In Part 1, I started learning to be Ocean. Here’s how I applied that lesson to parenting my ASD teen in a black-and-white way that made sense to him.
Being the emotional creature that I am, I was always concerned about my kids’ emotions and long-term psychological well-being. Every time I disciplined, had a teaching moment, whatever, I was thinking about how it would make them feel, what they would learn from it, how it would affect their development.
I also wanted them to see me as a role model, a confidante, a reliable source of support. I wanted them to understand and accept why I did the things I did with them. Consequences should be natural or at least logically related to the “crime.” I would be the good guy, the fount of wisdom. They would learn to do the right thing because they it was the right thing to do, not because they feared punishment or wanted a reward.
Yeah, that didn’t work.
Turns out that while I know many parents and kids who do just fine with this mindset (including my NT daughter), it was all wrong for my ASD kid (and my NT son, by the way). Maybe I should have known when Nick started asking me “or else what?” around age 4 when I’d ask him to do something, when I had never said anything resembling “do this or else.” To his logical mind, every request that I made was a choice, and he wanted to know what would happen if he didn’t do it. It caught me off guard every time because I wasn’t looking at it from the same perspective. I wanted cooperation for the sake of harmony; he needed concrete options laid out in an “if this, then that” configuration. A flow chart of expectations that never changed.
Well, I’m more artsy-fartsy than flow chart, and my favorite answer to just about anything is “it depends.” It doesn’t come naturally to me to be black-and-white about anything. Consistency is not my strong suit; exceptions to rules abound. No wonder we were in such conflict.
Fire and ice. Oil and water. Milk and lemon juice. Our whole relationship had curdled.
Nick’s reactions to my wishy-washy discipline pushed all of my emotional buttons. He’d demand to know why, argue with my reasons, spew insults, insist I didn’t care about him, throw and bang on things, call his dad for backup. He was becoming more violent, and he was getting bigger. I’d get sucked in emotionally, engaging with him to try to get him to understand, to comply willingly, to see that I really did love him… and as I got more frustrated, my worries swirled through me: what kind of person would he become? What would his future be? Would he ever be able to hold a job or have a romantic relationship or keep friends…? I’d panic, he’d feed on it and round and round we’d go, right back into the same routines that left me feeling hopeless and him full of rage. Sometimes, even when I knew I should just SHUT UP already, I’d find myself talking endlessly, through tears, trying to win him over, even when I knew that all he heard was Charlie Brown’s mom: WAH wawah WAH wah WAH.
When we met Karla, I glommed onto her as a human instruction manual for my kid. Finally, I had someone who could tell me what was going on in his mind and why nothing I did was working. We had weeks of long emails back and forth where I’d go through every step of the latest interaction and she’d pinpoint where I’d gone wrong and what I should have done instead. I had to put my big girl panties on and be willing to hear “you screwed up” without being offended.
A theme emerged quickly. Every interaction that went wrong started with me feeling anxious (subcategories: scared, angry, panicked). Over and over, Karla sent me back to the flame, and soon I found that Ocean was better. She also used a horse analogy from her time in eventing: a horse will feel his rider’s anxiety and become skittish and uncooperative. When the rider relaxes, the horse relaxes. It doesn’t matter how you look; if you’re anxious inside, the horse knows it.
Karla told me that like horses, one of the autistic “superpowers” is that they sense the inner emotional states of the people around them. (This is one reason that many autistics avoid eye contact: it makes them turn off their “sensors” to focus on one face, blocking a crucial method of tuning in with their environment.)
I saw this in action one day when Karla and I were with a small group at a restaurant, and a woman walked by, cheerfully saying hello as she passed. Karla immediately said, “She is very sad.” The rest of us looked at each other, confused. But as it turned out, two of the people in our group knew the woman, and they said that in fact, she has had a lot of hardship in her life and comes here regularly to forget her troubles. Karla had not even noticed the woman’s cheerful appearance, but had tuned in to her inner state.
This was scary information at first. She was telling me that it didn’t matter if I put a smile on my face and kept my voice calm. If I was panicking inside, Nick would feel it, and he’d react as though the panic were his own, without any understanding of the why he was feeling that way. Oh, crap.
OK, deep breath. It is what it is. Let’s not think about all of the anxiety I have been pumping into my kid all these years. Time to get it together.
This is what was going on as I was trying to learn to be Ocean. This is why it was crucial that I keep trying. Those first few months were really hard, and I kept failing. As I’ve said, I am an emotional creature. I’m totally neurotypical in the sense that the NT brain goes to emotion first, then logic, while the ASD brain goes to logic first.
The other piece of the horse analogy is that they respond to really subtle instruction. A light squeeze of the legs, a slight tug on the rein, and a horse that is in tune with his rider will respond. Too much input and the horse gets pissed off. WAH wawah WAH wah WAH.
So, I had two goals:
1) Learn to be Ocean, to calm myself inside and out.
2) Forget all the talking and explaining and convincing. Less is more.
I had to become a calm flow-chart mom. Good thing I like a challenge.
As I said in Part 1, I focused my therapy sessions on this goal. I began practicing mindfulness constantly. I learned all kinds of relaxation strategies and studied the science of anxiety so I could understand my own brain better. Just like understanding the biological reason for hunger helped me ignore it and lose weight, understanding my anxiety helped me to start taking control of it.
Meanwhile, Karla taught me black-and-white parenting strategies that made sense to Nick. They were not the kind that came naturally to me, but I put my wishful thinking aside and entered the world of rewards and consequences. The consequences were not even necessarily logical to me (like getting a random job from the job jar for breaking a rule) but the system made sense to Nick, and that’s what mattered. Rules were clearly posted; consequences became immediate and consistent. He was granted ONE short explanation if he asked why he was getting a consequence. I was not to engage in any further discussion about it.
The only emotion there was room for was love. Anything else that tried to rise up was to be crushed by my powerful love for my son.
Even so, this black-and-white plan seemed cold and mean to me at first. I felt like a dictator, issuing punishments and refusing to listen to pleas for mercy. I had always thought I was respecting my child by talking things through with him… although it hadn’t really worked the way I’d wanted, had it?
The new strategies were not an instant success, because this was CHANGE, even if it was good change. Nick thought he knew what to expect from me and when I didn’t meet his expectations, he’d try to push me back into the familiar routine.*** We had many episodes of him doing everything he could think of (subconsciously, of course) to elicit an emotional (aka familiar) reaction, and me standing stoically, channeling Ocean and sounding like a looped recording of “go to your room.” But eventually, Nick started to trust that the rules were always the rules, the consequences were predictable, and Mom wasn’t going to yack endlessly or plead or cry.
As for me, I started to trust that every unacceptable behavior was not a terrifying portent of doom. Each problem was just a problem right here, right now. This behavior = that consequence, every time, without debate. No panic. No whipping the reins.
It’s not cold and mean. It’s reliable and therefore reassuring. Keeping my emotions out of it lets him fully experience his own, and lets him keep his head clear so he can process the experience. As a bonus, the more I keep my emotions out of my parenting, the less they try to get in there. Things that used to hurt or anger me, like my kids calling me names when they’re mad, just don’t seem like a big deal anymore. Behavior, consequence… and move on. I’ll save the big deep feelings for the positive stuff.
And guess what? That emotional connection I was always striving for? That sense of teamwork and trust and support? It came! Like the Grinch’s Christmas, somehow or other, it came just the same! Not only does Nick have a lot less problem behavior, but we are deeply connected and mutually respectful like never before.
Ocean’s waves will always reliably come to shore. You can trust her tides to always rise and fall. For my son, I will always try to be Ocean.
*** It’s what I call the soda machine effect. When you put your money into the soda machine and push the button, you expect the soda to drop into the slot for you. If it doesn’t drop, you are confused. You’ll verify that you put the right amount of money in. You’ll hit the coin return. If that doesn’t work, you’ll bang on the machine. You may kick it. If the soda still doesn’t drop, you may try to shake it out. You may even yell at it and bang it really hard. Finally, when you realize that soda is just not going to drop, you try to find someone who can make the machine do what it’s supposed to do. If no one can or will help you, you will finally give up and walk away, perhaps with a verbal parting shot or a warning to other thirsty people.
So when you try to implement positive change and get this backlash, don’t feel discouraged! Be the soda machine. 🙂