We used to think that carrying a piece of drywall around with us so we could bang our head into it every time we had to re-explain something to our kid, or try to reason with him, was the ticket. And then, we discovered a better way to connect.
A friend and I were recently talking about our kids when he said something I totally identified with: “Mike, he just doesn’t think. It’s like there’s no ability to think logically. I tell him to not do something and he does it anyway, even though he knows he’ll be in trouble!” I nodded and repeatedly said, “Yep, I know. Right there with you.” If I had a dollar for every time I was in this position…..retirement come early!
We went on to talk about the reality of FASDs (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders) which both of our sons suffer from. The fact is, logic, self-control, reasoning, impulse control, and emotional regulation are all aspects that are non-existent, or in limited supply, with kiddos who have these disorders (more on why in a minute). To try and relate to your child with logic can often be futile. They just may not be able to think logically (insert need to carry around a piece of drywall here!). Perhaps you identify with this. You may be nodding your head as well, as you read this because you’re in the same boat. Maybe you’ve tried and tried and tried (unsuccessfully) to get through to your child but their inability to think through things logically has made it difficult.
It’s not working. At all. We totally understand. We spent many a year communicating with our son from our own logic and understanding of how the world works. After all, that’s how we were raised and, being two smart, productive human beings, that’s how we function. We could have been talking to a brick wall and received better results. It just didn’t work.
So, the question then becomes, “What do we do if we cannot get through to a child who has an inability to think through things logically?” Here are 4 valuable keys that have served as game-changers for us…
- Understand what’s missing. I’m not a doctor, I’m a writer. But I’ve been in this trench with my child for the past 13 years, and I’ve come to understand a few things about trauma. Trauma changes the brain and brain chemistry. Particularly trauma that results from drug and alcohol exposure in-utero. It’s permanent brain damage. Specifically, the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for executive functioning, which is responsible for abilities to differentiate between conflicting thoughts, determining good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social control. Whew…that was a mouthful. All of this is severely damaged, missing, or sporadic with kids who have experienced trauma, especially those who have experienced drug and alcohol exposure in-utero. This is your beginning framework for re-relating to your child…
- Adjust your expectations. Once you understand what’s missing, it’s time to adjust your expectations. You can’t expect a person who is missing the part of their brain, responsible for reasoning, logic, self-control, impulse control, etc., to think through things logically. Your expectations need to be adjusted. You wouldn’t look at a person bound to a wheelchair and say “What’s your problem? Why won’t you just get up and walk? I’m doing it and it’s easy. You should too!” would you? Probably not because that would be offensive to the billionth degree. Plus, they simply can’t because a valuable part of their body, responsible for helping them walk, is missing. Thus, a valuable part of our child’s brain is missing or low functioning. You and I must adjust our expectations. You must expect that they are not going to think through things logically, or take much longer than a normal functioning child to do so. This does not mean they do not face consequences for their actions, nor is it a permission slip to treat you, or your household, disrespectfully (more on that in a minute). What it means is that you interact with them differently and you expect that you will spend more time showing as opposed to explaining.
- Stay calm, remain firm. So, once your expectations are adjusted what do you do? Does this mean they don’t have to follow the same house rules as everyone else? Nope! Does this mean they can get away with disrespectful talk because their brain doesn’t function like other children? Absolutely not! Your position with your child must be one of complete calmness and unshakable firmness. In other words, no matter what the situation, or the emotional state of your child, you take on a position of calm and you remain firm with expectations.Case in point–your child is trashing the house, throwing things all over the place, and basically holding the household hostage (I may or may not be using an actual experience…:-)). What do you do? First and foremost, YOU (yes, you, in all caps!) keep your emotions in check. You, as the adult, are responsible for the emotional thermostat in the room. As my good friend, Dr. Ira Chasnoff says, “Control the environment!” So you stay calm but, at the same time, gently remind him that he will be responsible for cleaning the mess up when his tantrum is finished. And, (calmly…deep breaths) “We will not be going to the pool, or the park, or the store (or whatever the thing was that you were going to do, or he was going to get) until the mess is cleaned up.” Calm and firm…calm and firm. This has been one of the single most game-changers for us in interacting with our oldest son, who has FASD.
- Repeat, repeat, repeat. You may have to take your child by the hand (figuratively if not literally) and repeat yourself over and over again. Let me say that differently: You WILL have to take your child by the hand and repeat yourself over and over again. Picture your circumstances like the movie Groundhog Day, where everything is a repeat of the day before. Remember, your child may not be able to remember the expectations, guidelines, or boundaries from one day to the next. Print them out on a posterboard, hang them in a very visible place, then calmly and firmly show your child the poster board and walk through the guidelines again, even though you already did this. I know it’s frustrating…I know it’s exhausting…but so is expecting an understanding that may or may not come naturally without your assistance.
If you’re a frequent reader of Confessions, then you’ve probably come across our top recommendations for resources. Our go-to book for re-relating to your child, who has experienced trauma, is the book, Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control by Heather T. Forbes. When Kristin read it, and later shared it with me, it was as if a ray of light beamed down from the heavens. It helped us adjust our expectations and re-invent our approach. We can’t recommend it enough.
One last thing, if you have been in that position of wanting to bang your head against drywall as you try to get your child to understand his or her actions. You are not alone in this, my friend. Just know that and take that to heart. We are there with you and we are cheering for you. That’s the reason this blog and this post exists. Every day is a new day and a chance to start over. So, you may have royally screwed this up yesterday. That’s okay. We all have. Today is where you are now. And today is a brand new start for you and your child!
Mike and Kristin Berry are the authors of the Confessions of an Adoptive Parent blog and the book The Adoptive Parent Toolbox. They are the parents of 8 children, all of whom are adopted. Mike and Kristin’s passion is to reach overwhelmed, weary, and stressed out parents, all over the globe, with this message: “There is hope…..you’re not alone on this journey!”