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Anger management & ASD son, sort of

Something occurred to me while doing my page proofs -- because, face it, page proofs are miserable enough that my brain is always struggling to get away into the realm of Any Other Thought.

I think there's a lot of pressure to be a Perfect parent. (Yes, there's a lot of pressure to be perfect in general -- but I'm sort of thinking about parenting at the moment, rather than the general case).

People who know me in real life know that I have a bit of a temper. And that I'm not, perhaps, the most entirely tactful person in the universe when one of my buttons is pushed. This has always been true; I've mellowed somewhat in the intervening years between high school and now, but not so much that my temper has vanished.

I am always going to have a bit of a temper. I try to channel the ways in which the anger is expressed, because if I don't express it at all, I pressure cook until I finally explode over something trivial, like someone touching one of my paperclips.

As with any other person, total lack of sleep, broken sleep, pain, stress from missed deadlines, worry about my children, etc., conspire to make the fuse to that temper shorter. In the perfect world, I would either withdraw and take time to breathe, or go out and do something that felt, for a moment, like me time.

It's not that much of a perfect world when you have small children. It's just not. Even trying to go out involves feats of organization (baby-sitting, for one) that, when we're already somewhat emotionally frayed, seem like adding more work to an already tentative balance.

I knew that, if I had to be Perfect Parent, I would not survive my son. I also knew that he wouldn't survive me.

So I knew I had to make clear to my ASD son that mom was also a person. I had feelings, not unlike his own, and reactions, not unlike his own, and I also had bad days. I made it as clear as possible -- and tried to do it when I was in a reasonable mood, because tone mattered to my son. I needed him to understand that my bad days were not a product of his behaviour, or not only a product of his behaviour, and that while we should always strive for good behaviour regardless of our mood, some failure was inevitably going to occur.

This made perfect sense to my son because he could apply it to himself, as well. He knew what good behaviour was; he knew what bad behaviour was. He also knew that sometimes he just lost it, slipped, and hit bad behaviour at a run. The fact that I could also do the same therefore made logical sense to him.

This is why having a consistent set of rules for everyone in the house was so important. It meant the rules were the rules, and that sometimes, for reasons outside of our immediate control, any one of us could break them -- but that the consequences were also applied (see the previous post re: timing myself out). Bad behaviour was always bad behaviour, regardless of who was doing it; good behaviour was also good behaviour, again regardless.

A lot of my parent friends felt that this would erode my authority over my son. And I understand that fear, because as adults with the wider breadth of experience and the greater knowledge of causality, we are the authority in our homes.

But with an ASD child, unless I could be a consistently perfect parent, this model wasn't going to work. With a more normative child, "Mom is in a bad mood" is a thought that comes more naturally. With an ASD child, it goes farther, and probably in ways that won't be completely clear without a lot of thought.

I am actually a terminally lazy sort of person: I won't put the effort into a parenting tactic that won't work for my son. I understand that different approaches will work for other people's children; I was only willing to adopt the things that would work for mine. If I wasn't certain, I would try; if it didn't work, I would discard.

But it was important for my son to understand that my moods were not entirely his fault. If I'm screamingly premenstrual, it's not his fault. If I'm hideously allergic, it's not his fault. If I'm grossly underslept, it may be his fault--but frequently it's not something he can do very much about. If I'm No Fun Mom because I really have to make this deadline for mortgage reasons, it is also not his fault.

I found that making it clear, at the start of a day, that I was having a bad day was very helpful in insulating him from my moods. It made clear that it was my issue, and that my lack of bouncy joy was not something that he'd induced, so it made him feel less uncertain about himself. He didn't actually need to be the centre of the world; he needed to feel that he could navigate in the world, that he could understand it. But children are the centre of their own worlds; without the explanation, almost any action on his part could become a fraught action, because he naturally related all events (and my reactions) to himself.

I've mentioned safe space in a previous post. Let me expand a little bit on that here. A safe space, for my ASD child, is not a sunny, happy, go-go-go space with baking and sparkly clean rooms and etc. It's not television motherhood. It's a space in which the consequences for all actions are clear, consistently applied, and logical. If my son could understand the reasons for almost anything, he felt safe. It's when the reasons weren't clear that he would melt down.

What this required of me at the outset was that I had to own my own particular faults and flaws. I had to understand my own weak points, and further, understand which I could address and fix, and which I couldn't, and would have to accept and live with. I had to give up on the idea of being a Perfect parent, and just be the parent that I could be. I have days in which I'm aware of the difference, and yes, it's hard. It's in particular quite hard when other people are trying to make certain that I don't own my flaws because if I tried harder, they're certain I wouldn't have any.

But if I hadn't owned the flaws I have, it would have been much, much harder -- for my son. When we're unwilling to own our flaws, we make excuses for them, hide them, lie about them; this doesn't actually work when we're with another person almost 24/7. For ASD children it's scary because they don't understand the reason for the erratic behaviour. It's also incredibly liberating to give ourselves permission to be human, not perfect.

And, you know, it didn't erode my authority. Being human, being flawed, he could accept. He still believed that I understood the world--and which parts of it might be a threat or a danger to him--better than he did or could. My son never needed me to be the Perfect Parent; he just needed me to be a parent he could understand.

Next up: Diagnosis.

* The husband points out that I should mention my son's age when I began to build this: he was three years old at that point. There's no point at all in trying to reason with a six month old; you will only get ulcers and it won't stop the screaming. I reasoned that when he could talk in a meaningful way, when he could ask questions (although he started that much earlier), I had to start coming up with answers that he could understand.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 21st, 2010 01:10 am (UTC)
Thank you
I am a long-time fan of yours, and I've been following the yahoo discussion group, your wordpress page, and your livejournal account for several years now.

I'm just commenting here to say thank you for the series of posts you are doing here. They are, for me, interesting and insightful, not just about raising an ASD child, but about parenting in general.

I am not a parent myself, but I am someone else's child, and I know that having a great parent is a gift and a blessing.

No, you are not a Perfect Parent. But you are a great one. I think any child would be grateful to have you as a mom. My own mom tells me that being a parent is the hardest job in the world, and one that the world frequently takes for granted. Which is true, I think. I'll find out when and if I have my own children.

You are also, incidentally, a great writer. For me, at least. So thank you, again, for writing these posts which are very, very powerful and moving. And thank you to your son as well for permitting you to post these experiences.
Oct. 21st, 2010 01:57 am (UTC)
I already was planning on enforcing consequences early, but I love how you explained that you are not a perfect person and you can explain that to children and they will accept and move on. (Cause there is NO WAY I am going to be a good parent without consistency of enforcement and explaining early that mom is not perfect...I have ADD (allowing parents to have time outs? Brilliant! So thank you!)

I quoted the last few paragraphs to my husband for strategies to keep in mind when we have kids...I hope you don't mind. :)
Oct. 21st, 2010 02:03 am (UTC)
Interesting. I used similar strategies with my son.
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 21st, 2010 05:47 am (UTC)
They're wonderful posts for parents of any kid, actually.
Oct. 21st, 2010 03:32 am (UTC)
One thing my wife and I have never done was to hide our arguments from the kids. We figured the kids had to learn that people don't always get along, and there will be arguments, so they need to know that you can still love someone even if you disagree with them.

Given the arguments they get into over boardgames, Harry Potter, Star Wars, etc., they seem to have learned that lesson well.
Oct. 21st, 2010 06:19 am (UTC)
One thing my wife and I have never done was to hide our arguments from the kids. We figured the kids had to learn that people don't always get along, and there will be arguments, so they need to know that you can still love someone even if you disagree with them.

We didn't either, although my husband is very rational, and very quiet, when he's arguing, so it probably seemed more like a disagreement or a debate. If he were awake, I'd ask him. I tend to have burst of outraged shock, which - if it's not aimed at him - my son (at seventeen) finds vastly amusing =/.

But I do think it's important to make clear that arguments and discussions can resolve disagreements; it's not so much the arguments themselves, but the sense that through a good-faith approach, some compromise, and some possible explanation (because a lot of arguments come from misinterpretation, even between adults), they can be resolved.

I think.

But my husband and I also tended to negotiate our various stances about child-rearing in advance of various situations, and then as they came up (homework arguments, for instance, wouldn't be a problem until school, so they weren't really discussed as an approach). This means that we weren't undercutting each other's positions in any arguments with our children; we'd hammered out the lines in the sand in advance.

I do think the united front approach is important, but I don't think that we all start from the same united front *wry g*

Edited at 2010-10-21 08:32 am (UTC)
Oct. 21st, 2010 04:19 am (UTC)
I also thank you for these posts (I found them through kate_nepveu). I don't have an ASD child (well, that I know of, she's only 9 months so I guess she could certainly be) but I still find these posts wonderful.

My friend was telling me about Parent Effectiveness Training recently and it sounds a lot like what you are describing, actually.
Oct. 21st, 2010 06:20 am (UTC)
Here via someone else's post on bullying-- your posts are so thoughtful and so thought provoking. Thank you!
Oct. 22nd, 2010 04:13 am (UTC)
This is the first time I have read your live journal, though I have read your books for years. I have worked with children and adults with autism for several years. One of the important things you wrote about was that a rule is a rule is a rule and it applies to everyone. I think you have a great mind set about parents aren't perfect, owning your flaws, and using what works for you and your family. These are things that many parents have trouble accepting and they are hard concepts to accept for many.

I wish you good luck and a lot of patience. I read a book that I thought you might be interested in reading. It is called Eating an Artichoke: A Mother's Perspective on Asperger's Syndrome by Echo Fling.

Be well.

Nov. 6th, 2010 01:31 am (UTC)
I am not fortunate enough to have my own children, but I have taught and I have close relationships with quite a few children. I have always found this to be a good strategy in general - although everything should be tailored to the individual - I find that the result is what you describe. I also apologize when I've done the wrong thing, as I find that most adults do not apologize sincerely to children. They are people as well and need respect like everyone else.

Thank you for being a good mother and respecting your child as a person.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )