Friday, February 3, 2012

Control and Therapeutic Parenting

Maybe it was the “vacation” weekend on the Cape when I spent two out of three nights in the car with Z because she refused to stop screaming and was keeping other motel guests awake. And didn’t care. At all. Didn’t care about her crying, sleep-deprived big brother, or even the entreaties of her beloved “Papa” (I believe her exact words were, “Shut up, Papa!” {NOT standard words in our family}).

Or maybe it was when we were in the car and I had a migraine and Z was having a tantrum and I got her attention by explaining very, very quietly, that Mama had a migraine and that “every sound out of her mouth felt like a knife in my brain”…and then she got very, very quiet, took a deep breath, leaned forward and yelled as loud as she could into my ear.

In any case, at a certain point, my partner – who grew up oldest of eight and is, I assure you, unflappable – got the name of a therapist who specializes in children who were adopted and have associated concerns.

In Vermont, heck, in standard liberal parentland everywhere, we like to Respect our children, right? We talk to them about things, reason with them, offer them Choices. In previous generations, this might have been viewed as permissive or, um, irrational, but we are Modern Parents, Enlightened Parents and we know that our children are Human Beings.

I had noticed pretty early on that Z seemed to really like choices. She would think about them and weigh them and often contribute her own additional option. In fact, she liked choices so much that her choosing had become an exhausting element of my life.

For example, if I suggested that Z go upstairs and get ready for bed (pajamas, brush teeth, toilet), she would typically ask, “Can I pee downstairs?” Well, sure…why not? "Can I choose a goodnight book first?" "...OK"

Or if I let her choose toys for the bath, she would choose an entire bathtub full (many of which I had previously told her couldn’t get wet), so we’d have to go through a long negotiation process.

Or –- and this was my stock story whilst commiserating with other mothers of daughters – if I would ask her to put her dishes in the sink, inevitably she would respond, “Can I put them Next To the sink?”

Everything was open to negotiation. Still, this felt progressive to me, especially as compared with other elements of our life together (many of which felt challenging and disconnective). So even though I sometimes wanted to say, “Just do it! Because I said so!” I didn’t.

Meanwhile, Z’s tantrums and certain other habits – hoarding food, stealing, sneaking, lying, general mayhem and human enslavement – continued to escalate. Z seemed profoundly angry and, quite frankly, did not seem to be developing a conscience. I knew that while she might pretend to toe the line when I was in the room, she would do whatever she wanted the instant she was unwatched. I didn’t care so much about most of the basic practical aspects of this, such as spoiled food or ripped clothing (well, the theft and destruction of jewelry was problematic), but I worried about the implications for her later life - and I did worry about safety.

The bottom line was I had NO idea what to do. I had tried all the suggestions of friends and family and none of it had worked. Some of the things she did were developmentally appropriate but many were not. Even the developmentally appropriate things were, when done by Z, on a larger, more Machiavellian scale. The whole Z package was just so over the top: brilliant, adorable, charming…and so, sooo incredibly poorly behaved.

Full Spectrum Mama was accustomed to G, the first child, who lived to do the right thing. G’s very loving, stable start in life, coupled with his innate literalness and natural sweetness, had produced a child who was liable to happily do what was asked of him, so long as he didn’t get distracted en route. Lest you think G is Mr. Perfect Child, I should add that he does indeed get distracted, oh, say half the time – and let’s not get into multi-step instructions.

It seems to me that toward the middle of a Full Spectrum of Doing the Right Thing (according to parents, anyway), children sometimes do what is right and sometimes do not, in either case sometimes because they want to and sometimes because they feel forced. I had one child who was glad to do what FSM asked, basically at all times, because he genuinely believed Mama had her finger on the pulse of cosmic rightness; and one child who didn’t give a rip about right and wrong and only ever did what she was told when directly observed. And often not even then. Her urge to do or get what she wanted felt to her, I suspected, like a matter of survival.

Consequences – another tenet of Modern Parenting – meant NOTHING to her. I would start with the threat of reasonable consequences and sometimes, in the avalanche toward the ridiculous, end up going to extremes. A dispute over whether Z had done something with 2/3 of my $54 jar of Clinique Redness Solution – a huge, wedding-based splurge – resulted in absolutely no admission of guilt from her and my having to enforce no dessert for a month. Because, as you know, Consistency and Follow Through are further tenets of Modern Parenting.

I cajoled. I punished. I warned her. I gave her her own creams. She was invariably back in the medicine cabinet within hours.

Extrapolate from the medicine cabinet to almost every other area of our lives -- I was lost.

During our very first therapy session, the therapist taught me the single most important thing I ever learned as the parent of an attachment-disordered child: [in this context] “therapeutic parenting is control freak parenting.” It turns out that the main thing my daughter needed from me was to help her feel safe. And by what felt to me like honoring her as an individual – giving her choices - I was actually showing her that I didn’t have the answer! Z needed me to tell her what to do. What a revelation!

Have I mentioned I am an extremely controlling person by nature? Knowing this, I have always gone out of my way to Not be a controlling person. It’s not about power for me (as it somewhat is for Z) it’s about my part of the spectrum, self-diagnosed long ago (pre-G!) at being juuust at the tip of the autism range. I am very literal, and there are right and wrong ways to do things. In the abstract, I do know that other people have their own ideas about right and wrong and, in principle, I honor that. But, given half a chance, I could definitely be a total control freak. Drop the constant negotiation and lengthy discussions about every move? “I can do that,” I assured myself.

How could I have known that by allowing my child to make her own choices I was sending her into a tailspin of uncertainty in which she would constantly and anxiously feel the need to exert the control that I was apparently incapable of managing? I began to give her clear direction – and she began to heal.

I explained to G that different children need different rules sometimes, and I think he understands. His particular spot on the spectrum sometimes calls for extraordinary monitoring as well. Figuring out just how to balance control and respect in these relationships is an ongoing project.

In the meantime, as for everybody else, you, too, may put the dish IN the sink, goldang it! Except glasses. Glasses and other breakables Next To the sink, please. And silverware in that cup with the soapy water? Thanks.

Full Spectrum Mama

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