I’m standing at the kitchen sink scrubbing potatoes and enjoying the happy sounds of my sons’ giggles drifting through the open window. That’s when I hear the low growl of unhappiness. Undetectable to most, it is my first warning sign that something is wrong. I turn to see our 7-year-old standing on the driveway, just beneath the window. His arms and legs are ridged at his sides. His fists are clenched tight and his gaze is sternly fixed on something non-existent. I can almost reach his soft blonde hair from my perch but I know I must not reach out yet. I grab a dishtowel as I exit the backdoor.
Drying my hands, I kneel down in front of my son and drop the towel beside me. I look him in the eye and ask softly, “What’s going on?” I don’t expect an answer the first time but I pause anyway. “Are you hurt? (pause) Frustrated? (pause) Angry?” I know I must go slow and steady. Too quick and he will pull further into his frustration. Too loud and I will shut down his ability to hear me all together. When he’s like this, I must remember that his brain is trying to catch up. Self-regulation doesn’t come naturally for this little one. I don’t put my hands on him yet. I just wait. Finally he gives a low gruff response. “Frustrated,” he murmurs. “Frustrated about what?” I ask too soon. “This is STUPID. I hate my brothers!” He shouts. “Ok, ok,” I sooth, “what happened?” About 30 seconds pass (I count in my head to make sure I don’t interrupt him) and I notice he’s made eye contact. I’m careful to make only a slight smile. We are connected and this is when the conversation can begin.
When my son was a toddler, a small frustration could shut him down for hours. A bumped knee, an untied shoe or a misplaced toy would send him into a complete melt down. When our son was a baby, we had to be the thermostat for his emotions. We had to show him step-by-step how to calm down and how to re-regulate emotions. After years of practice, our son is now able to identify specific emotions. The turn-around time for a melt down is now around 4 minutes. When we recall the hours of unreachable emotion, 4 minutes feels like a miracle.
When we sense that our son is dysregulated we still come alongside of him when we can. We still set the thermostat of our own emotions. We model calm through mindful facial expressions, even tone of voice, regulated breathing and slow movements. By keeping our cool, we have begun to teach our son how to regain calm in his own life.
The power of firm:
For all children, structure and consistency are deeply important. For most children, flexibility is acceptable from time to time. For our son, flexibility is not an option. Our 12 year old goes to bed at 7:45 each night. Bedtime figures in, the obligatory stalling (3 trips to the bathroom, can’t find his toothbrush, wants to sleep with the light on etc.) By 8:00 on the dot, the light goes off and the box fan/background noise turns on. We cannot veer from this plan.
Each night as the bedtime routine begins, my son’s challenge parallels the simple structure his father and I have created. “It’s 7:15, it will be time to brush your teeth in 5 minutes.” I give the calm alert. “Why don’t my brothers have to brush their teeth?” he demands. Recognizing that this is not a real question, I refuse to answer. At 7:20 I remind, “Time to brush your teeth.” He counters, “I just need to finish this game.” I grit my teeth to resist giving the lecture and reply simply, “teeth,” as I point to the clock. I usher the younger brothers through their bedtime routine. My older son has had the same routine for 12 years and knows that we will not tuck him in if he is not in the bed at 8:00. He still likes to have me rub his back while we pray but he may or may not remember this currency as he pushes the limit of my patience each night. As I read a bedtime story to my younger sons, I hear my 12 year old brushing his teeth, he even asks for the floss.
I smile and take a deep breath, the night has the potential to go very well or very poorly. This night he’s going to push the limits. “I have homework, why can’t I go to the skating rink tomorrow? Will you buy me an iPhone? Ugh, why not!?” We can’t waiver for a minute. Calm and firm are the name of this game. “Do you want me to tuck you in, or pray with you out here tonight?” I ask. “I want to have a sleepover at my friends house, and I want a package of skittles,” he responds. “Hey kiddo, do you want me to tuck you in tonight or pray with you in the hallway?” Tonight he’s going to accept the routine and I’m thankful. “Tuck me in, I guess,” He whispers. I tuck him in and say the same thing I’ve said every night for the past decade, “Hey buddy, I just have to tell you one thing…” “I know, I know,” he groans, “You love me!” “Nope that’s not it,” I say. “Its…I love you.” He rolls his eyes and for a moment we’ve made it past impulsive need for contradiction and he is just a typical pre-teen.
As a parent, it is so difficult to not let our emotions get the best of us, especially when we have children whose brains cannot sort these emotions on their own. In the end, we have the most success when we face each situation with a commitment to stay calm and stand firm.
Are you parenting a child with FASD? What are you learning to do differently with them? Share in the comment section below.