m proud of or even want to continue, but it’s the truth. On the rare occasions when he’s able to connect with me or does something that makes me happy or proud, I am able to get excited and happy. It’s as if hope is springing alive! But invariably I have to turn on the robot mama soon afterwards, so sometimes it seems safer just to stay there.

  5. Adrienne~ Thank you for your response to my comment. Your last sentence…”sometimes it seems safer just to stay there”….rings so true for me. It’s nice to know someone who completely understands how I feel.

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