Defeating. That’s the word that comes to mind when I recount the past decade of parenting our son. He is on the fetal-alcohol spectrum. His brain suffered irreversible damage when he was in his birth mother’s womb. The result has been violence, aggression, impulsion, even run-ins with police, the older he becomes.
The other day we were driving home from visiting in-laws when my son asked my wife, “If you could go back in time and change something, what would you change?” She thought for a moment and then answered, “I’d go back to when you were an infant and parent you differently.”
I silently agreed. We’ve made so many mistakes over the past 12 years. Too many to recount. We’ve made many snap-judgements with him when we should have exercised more patience. We’ve overreacted, often out of fear for our other children, causing situations to escalate out-of-control. Yes, if we could go back in time, we would change so much. But we can’t. We can only continue to move forward and learn new lessons along the way.
And so, we have. In-spite of our many mistakes (which we still make often), we’re learning how to live and parent differently. It’s not easy in the least bit but here are some of those lessons.
- Patience. Steady as she goes. Waiting through the storm even when the storm is long and drawn out. Ask anyone who knows us well and they’ll tell you- patience is not our gift. We’ve had to learn to wait. Last October we hosted an awesome webinar with Dr. Ira Chasnoff from NTIUpstream on FASD. One fascinating thing we learned from him was that children who suffer from FASD are always simmering. They’re always ready to boil over at any point. That’s our son. The smallest thing sets him off. The key is patience (remember, not our gift). We have to keep our cool with him. It’s a lesson we’re learning to apply. It’s excruciating because our humanness and bull-headedness prods us to hastily shut things down, However, that’s a trigger. Patience really is a virtue….and I hate it sometimes!
- Time. Back in the summer, when I was in San Diego speaking at a conference, I watched in fascination as an aircraft carrier left port and headed for the Pacific. It was an event just to get this massive ship turned around and on course. It took 10 minutes alone for the tugboats to back it up. Then, turning it around amassed another 20 minutes. Lots of time and lots of space. That’s how you turn an aircraft carrier. The same is true for children with FASD. Remember, we’re not very good at patience, nor taking a lot of time. We want to go, go, go. But, in parenting our son with success, we’re learning that sometimes you have to give things a lot of time and a lot of space. We have to give him ample warning before it’s time for bed because his brain cannot re-gear at a moment’s notice. We have to give ourselves as much time as possible for a task because he’s not wired to move at a rapid pace. This is as much of a growth opportunity for us as it is for him.
- Compassion. I’ve learned to be compassionate. Just last night, as I drove home from a friends house, I thought about the trauma my son went through as an infant. I thought about the fear that has taken residence in his mind and won’t let him have a moment of peace. My heart softened. My heart broke, actually. I couldn’t imagine living in a prison like that. I am also not a master at compassion. Far from it, in fact. Earlier in the day I was so mad at him I could cuss. Actually I did cuss…a lot. I left the house, with him standing in it, not wanting to look at his face, or talk to him, for the rest of the day. But compassion for his past, his present, his future, and for…him, always brings me back.
- Silence. A few weeks before Christmas my son was throwing an all-out tantrum. The kind that caused us to move the rest of our kids in the upstairs part of our home while the storm raged. In past situations, we would contain and restrain him if need be. But, we decided to do things a little different this time. Instead of reacting we stayed quiet and sat across from one another at our dining room table, working on our computers, and texting things back and forth to one another. We didn’t acknowledge or pay attention to his rant, or the shoes and various household items crashing into the wall behind us. What happened 20 minutes later was amazing. He stopped…completely! Then, he took it upon himself to clean up his mess. After that, he willingly did household chores that we hadn’t asked him to do. Silence is golden. Silence and zero reaction (which we so badly wanted to do) neutralized the situation. We took his audience away, thus taking away his commitment.
- Goals. We have to give each day a goal and our son needs to know what that goal is. For instance, this past weekend we decided to get up on Saturday morning and drive to Cincinnati to visit my dad. We told our son the night before that we were going to do that. We explained it clearly- “We’re getting up in the morning, eating some breakfast, then getting in the car and driving 2 and half hours to Cincinnati where grandpa lives. We’re going to get there, spend 3 hours with him, hike on his property a little, then drive back home to Indiana. We’ll get to our house right before bedtime. We will eat dinner along the way.” It went off without a hitch, for the most part. It’s not always this smooth but the lesson we’re learning is that we must set a daily goal for him. We have to give him a target to aim towards. His brain cannot handle downtime, or non-structure. The result is disastrous.
To be honest with you, there are a thousand lessons we’re learning- about our son…about ourselves…about FASD…about the world around him. Too many to list here. Had to whittle it down to just 6. This is a growth process for me, as I’m so prone to overreact and jump to conclusions. Exercising patience and giving things a lot of time is unbelievably hard for me. That’s why this whole parenting gig is a journey, not a destination. I’m thankful for that!
Are you learning similar lessons? Share your story with us.