Monday, July 15, 2013

We're Both Making Mistakes, Not Behaviors

Maybe it would be easier with a list of how to solve every problematic behavior our children engage in.  When they're having a rough patch, pull out the list, scan down, and there it is: implement solution number 62.  Oh, to clear out all those parenting books and replace them with a single piece of well-worn paper.  When it comes to autistic children, parenting advice often gets less nuanced, more authoritative, as if the reasons for behavior are clear-cut.
Parenting is a relationship, a complicated, messy, imperfect relationship.  Where there is motion and action, there will be emotion and reaction.  We act off each other, not as lone actors in separate monologues.

Jack woke up one morning this week, tired and not feeling well.  He started out grumpy and got grumpier.  He yelled that he didn't want to drink his water, that he didn't want to eat his cereal.  Then when he couldn't find the key he was looking for, he jumped up from the breakfast table, shouting tearfully, "I'm going back to bed!" On his way down from his chair, he banged his shoulder hard.  He flailed his arms at me and I yelled loudly, "STOP."  When I yelled, he bit me.  Big meltdown ensued on both ends.

My child had already reached his limit.  When he flailed at me, I was thinking, "He must not do this. He has to learn."   Problem #1 was the "he must not" because that triggered my anger - which he felt.  Problem #2 was the projection of "if he he hits someone, he will always hit, therefore he has to learn."  My child already knows not to hit.  He doesn't want to hurt me or other people and I need to respect him more than that. Problem #3 was my yelling.  My son is extraordinarily sensitive to noise and to emotions - my yelling "STOP" scared the daylights out of him.  Already beyond his limits, he reacted the only way he could.  Fear, flight, or fight.  He fought.

If I went to some therapist and said "aggressive behavior" or "hitting and biting," they would hand me a list of how to change aggressive behaviors.  And I wouldn't be owning up to MY contribution to the situation.  I wouldn't be acknowledging MY part in the problems.  It's not honest and it's not accurate.  It's definitely not easy to admit our part in it because we want to be The Parent Who Knows Best.  We're not perfect.  Nobody is.

After Jack and I both calmed down, we sat down to breakfast together, watching a start-up video of a car.  I bent close to Jack and said, "I'm sorry I yelled.  That was a mistake." He looked at me, appreciating the moment, then said, "I'm sorry I ..." and he patted me on the shoulder to indicate hitting.

That's it.  That's the magic of relationships.  In parenting our children, we BOTH make mistakes, not behaviors.  We BOTH work on the relationship.  We BOTH aren't perfect, but we are two humans in a relationship, listening closely and trying.  We have to trust that our children are trying and sometimes making mistakes.  Give them that credit, just as surely as we give ourselves credit for trying and making mistakes.  We have to trust that they learn from our mistakes and from us owning up to them. 


  1. really love this one. I can't tell you how many times that exact scenario has played out in our home, no matter how many times I think I have relearned the lesson and should know better by now. thanks for making me feel a little less alone in that today.

  2. That's a tough one, Brenda. I think every parent of a child with autism has been in your shoes a few times. I did it myself three or four years ago. Don't remember the exact sequence of events, but I ended up grabbing a hand-held gaming device out of his hands, which totally sent him over the edge. There's a lot more to that story, and it's not pretty. Needless to say, when it was all over, there were lots of hugs, tears and I'm sorries on both sides. Every day is an adventure. Some days are tougher than others, but we wouldn't trade our children for anything in the world. They have challenges, but we're here to help them. They are learning every day. And so are we.

    Debbie K.