How To Discipline A Child With FASD.

Author of 4 books, podcaster, parent trainer, wife and mother.

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Parenting children with FASD is an uphill battle. This is especially true when it comes to discipline. How do you balance necessary consequences with a child who's brain lacks the executive functioning to understand?

If you know a child with an FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder) you know that typical discipline just doesn’t work. In our home we are raising two sons diagnosed with ARND (Alcohol Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder). Our sons were exposed to alcohol before birth. FASDs do not go away, and there is no way to heal the damage that has been done. Typically, children who are exposed to alcohol suffer damage to their prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the command center for the brain. It controls emotions, problem solving, self-control and decision-making.

For a long time we parented these children the same way we parented our children who don’t have a brain injury. We wound up frustrated and hopeless and our children ended up confused and angry. We know our job as parents is to teach our children the skills they will need to be successful adults. We were tempted to throw in the towel in terms of discipline. I’m glad we didn’t. After a lot of research, and trial and error, we have come up with some strategies that have been effective with our sons.

  1. Keep expectations clear and brief.
    Let’s face it, I love to lecture. I have all kinds of wisdom, and I’m willing and ready to impart that knowledge on my children at anytime and for a long time if necessary. Lecturing is not typically effective for any children but for our children with FASD it is downright perplexing. When we need our children to understand an expectation we need to make our words as simple and brief as possible. Keep in mind that a child with FASD may have an emotional age that is about half of his or her chronological age. You must stay calm, brief and to the point.
  2. Choose battles with confidence.
    The other day my son was using my phone to text a friend (Our teens do not have phones of their own at this point). We go over the rules of texting each time he uses my phone. Texts are to be kind. Texts may go to people we know and approve. Texts may never be deleted. On this particular day, he got into an argument with a friend, and began to send her mean-spirited messages. After a bit, I noticed something was wrong and read over his shoulder. I reminded him that his behavior was hurtful and asked him to make things right with his friend. He quickly deleted as many texts as he could and became very frustrated with me for intervening. As he became dysregulated and angry, I considered sending him to his room for the rest of the night. I quickly realized that is a consequence that I cannot enforce (he is my size). Instead, I told him that he would not be allowed to use the phone for one day. I knew this was a logical consequence for the infraction and it was a consequence I could easily enforce. I’m the only one who knows the password to my phone, so all I had to do was not unlock it. Choosing this battle was important because it created an opportunity for my son to learn respectful behavior. The consequence was effective because I had full control over implementing it.
  3. Give ample time to change behavior.
    Children with FASD are often impulsive and lack self-control. When they need to change behavior it is much like trying to turn an aircraft carrier. They need time and space. When we give our children instruction to change their course, it is important to give plenty of time for their brain and their emotions to regulate, so that appropriate behavior can follow.
  4. Stay the course.
    Children with FASD can have an attention span that resembles a gnat. It is important to stay focused when trying to help a child change a specific behavior. Do not follow them down the rabbit trails of thinking. Our son will bring up at least 10 non-related issues whenever he is dealing with something difficult. It is our job as parents to stay the course. Redirect the conversation whenever it is no longer productive.
  5. Turn down the heat.
    We were honored to do a webinar interview this past fall with Dr. Ira Chasnoff and Gabe Chasnoff from NTI Upstream. Dr. Chasnoff referred to the fetal alcohol brain as a simmering pot. A child with FASD is at a constant simmer, even the slightest frustration can cause the child to boil over emotionally. It is our job to turn down the heat! I’m not just a lecturer, I’m also an admitted hot head. Once I realized that my quick-tempered responses were only multiplying my son’s frustration, I took the opportunity to calm down. I now talk to my son in a calm tone of voice and do not yell (even when I really want to). By keeping my cool, I allow my son to take a boiling situation back down to a simmer. He is much quicker to respond to my requests, end tantrums and even apologize now that I’m not the throwing logs on the fire.
  6. Blank Slate.
    Children with FASD have difficulty with long-term memory. While this can be very frustrating when teaching life-skills, it can also be a blessing as a parent. All people deserve to be forgiven and have the opportunity to start over. Consequences must stand but anger, resentment and frustration don’t have to. It is important to allow your child to have an opportunity to do better tomorrow without the reminder of yesterday’s failure looming over them. It is also important to allow yourself to face each day as a new opportunity. Forgive yourself for your own shortcomings and give yourself a blank slate too.

Are you currently in this parenting trench? What would you add to this list? Share with us in the comment section.

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Mike and Kristin Berry are the Co-Founders of The Honestly Adoption Company and have been parents for nearly two decades. They are the authors of six books, and the host of The Honestly Adoption Podcast.

Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is the executive assistant to Mike and Kristin Berry. And she is the best in the land. In addition to providing a warm and friendly response to the many emails our company receives on a weekly basis, she also manages Mike and Kristin’s speaking and meeting schedules, and makes sure that team events go off without a hitch.

Nicole Goerges

Nicole Goerges is a Content Contributor & Special Consultant for The Honestly Adoption Company. She works with Mike and Kristin as a recurring co-host for the Honestly Adoption Podcast, and co-host of Kitchen Table Talks, exclusive video content for Oasis Community, along with Kristin. She is a fellow adoptive mom, and former foster parent.

Matt McCarrick

Matt McCarrick is the Content Production Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. If you’ve loved listening to our podcast, or enjoyed any of the videos trainings we’ve published, you have Matt to thank. He oversees all of our content production, from video edits, to making sure the tags are correct on YouTube, to uploading new videos to Oasis, to hitting publish on a podcast episode, he’s a content wonder!

Karen Anderson

Karen Anderson is the Community Engagement Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. She spends the bulk of her time interacting with, and helping, people through our various social media channels, as well as providing support for Oasis Community members through chat support or Zoom calls. In the same spirit as Beaver, Karen is also passionate about connecting with parents and making them feel loved and supported. Karen is also an FASD trainer and travels often, equipping and encouraging parents.

Beaver Trumble

Beaver Trumble is the Customer Care Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. Chances are, if you have been in need of technical support, or forgotten your password to one of our courses, you have interacted with Beaver. He is an absolute pro at customer care. In fact, he single-handedly revolutionized our customer care department last year. Beaver is passionate about connecting with parents and making them feel loved and encouraged.

Kristin Berry

Kristin Berry is the co-founder of, and Chief Content Specialist for, The Honestly Adoption Company. She spends most of her time researching and connecting with guests for our podcast, as well as direction, designing and publishing a lot of the content for our social media channels, blog and podcast. She loves to connect with fellow parents around the world, and share the message of hope with them.

Mike Berry

Mike Berry is the co-founder of, and Chief Marketing Specialist for, The Honestly Adoption Company. He spends the bulk of his time and energy designing and building many of the resources you see within our company, as well as social media and email campaigns. His goal is to use media as a means to encourage and equip parents around the world. He is also the co-host of The Honestly Adoption Podcast.