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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.